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Comparing Apples and Rutabagas

Jessamyn wrote about the new Seattle Public Library: “Let’s just say it: the more money you spend building your Big Beautiful Library, the less you have to pay for staffing, and open hours.”

This is weird science: facility construction and operational costs are nearly always unrelated. Libraries are built with one-time building bonds and major capital fundraising drives (and sometimes, government grant assistance), while support for routine library operations comes from local government.

For supporting library services year to year, it is a well-supported truism in libraryland that you will be better off if you go directly to the voters for their support, taxing them directly for your services. Library staff hours are often first on the cutting block when cities need to make cuts, and I remember how tough it was as a rural library director to appeal to a tiny government for additional funding. Yet voters are often surprised into opening their pocketbooks when asked to make a relatively modest direct contribution for good local library services. A reporter for the Seattle Times, commenting about the service cuts at SPL, made this point eloquently if somewhat obliquely: “King County libraries are funded differently from Seattle’s. Their operating costs come primarily from property tax revenues, while Seattle’s come from the city’s general fund.”

My local public library in the city of Richmond, California can tell you all about that. Always poor, always underfunded, always begging for scraps, the library has now closed its three branches and may shut down entirely at the end of June. Having weary old pre-prop-13 buildings hasn’t helped it any.

Don’t begrudge Seattle its biblioedifice. The new facility draws much-needed attention and interest to library services at a most opportune time, and who knows what can happen for library services when all eyes are drawn to the building that houses them. Instead, let’s just say it: learn the strategies that work for real library advocacy.

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