City council members discussed Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposal to renew Seattle’s library levy and increase its size from $123 million to $213 million on Monday, and proposed some possible adds of their own.
The most controversial aspect of the levy, besides its size (which council member Mike O’Brien noted is an increase of about 35 percent once population growth and inflation are accounted for—not 78 percent, as the Seattle Times has claimed) is a proposal to eliminate fines for overdue materials, which studies from other cities have shown is an effective way to ensure access for low-income residents while actually increasing the number of books and other materials that get returned.
Council staffer Asha Venkataraman explained this somewhat counterintuitive conclusion. First, she noted, fines really are a barrier to access: About one in every five library cardholders currently has a blocked account, meaning that they can’t access library materials unless they pay their fines. The areas of the city with the largest numbers of blocked accounts, as well as the highest average outstanding fines, are mostly south of I-90, in Southeast Seattle, plus parts of far north Seattle—areas with lower average incomes and more people of color. Those areas also happen to be the places where wifi and computer usage in libraries is highest (suggesting the lack of computers at home).
Second, Venkataraman explained, a San Francisco study that looked into eliminating library fines found that patrons in cities that had partially or completely eliminated fines returned materials at the same rate or slightly faster, and that circulation increased overall (which makes sense, because when people fail to return books, the number of books in the system is reduced and circulation goes down.) The study also found that a major reason people avoided going in to get their account restored was “the negative interaction of having to go and pay off fines.”
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Council president Bruce Harrell expressed concern that eliminating fines might discourage people from doing their civic responsibility, and suggested (perhaps tongue in cheek) that if the city is going to eliminate fines, they should also eliminate fees for people who simply fail to return books, which account for about $200,000 of the $1.1 million the library system takes in annually from fines and fees. (“Some people are operating in a higher theft area than others and I don’t want them being prohibited from being able to borrow from this public asset just because they couldn’t afford to pay the book back,” Harrell said.) Harrell also suggested that the city create a system where people who want to pay can do so, but people who don’t want to pay won’t be penalized. “I don’t understand the policy reasons for waiving millions of dollars when some people might be willing to pay,” Harrell said. The library’s revenues from fines have been steadily declining, thanks largely to the growing use of online materials. Since 2013, fine revenues have decreased by 31 percent.
Council member Kshama Sawant responded that even if payment is “voluntary,” such a system would still require people returning books to indicate that they weren’t going to pay, and why. “What’s going to happen if you introduce that kind of policy … would be a sort of implicit shaming of people who can’t pay,” Sawant said. “There are children who shouldn’t have to figure out whether their parents are able to pay or not. That just seems to put the onus on the individual families to decide what they should do.”
Council members also discussed the question—raised, most recently, in a Seattle Times editorial that argued that the city should find alternative sources to pay for library capital projects—of whether revenues from the real estate excise tax on new development, or REET, could be used to supplant a significant portion of levy funding and lower the levy ask. The Times also claimed, erroneously, that the city has “slashed” REET spending on libraries from $3.8 million in 2016 to “only $564,000 this year.” (Over the life of the proposed levy, annual REET spending would be $500,000 to $800,000 a year, according to a staff analysis.) In fact, the higher spending in 2016 (and 2017) represented a historic anomaly. According to the adopted library budgets from those years, the city spent a total of $2.3 million in REET revenues on library capital projects in 2016, and a total of $1.9 million in 2017, largely to fund unanticipated repairs to the downtown library, including repairs to a sinking floor. Between 2013, when the last version of the levy went into effect, and 2015, average REET spending was $593,000 a year. “Not all library needs will and can be met to the scale that is needed by simply relying on REET,” council member Lorena Gonzalez said.
Council members indicated that they were interested in adding a few items to the plan, including extended weeknight hours (council member O’Brien), programs targeted at kids under 4 (Gonzalez), and adding air conditioning and elevators at the Columbia City, Greenlake, and University branches.
The council will hold its first public hearing on the levy in council chambers starting at 5:30 this Thursday, April 11.
African Americans, especially children, are far more likely to be kicked out of Seattle libraries than patrons of other races, according to data the South Seattle Emerald obtained from the Seattle Public Library (SPL) through a public disclosure request.
Between January and July 2018, more than a third of patrons who received “exclusions” (notices, which can be verbal, that a patron cannot return to the library for a period ranging from a partial day to two years) were African American. Of 764 exclusions that included information about a patron’s race (61 did not include this information and have been excluded from this analysis), 33.4 percent (or just over one third) were African American; 7.5 percent were Hispanic or Latino; 55.5 percent were white; and the rest were another race.*
The racial disparity is even more stark among children who receive exclusion notices: Every one of the 52 kids under 16 who were excluded from library branches at least once this year was either Black (43) or Hispanic (9). (The total number of child exclusions was greater than that number—72—because some children were excluded from libraries a half dozen times or more. Throughout this post, the term “exclusions” refers to specific incidents, and the term “individuals” refers to specific people, who may have been the subject of more than one exclusion.)
Sixty-seven of the 72 juvenile exclusions occurred at just five branches, all located at libraries in neighborhoods with more low-income people and people of color than the city at large—Columbia City, High Point, Douglass-Truth, New Holly, and South Park. At South Park, all but six of 27 exclusions in the last year were children or adolescents under the age of 16.
Patrons’ races were determined by library staffers based on physical observation. According to library spokeswoman Andra Addison, the library does not ask about or keep track of patrons’ races. For that reason, it’s hard to determine what percentage of Seattle Public Library patrons overall are people of color, and how that compares to the Seattle population at large. According to Addison, it’s impossible to compare library users at any specific branch to the Seattle population.
“Each neighborhood is unique and has its own set of demographics that don’t necessarily reflect the general population of the city,” Addison says.
However, it is possible to compare the system-wide exclusion data to the city as a whole. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Seattle is 7.1 percent African American, 6.6 percent Hispanic/Latino, and 69.2 percent white. In other words, the library is excluding African American patrons at a rate nearly five times greater than their presence in the Seattle population.
The overwhelming majority of people asked to leave libraries across Seattle—81 percent of 862 exclusions, a number that also accounts for people whose race was not included in the documents the library provided**—were male. Just four of the library’s 27 branches—the Central library in downtown Seattle and neighborhood branches in Ballard, the University District and Capitol Hill—accounted for almost two-thirds of all exclusions.
Children, like adults, were often excluded for being disruptive or noisy. In one instance, four African American boys between the ages of 10 and 12 were playing games on laptops in a meeting room at the High Point branch when one complained to a library staffer that his friend had smacked him on the arm with a laptop cord. All four boys received exclusion notices and had to leave the library. In another, a group of three children—two Hispanic, one black, all between the ages of 4 and 10—were excluded because they were eating candy under the computer tables at the Columbia City branch. (Addison notes that many people who get excluded from libraries may have been warned repeatedly before a library staffer issued a formal exclusion notice.)
Other incidents included a 12-year-old Black girl who was excluded from the Columbia branch or three days for “talking and laughing extremely loudly”; another 12-year-old girl who was excluded for a week for eating at the public computer terminals; a 10-year-old Hispanic boy who was excluded repeatedly from the South Park branch for using his sister’s library card number to log in to a computer; and a Black 9-year-old boy who was excluded for riding his scooter in the Douglass-Truth branch in the Central District. Several incidents were classified as “assault,” including a 9-year-old boy (the same one that was riding his scooter) who allegedly spat on another patron; the boy who smacked his friend with a laptop cord; and a Black nine-year-old girl who spat at a staffer after verbally abusing and “harassing” library staff and being asked to leave.
Addison, the library spokeswoman, says parents drop off their kids and leave them unaccompanied “at several locations, such as the Columbia, South Park, Rainier Beach, Douglass-Truth, High Point and Delridge branches.” Libraries do not include dedicated child care facilities.
The information provided by SPL does not indicate how many of the children who were excluded from library branches were unaccompanied minors, although none of the staff notes indicate that a parent or guardian was present during any of the 72 exclusion incidents involving children. One note mentions that a staffer told five girls, whose ages ranged from 10 to 14, that she knew their parents and they should be ashamed of themselves for throwing rocks at someone’s car and behaving in a threatening manner toward her. At that point, the incident report notes, “the juveniles backed off towards the park across the street” and the staffer called Seattle police, who later took a report from the staffer at her home.
Addison says that in many cases, “staff are familiar with the children and the parents and have been in contact with them before there is an exclusion because our goal is for everyone to be successful using the Library. Sometimes parents tell us to have the youth leave on their own and others come pick them up. Staff always work to try to ensure the safety of youth and to try to engage with the parents. In some cases, we do not have parental information and youth have come to the Library on their own.”
The library’s unaccompanied children policy states that when unaccompanied children are being disruptive, threatening other patrons, or acting inappropriately, library staffers are supposed to “attempt to contact the parent or guardian of the unattended child. In the event that the parent or guardian cannot be reached, the child will be placed in the care of the Seattle Police Department.”
Library patrons can be excluded for violating any of the library’s official rules of conduct, which fall into four categories in increasing order of severity. Category A, for example, includes violations such as littering, sleeping, and “disruptive behavior,” while Category E includes serious transgressions such as using drugs on library premises, violent assault, or pulling the fire alarm. Staffers can issue exclusion orders for up to seven days on their own; longer exclusions require the approval of higher levels of management. (See the library’s full exclusion policy here).
The data provided by SPL breaks down the reasons that patrons were excluded into categories defined in the rules of conduct (examples include “disruptive behavior: Noises, human noise” and “harassment: verbal: discriminatory and/or obscene names: non-staff member”), but those categories encompass a wide range of behavior that library staffers must deal with on a daily basis.
Addison says the rules “address behaviors, and because we are dedicated to improving educational and information access to everyone, an exclusion is a last resort. Unless it is a serious violation, staff start with educating patrons about our rules and then follow up with warnings if the behavior or behaviors continue.”
“It is somewhat difficult to make suppositions, but insecurely housed African Americans may not have as many options for welcoming, available spaces to frequent during the days,” Addison says.
Ryan Dowd, director of a large homeless shelter in Illinois and the author of The Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness, trains library workers around the country in practices that he says can reduce the number of exclusions by up to 80 percent. His trainings encourage library workers to learn how to relate to patrons with different backgrounds and build relationships with people who use the library frequently (often homeless people with few non-social-service places to go during the day) so that when they do break the rules, they’re more likely to comply when asked or leave voluntarily.
“I teach that where the behavior is coming from matters,” Dowd says. “A lot of disruptive behavior comes from past trauma. if you understand that, oftentimes—not always—you can mitigate the behavior or step it entirely without having to punish it.”
For example, Dowd says “if the guy came in an hour earlier and you said, ‘Good morning, hey, how are you doing?’, he’s a lot more likely to comply later, because you greeted him. He knows it’s not personal.” Addison acknowledges that “some of our patrons come in often, sometimes every day, all day and staff become familiar with them over time.”
Disparities were evident across branches. The downtown library, for example, excluded a higher than average percentage of patrons for alcohol- and drug-related violations, while a plurality of exclusions issued in Ballard were for violating previous exclusion orders. (Ballard, along with Capitol Hill, also had an unusually high number of people excluded for sleeping or lying down on library property.) The University branch, meanwhile, expelled patrons for indecent exposure or lewd conduct at a rate three times higher than the city as a whole.
Individual violations ranged from falling asleep, snacking, or bringing a bicycle into the library lobby, to threatening other patrons with a knife, picking scabs and bleeding on library property, and overdosing in the library restroom, leaving a lighter and needle on the ground.
Along with a pattern of racial disparity, the exclusion data illustrate real challenges facing library staffers in 2018. In a city without an adequate safety net to catch people who are struggling with addiction, homelessness, and untreated mental illness, library workers have become the front-line social service staff for the entire city, and the data bear this out. Leaving the racial disparities aside for the moment, there is a bigger issue here: Libraries aren’t supposed to be all-purpose social service agencies. The staff aren’t trained for it, the facilities aren’t built for that purpose, and patrons who are disruptive—whether because they’re passed out at a computer someone needs to use for homework or shouting at other patrons because of untreated mental illness—make libraries less hospitable places for everyone.
“The Library’s goal is for everyone to use the Library successfully,” Addison says. “We can only do that by maintaining an environment that allows everyone of all ages and backgrounds the opportunity to learn and access Library resources and services.”
One option—the one that Dowd suggests—is to train library workers for their new role as “first responders” for people dealing with major mental health and substance abuse issues.
“That is your job, whether that’s what you signed on for or not, in the sense that it’s unavoidable,” Dowd says. “I think that when you come to terms with the fact that this, at least in 2018, is a big piece of the job and acquire the skills to do it well, things just go a lot better than pretending it’s not part of the job.”
Another alternative is to approach the problem of library rules violations from the perspective of root causes—if people are passing out drunk, shooting up, acting out, and exhibiting signs of poorly managed severe mental illness at our public libraries, a better alternative to kicking them out would be to give them options. If Seattle and its regional partners were to invest in daytime shelter and drop-in options, job training for people with employment challenges, addiction treatment and harm reduction, and programs that actually appeal to bored kids and teenagers looking for something to do while school is out, it would go a long way toward addressing the problems that make libraries challenging spaces for both staff and rule-abiding patrons.
* None of these numbers account for people who report being more than one race, who make up about 6.5 percent of the Seattle population; including those numbers slightly increases the percentage of both mixed-race black and mixed-race white Seattleites. Additionally, “Hispanic” describes an ethnicity, not a race, although people of Hispanic origin are often subject to discrimination based on their perceived background and the color of their skin.
** Further context: After de-duplicating the data to include the names of individuals excluded multiple times only once, and after removing all exclusions where race was listed as “unknown” or was not listed, I arrived at a list of 613 individual patrons excluded during those months whose race was identified by library staff. Of those individuals, 32 percent were African American, 7.5 percent were Hispanic, and 56.4 percent were white.
To look at the data a different way, just 72 patrons were excluded from library branches more than once, but those 72 were excluded a total of 223 times. Of those who were excluded repeatedly, 38.9 percent were black, 9.2 percent were Hispanic, 47.2 percent were white, and the rest were other races or ethnicities. Compared to the total population of people removed from libraries, in other words, those who were excluded repeatedly were more likely to be black or Hispanic and less likely to be white.