Lit Life

Sometimes, the simplest ideas can be the happiest ones. The latest new service from Seattle Public Library, where buildings have been closed for months and patrons have relied on digital access, is as easy as a phone call. If you dial the SPL Lit Line at 206-386-4656, any time, you can select to hear a poem or short story (in English or Spanish), or a historic Seattle news item, read by an SPL staffer.

Robin Rousu, SPL’s supervising librarian for mobile services and coordinator of the project’s launch, said the idea for the Lit Line came from wanting to offer something to patrons who aren’t online. After the buildings closed in March, she said, staffers were examining their offerings and realized there was nothing for people without tech access — those who, for various reasons, aren’t able to get on the internet. “We wanted to figure out some way to have a connection with them,” Rousu said, “and get them some of the best things the library has — just for little moments of joy and inspiration and something else to think about during the day.”

Last week, I called and listened to Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee,” then called back and heard a zestful reading of a New York Times excerpt about the Great Seattle Fire, published in 1889. Each was a short, delightful interruption in a busy day. I’ll be calling again regularly: The English-language poems or stories will change every two days; the Spanish selections and the Seattle history, which are more labor-intensive, will be refreshed every six days.

The service, launched this month, is rooted in decidedly old-school technology: the city’s old voicemail system. Because of the system’s limitations, Rousu said, the organizers knew their selections needed to be five minutes long at maximum, and that they needed to restrict their offerings to works available in the public domain or fair use.

A small team of librarians chose and approved the material: Maryte Racys of the Broadview branch for the English-language poems and stories, Marcela Calderón-Vodall of the Downtown Region for Spanish-language poems and stories, and Carl Kaproth of the Downtown Region for the historical pieces.

Their biggest challenge was finding fiction short enough to fit the five-minute rule. “Chekhov is going to be heavily featured!” said Rousu, laughing. She said they’d also found some Kate Chopin stories that work, and “it’s been kind of fun to hunt those down … the shortest of the short stories.” Poems have been easier, and early selections have included everything from “Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer to John Keats’ “Endymion” (“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever”) to “Waking from Drunkenness on a Spring Day” by Li Bai, a Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty. Spanish-language offerings have included a Kahlil Gibran poem and the story “La Hormiguita” by Fernán Caballero.


Patrons who don’t choose a poem or short story can opt for nonfiction: an excerpt from a news story about historic Seattle. “We had a great one last week — a fashion report from the 1920s on what to wear this season,” said Rousu. Other recent featured stories, many of which are taken from archives of The Seattle Times, include the Seattle Metropolitans hockey team winning the Stanley Cup in 1917, and a long-ago report of a bear at Green Lake.

All selections are read aloud by SPL staffers, many of whom have suggested favorite works. Rousu said that her committee put out a call for staff interested in doing recordings, figuring they would need about 10 people. They got 58 volunteers.

“Everybody really misses being able to have those connections with patrons,” Rousu said, “and share the literature and information that we’re excited about, and the stories that we love.”