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Building Capacity to Tell the Library's Story

The Seattle Public Library, WA
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Innovation Summary

After years of deep cuts, The Seattle Public Library successfully positioned itself to effectively engage with the community on a plan to stablize funding. Strategic involvement with key stakeholders and decision-makers was critical, as was receiving comments from 40,000 residents. A $123 million Library levy received overwhelming support from voters.

Problem Statement

The Challenge: Four years of budget cuts were eroding Library services at the same time as demand for services was soaring. • Many branches were closed two days a week • Week-long furloughs were routine • The book budget was reduced by 13 percent • The building maintenance budget was cut in half The outlook for 2013 was also grim. An anticipated city budget gap meant cutting another $5 million from the Library budget. There was no way to absorb a reduction of that size without severe impacts, such as closing branches. The Opportunity: With a surge in use due partly to the down economy and opening attractive new buildings (thanks to a $196.4 million bond measure), the Library saw an opportunity to engage with the public around the value of maintaining quality Library services. Every library in the city had been impacted by cuts due to declining city revenue. The Library’s operating budget comes from the city’s general fund, which also pays for police, fire, parks, human services and other critical city services. A new funding source - in addition to city general funds - could restore many lost services. Achieving this goal meant successfully engaging with city officials and the public around budget realities and the benefits of keeping Library doors open and the shelves filled through an additional tax.


A new Strategic Plan provided the foundation for this effort, which started community conversations on how best to serve the next generation of Library users. Comments were gathered at open houses, forums on technology and the library user experience, through a survey, focus groups and Citizen Advisory Committee. Four areas that mattered most to patrons surfaced: open hours, the collection of books and materials, computers and online services and building maintenance. The city librarian held meetings throughout the city, sharing the economic realities of the Library budget, how choices were made to reduce services and their impacts. Patrons also heard about the possibility of service enhancements – including adding hours, collections and technology and improved building maintenance. Patrons “voted” on their top service enhancements. Comments were also collected online. The Library convened a group of civic leaders to give feedback on a recommended package of service enhancements that could be funded through a levy. Getting support from all the elected officials was critical. Library staff worked productively with the mayor’s office, City Council and city Budget Office to get agreement on the financing and legislation. Patrons packed a public hearing on the levy proposal. One councilman called it the “best public hearing ever.” The council made sustainable Library services a priority in its 2012 Action Plan. The Library gave the council and mayor a compelling 50-page “Libraries for All: A Plan for the Present, A Foundation for the Future” proposal, which outlined a proposed $123 million, seven-year levy. A joint press conference was held at the Library with the mayor and City Council. The council voted to put the levy on the ballot that afternoon.


On Aug. 7, 2012, Seattle voters approved a seven-year, $123 million Library levy to supplement city funding and preserve the investment in a 1998 $196.4 million bond measure, which resulted in new and improved libraries across the city. The levy provides $17 million annually to stabilize funding and address the four areas identified by the community. The levy also includes $5 million a year to address the city Budget Office's approximate $5 million cut to the 2013 Library budget. The Library effectively told its story through strategic community engagement, which helped raise awareness of the Library’s value in the community. The Library levy plan was built by the community. The Library gathered nearly 40,000 comments as part of the process. With the additional funding, the Library has been able to open all libraries on Sunday for the first time in history, provide a robust collection of books and materials, replace outdated technology/enhance our online user experience and maintain our buildings for the next generation of users. The Library continues to regularly survey the public about services and develops public engagement activities that continue to build on the Library’s strong brand identity.