As record-breaking temperatures baked Seattle this summer, box fan sales spiked, wading pools grew crowded, health warnings were issued …
And libraries closed.
There were more than 130 full- or partial-day closures due to heat in June, July and August, according to the Seattle Public Library.
Nine of the system’s 27 branches lack air conditioning, and SPL’s current policy is to close them when indoor temperatures hit or are expected to hit 80 degrees for more than an hour.
Such closures have become more common recently, interrupting services at the branches that many Seattle residents rely on for checking out books, internet use and resting in a quiet environment.
SPL staffers don’t like the closures, because they get in the way of processing materials and interacting with patrons, said Jessica Lucas, teen services librarian at the Northeast branch and vice president of AFSCME Local 2083, the union for Seattle library workers. The book drops stay open so returned books pile up. Staffers are usually redeployed to branches with air conditioning, which means extra travel, Lucas added. But the closures are necessary nonetheless, because working in the heat is worse, she said.
“Some patrons really understand and some don’t get it at all,” said Lucas, who sometimes hears patrons complain. “We have to be in here all day long for an eight-hour shift and do physical work during that time.”
SPL’s heat-closure threshold used to be 90 degrees but was lowered to 85 degrees in 2018, based on “health and safety concerns for staff and patrons” and an increase in multiday heat waves, SPL spokesperson Laura Gentry said. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the system is using a temporary threshold of 80 degrees because employees are required to wear masks, which can increase discomfort in hot temperatures, Gentry said.
The Green Lake and University branches had the most full-day heat closures this summer, canceling service completely for seven days each. The Northeast branch, currently the system’s busiest for borrowing, had the most partial-day heat closures, with 19 days.
“This is part of a big story about how the Pacific Northwest in general is not equipped” for the consistently scorching summer weather Seattle is now experiencing, said Darth Nielsen, SPL’s assistant director of public services. “We see this as a long-term issue … and we have to respond to that.”
SPL plans to add air conditioning at several branches in the coming years and is seeking funds for the other branches, Nielsen said.
Six of the city’s nine branches without air conditioning, including Green Lake and University, were built more than 100 years ago with grants from New York steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who funded libraries across the country.
The Northeast and Southwest branches were built in the 1950s and expanded in the 2000s. The NewHolly branch moved to a new building in 1999 as part of a revamped public housing community.
The Carnegie branches were built before air conditioning, while the Northeast branch was built to keep cool using low windows to “grab the wind” and high windows to “vent the heat,” with help from fans, Nielsen said.
“The design was considered environmentally responsible at the time,” he said. “But things have been getting hotter” and forest-fire smoke has become more frequent in Seattle, forcing the branch to shutter its windows at times.
The King County Library System’s 50 branches all have air conditioning, a spokesperson said. Seattle has closed certain swimming pools on very hot days in the past, but spaces like City Hall, police and fire stations and child-care classrooms have not closed due to heat in recent memory, a Department Finance and Administrative Services spokesperson said.
SPL didn’t start tracking heat- and smoke-related closures until 2020, according to Gentry. Branches were closed in the summer of 2020 due to COVID. There were 17 full- and 40 partial-day closures in the summer of 2021 versus 39 full-day and 92 partial-day closures this summer.
The City Council has earmarked $1.7 million to install air conditioning at the Northeast and Southwest branches, and the Green Lake branch will be equipped with air conditioning as part of a seismic retrofit next year.
SPL has applied for a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant that would help fund air conditioning at the other branches, Gentry said.
The branches in question need air conditioning not only so they can stay open for patrons but also because they’re supposed to serve as “cooling centers” during heat waves, Lucas said.
Nielsen received a lot of comments about this summer’s closures, which shows how much Seattle residents care, he said. Most branches had no closures, “but when it’s your branch … that’s a huge impact,” he said.
SPL is trying to problem-solve, Nielsen said. In recent weeks, the system experimented with earlier hours at branches without air conditioning to capitalize on cooler mornings. That required buy-in from staffers, he said.
“We do a lot of lifting, pushing, moving items from one place to another,” Lucas wrote in an email. “We are staying open as long as we can and doing as much as we can in that time without hurting ourselves.”