"Libraries For All," a $196.4 million bond measure passed in 1998, promised a face-lift for Seattle public libraries, including a new Central Library and 26 new or renovated branches. Ten years later, the city boasts a series of uniquely tailored and heavily used buildings that reflect the desires of their neighborhoods.
A decade ago, “Libraries for All” became the catchphrase for a $196.4 million bond measure to rebuild Seattle’s public libraries.
It wasn’t just a cute moniker. It was meant to drive home a sense of ownership that communities — all communities — could take in their libraries.
Most of the money would pay for a new downtown library, central to all. But the key to getting voters to buy in to the 1998 measure was that all neighborhoods would get a piece through 26 new or renovated branches.
Deborah Jacobs, city librarian at the time, attended 100 community meetings in three-and-a-half months to start building that public support. “We asked people: ‘What do you want in your new library?’ And we asked that question in every single neighborhood.”
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In a city that debates public-works projects to oblivion and tends to resist investing lavishly in itself, the ballot proposition avoided typical Seattle rancor, passing with 70 percent of the vote.
With the opening of the Magnolia branch earlier this summer, construction of all 27 libraries is now complete — on time and without voters being hit up for more money.
On Saturday, the library system will mark the moment with a celebration that is, appropriately, citywide — an invitation to the public to tour every library.
Library hoppers will see a system of uniquely tailored, heavily used buildings that has returned the branch library to its rightful place as the bedrock of a neighborhood.
After the 1998 election, Jacobs and her board kept listening to the wishes of residents. Neighborhoods had influence over their branch locations, architect selection, building designs and services offered.
They mostly got what they wanted. Beacon Hill got its community landmark, Ballard its “green” roof and Capitol Hill its relaxing reading room.
Susan Kent, a consultant who ran public-library systems in Los Angeles and New York City, said the community’s participation cannot be underestimated when evaluating the success of Libraries For All.
Jacobs and her board “understood that when communities are allowed to really get involved in a project, they will look at it as theirs.”
An aide to former City Councilmember Charlie Chong, a politician who made a career out of criticizing public-works projects, stood up in the crowd at a public hearing on Libraries For All.
Above his head, he waved the 64-page booklet that laid out the details of the capital plan, library by library. Jacobs braced herself for a blistering, but got something else entirely.
“He said, ‘This is the first time that I have seen a city document that reflects what people want!’ ” recalled Jacobs, who now heads a global libraries initiative for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“People know when they are not being listened to,” Jacobs said.
One challenge was the extent to which different communities wanted different things.
One evening, Capitol Hill residents urged Jacobs and library board members to build its branch as a stand-alone building rather than as part of a multiuse development. The following night, Delridge residents urged them to do exactly the opposite.
Both groups got what they wanted.
Libraries For All doubled the square footage in the library system. Good thing, too, because visitor counts are surging, with some new buildings drawing more than twice as many people as before. Much of the foot traffic can be traced to patrons using the free Internet access on library computers, although circulation of books and materials has almost doubled since 1998.
Some complain that the high use has made the branches too noisy, but Libraries For All is considered a rousing success.
The timing was right economically for the bond measure, and the project finished on time. While it ended up costing more than anticipated, much of the shortfall was covered through donations, favorable interest on the construction bonds and library-system reserves.
Paul Schell, Seattle’s mayor from 1998 to 2001, said Libraries For All was not dragged down by typical Seattle divisiveness — such as what has occurred over building sports stadiums — because people view libraries as an investment in healthy communities.
“It was a key element in the city’s program for building strong neighborhoods,” he said. “It was done right, and Seattle should be very proud.”
The new Beacon Hill branch replaced one that operated out of a storefront with sagging walls and temperamental air conditioning.
The $5.2 million branch is more than three times the size of the old one, with a soaring wood-beam ceiling and a lobby with tables where patrons can eat lunch with their neighbors.
“At first, I feel like the old library was OK because I come from China,” said Yuhua Cheng, a former teacher in Shanghai who emigrated in 1999 to be with her daughter. “This one is much better. Very comfortable.”
Like almost every branch, Beacon Hill has a large community meeting room, which stays booked. The meeting rooms are exposing library services to those who might not otherwise visit a library.
Sau Lai Chan, of the Chinese Information and Service Center, leads a bilingual play-and-learn group for toddlers and their immigrant parents and grandparents. She said moving the program to the Beacon Hill library’s meeting room, which is bathed in natural light, has led to increased participation.
When the session is over, Chan opens a door leading to the children’s book area.
Sybil de Haan, Ballard’s branch manager from 1990 until earlier this year, has held on to some 2001 meeting notes from the Ballard Library Project Advisory Committee.
Thirty bulleted items outline the neighborhood’s specs for its branch:
Use environmentally conscious materials. Create a building that “claims its own turf.” Design a building that reflects Ballard’s maritime heritage. Provide lots of fresh air, ventilation and natural light.
“I look at this list now,” de Haan said, “and I have to say, we got most of these.”
Jacobs asked neighborhoods to create the checklists, calling them “hopes and dreams.”
On Capitol Hill, neighbors recommended Ray Johnston to be the architect for their new branch. They wanted a retreat from the buzz of Broadway but one that visually fit within the urban edginess of Capitol Hill.
Working in collaboration with James Cutler of Cutler Anderson Architects, Johnston designed a vertical garden, or “green wrap,” that surrounds the shell of the building, softening its appearance without sacrificing its hard urban style.
Inside, neighbors wanted a library that reflected its demographics, focusing on services for young adults, with less space devoted to children.
“The days of the shushing librarian are over,” Johnston said. “These are much more interactive places. They basically morphed into neighborhood centers.”
Mary Johnston, Ray’s wife and business partner, was lead architect for the South Park branch.
At a community meeting in South Park, Johnston recalls meeting an older man with a perfectly trimmed mustache. He gently took her hand and said to her in Spanish, “I want you to build us a beautiful library.”
And so she did.
Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or firstname.lastname@example.org