Visits to Seattle Public Library branches dropped between 2011 and 2014 while circulation of digital materials nearly tripled during the same period, the data show. The King County Library System also saw fewer patrons come through the doors.

Share story

Can you think of anything in Seattle that’s gotten less crowded in recent years?

Ask a librarian.

Between 2011 and 2014, our booming city gained 50,000 residents. But in that period, total branch visits to the Seattle Public Library (SPL) declined by 150,000, or 2.3 percent — even with a significant increase in branch hours.

In 2012, Seattle voters approved a seven-year, $123 million property-tax levy that paid for an additional 102 open hours weekly in library branches, as well as an increase in services, improved collections and maintenance.

These enhancements resulted in a bump in visits in 2013 — but the numbers still remained lower than the count of 6.5 million in 2011. And then visits dropped off again in 2014. The library rejiggered the visitor-counting system last year, so those numbers aren’t entirely consistent, but do show a continued decline.

The King County Library System also saw fewer patrons through the doors in this period. The data show a 3.7 percent drop in visits, although that’s at least partly due to the temporary closure of some branches for construction with a major building program under way.

To be sure, this situation isn’t unique to Seattle and King County — what’s happening here parallels a national trend. A recent report by the Pew Research Center found that just 44 percent of Americans had visited a library or bookmobile last year, down from 53 percent in 2012.

Jan Oscherwitz, the library’s levy administrator, is quick to point out that library usage is not down, even if branch visits are.

“There are alternative ways to get library resources, and that’s really growing,” she said. “More people are relying on e-materials and e-access for services.” Indeed, the data show that circulation of digital materials nearly tripled between 2011 and 2014.

And increasingly, the Seattle Public Library is providing more services off-site.

“We are going to where the people are,” Oscherwitz said. “Visits measure activity inside the building. We are much more focused on outside the buildings, providing services where people need them, and not asking them to come inside our facilities.”

Even so, it was not long ago that Seattleites made a huge investment in the library’s brick-and-mortar. The $196.4 million “Libraries For All” bond measure, approved in 1998, built the striking Central Library downtown. It also paid for new and rebuilt branch libraries throughout the city.

By 2008, with all the construction complete, the square footage of the Seattle Public Library system had been doubled. Visitor counts surged initially after all the construction. Since then, things have changed, with access to library services increasingly available outside the buildings.

The library is responding to this shift with an effort to re-imagine branch spaces, Oscherwitz says. To encourage use of the library as office space, for example, meeting rooms have been improved with new audiovisual equipment that will allow for PowerPoint presentations, and outlets have been added so that people can easily charge their devices. And the Central Library earlier this year hosted a museum-like exhibition, First Folio!, on tour from the Folger Shakespeare Library.

The library has also beefed up its programming events such as lectures and films, nearly tripling the number since 2011. Annual attendance at such events is up by more than 100,000. (Most of these events are held inside the library, and the data on library visits includes program attendance.)

Given that the rise of digital materials is cited as a primary reason for declining branch visits, it’s perhaps surprising that the biggest drops in foot traffic were seen in lower-income neighborhoods. Survey data from Pew found that nearly three in four library e-book readers had a household income more than $50,000.

The New Holly branch in Rainier Valley saw the steepest drop — about 30 percent — even with four additional hours per week added in 2013. The other branches with double-digit declines in visits are International District/Chinatown, Beacon Hill, Delridge and High Point.

It’s not clear why the branches in these areas are seeing a more pronounced drop in visits. But one factor could be a pickup in the economy, says Pew Research Center’s John Horrigan, who studies library usage at the national level.

“We do ask people if they’ve gone to the library for a job search, and those numbers have declined fairly significantly since 2012,” he said. “And lower-income people tend to be more active in doing job searches online at the library than upper-income folks, who may have alternative resources for looking for work.”

The library is increasing services in the South End branches.

“We do target programming to branches in areas where there is the most digital disparity, or economic disparity,” said Oscherwitz. “We are taking steps to make those branches more vibrant as best we can.”

Two branches — Columbia and Northgate — each added 25 operating hours per week. Not surprisingly, they saw the biggest increases in visits.

“The library is as relevant — or more relevant — than it’s ever been,” Oscherwitz said.

I agree with that. Even so, library usage is changing and the Seattle Public Library has a lot of branch space to fill.