my trip to Seattle

I was in Seattle over the weekend. Sorry I didn’t call you. I went to a wedding and then got a terrible cold and spent the last day and a half on my friend’s couch reading comic books until flying home on a red eye the day before yesterday. I am recovered now, mostly. The one thing on my to do list was to see the new library. When I left Seattle four years ago, it was just a hole in the ground and a loose frame but not yet open to the public. I had really liked the old library — though understood why it needed updating — and I even liked the temporary library. I can’t say the same for the new library.

Now, there are many great things about the new library. I connected to the wifi/internet no problem. All the people I asked for advice and directions were super friendly and helpful. I liked having the option to get a cup of coffee and have a dozen interesting places to hang out with it. The place is fun to look at and explore. I enjoyed getting to pore through bound volumes of old periodicals that were right there on the shelves. The online catalog has finally improved to the point where it’s easy to use and makes a fair amount of sense; at SPL in particular that was not always true.

However, I saw a real disconnect beween the lovely outside and grand entry spaces to the library, plus a few other very design-y areas, and the rest of the building. Materials were hard to find. VERY hard to find. Signage was abysmal, often just laserprinted pieces of paper, sometimes laminated and sometimes not. Doors to areas that may have been public were forbidding and unwelcoming. There weren’t enough elevators. There weren’t enough bathrooms. There wasn’t a comfortable place to sit in the entire building. There were lots of “dead spaces” that, because of architecture, couldn’t really be used for anything and they were collecting dust. The lighting was bad. Stack areas were dim and narrow. The teen area seemed like an afterthought. Bizarre display areas with a table and some books on it were in the middle of vast open areas. Most of the place felt like it was too big and then the stacks felt too crowded and I had to climb around people working to find things. Shelvers shut down the entire “spiral” concept with booktrucks. The writer’s area in this library is a shadow of the glorious writers room in the old downtown building where I had a desk briefly.

Did I think it was going to be different? Maybe a little. I left Seattle specifically because its idea of progress and mine were fundamentally at odds and I didn’t enjoy the destabilizing effect of a city always under construction and didn’t get enough from the things that were eventually constructed. This library looks like it was built for a bookless future where we get all of our information from the internet and the digital realm. For now, we’ll just keep the books on hand because people will bitch if they don’t get to read them, but they’re no longer the reason for the library, and they’re no longer honored and appreciated as the things we love and build libraries to house.

My small photoset of the Seattle Public Library is here.

: I was pointed to a PUBLIB posting by a librarian who was at SPL quite recently who makes many of the same points that I do in different ways.

8 thoughts on “my trip to Seattle

  1. Ah the bookless future…the twisted dream of people who still don’t grok the entirety of L2.0. And to top that off, the overweening hubris of architects in love with their own brilliance, who nevertheless remain clueless as to very human elements of a full service library. It sounds like SPL was a re-hash of SFPL, but with the F removed, if only partially.

  2. I snapped a bunch of digital pics of the Seattle Public Library when I was there back in January. I, too, found it ironic that so much dough was spent on the building but that the ref desk “Ask Me” and computer lab signs (and equivalents) were just laser print-outs taped to the wall. Har. I guess Koolhaas didn’t worry himself over the smaller details for a consistent aesthetic … the way Wright used to not only design houses but even the tableware in the dining room. SPL would be a great site for a laser-tag or paintball tournament.

  3. I no longer live in Seattle either (I moved back to my home state about 18 months ago), but I visited this library in late December, 2004, about six months after it opened. A friend (also in library school at the time) and I got a behind-the-scenes tour of the RFID sorting system. That was impressive, but we did not care for the rest of the building. All that glass is nice, but artificial lighting is poor, and as you know, it can be very dreary in Seattle much of the year. It was gray and raining that day in December and the library was dark, dark, dark.

    This was the Christmas break and the children’s area was full of kids and LOUD. Not that children’s areas are supposed to be quiet, but with only glass, steel, concrete and wood (that “greenhouse” feel that the PUBLIB post refers to), there is NOTHING in the area to absorb sound. It reverberated everywhere.

    With the weird color schemes, lack of signage, and terrible flow (One-way escalators? How would you like to be caught in the top of the spiral during an earthquake?), this is an incredible user-unfriendly building.

    Not sure if you ever saw this article in one of Seattle’s weekly alternative newspapers, (listed as “my” website above, since I’m not sure my HTML code will work in this comment), but it might give you something to laugh about.

  4. You’ve perfectly describes my feelings of “Meh.” when I visited in January. I think I had just ascribed it to being winter time and my mind on other things, but I wasn’t in love with the warehouse design of the stacks, and the overall feeling of the space, despite having a glass exterior, being dark. As I picture it in my mind, the pervasive sense is of dimness, and really, do we want our institutions of learning to leave such an impression?

  5. James Howard Kunstler, author of several books and the blog Clusterfuck Nation, gave the SPL his Eyesore of the Month award several months ago. Your observations confirm what I had suspected, that the interior is just as devoid of character as is the exterior. As for me, I prefer the neo-classical turn of the 20th century Carnegie style library, and I believe that books will still be around long after I’m gone.

  6. Yes, ‘meh’ really sums it up. I wanted to like the building but I can’t. I also visited on a typical Vancouver/Seattle pissing-rain November day and it had this odd feeling of being a cold cave with the walls closing in on me.

  7. Yeah. What everyone said. I like the sorting system and the concept of the spiral (though not the seedy way they’ve done it) and not much else. And the children’s section is particularly un-child-friendly.

    Have you ever been to the downtown Vancouver (B.C.) library? It was also controversial and expensive to build, but I think they did a much better job of making the library beautiful and impressive *and* making it work as a library.

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