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Originally published November 6, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 6, 2007 at 6:45 AM

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Looking for that hot new title? At Seattle library, wait may be long

You're a Seattle Public Library patron and you're planning a winter getaway. What book to take along, one that's good as well as good for...

Seattle Times book editor

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To see the library's high-tech book-sorting facility in action, go to: www.spl.org

You're a Seattle Public Library patron and you're planning a winter getaway. What book to take along, one that's good as well as good for you?

Maybe Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," the popular author's tribute to the local-eating movement. You go online to reserve your copy, but 726 people are ahead of you, waiting for their turn at one of 119 copies. With a "hold ratio" of about six patrons to each book, if every reader keeps it for the allowable three weeks (plus a week's transit time between patrons), you may move to the head of the line ... sometime in the spring.

The Seattle Public Library is having a popularity problem. Thanks to its "Libraries for All" building expansion program and an unprecedented increase in use of the library's online catalog, the number of holds — reservations — placed on books and other library materials has tripled, from about 1.01 million in 1998, when voters approved "Libraries for All," to 3.35 million in 2006.

"It's very clear that we have extreme pent-up demand — we have a voracious appetite for our libraries," said Seattle City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck.

Library circulation is up 83 percent since the first "Libraries for All" branch opened in 1999. When the project is finished next year, the system's total square footage will have increased by 82 percent, thanks to the renovation and expansion of 22 branches and the creation of four new branches.

But the library's budget for books, DVDs, CDs and other materials has stagnated at roughly 2002 levels when inflation is factored in, according to Seattle City Council staff reports. Holds have more than doubled during that time.

Some of that demand could be because the King County Library System last fall stopped allowing city residents to place holds at county libraries. While holds at King County libraries more than doubled from 1997 through 2006, director Bill Ptacek says holds placed at some King County branches just over the city line (Shoreline, Lake Forest Park, White Center) have actually declined in the past year.

The Seattle City Council could decide this week whether to add as much as $2.5 million next year to the library's collections budget.

Long waits, short fuses

The situation has sent normally mild-mannered library supporters to the hustings.

Last week one of them, 90-year-old library volunteer Jean Culver, walked to a hearing at City Hall and told the City Council that she's worried, not just about new books, but about the condition of the ones already on the shelves.

Culver, whose job at the Capitol Hill branch is to survey checked-in books for signs of damage, says the money's not there to replace them. "We used to automatically replace them," she said. "We can't do that anymore."

Others can't get the specialty books they need: Jennifer Johnson-Fong, a Queen Anne parent with a 7-year-old and a 2 ½-year-old, says she is frustrated over the wait for parenting books, which she doesn't want to buy because their usefulness may be limited. "There may be 100 pages in a 300-page book that affects you," she said.

And it's not just books: Jeff Sconyers, a movie buff and general counsel at Children's Hospital & Regional Medical Center, recalls waiting up to a year for "Clerks," an indie movie. He waited so long the hold expired. "The library has an archival capacity, too. I count on them to have a collection that's more than the top 10," he said.

"People are exceedingly frustrated with the long waits," said Betsy Graef, a Friends of the Seattle Public Library member.

According to figures provided by the library, 20 percent of all borrowers are waiting three months or more for their requested materials. Some titles have a "holds ratio" of as high as 10 to 1 — Ann Patchett's novel "Run" did (700 holds, 76 copies), until a query from The Seattle Times prompted the library to order 75 more copies.

An "ideal" library budget

Seattle's problems are not unique: Libraries nationwide, including the King County system, are grappling with the fact that a computer-savvy society has learned to tap into library collections online.

But in Seattle's case, the ease of online reservations coupled with the system's bricks-and-mortar expansion has brought the situation to a head.

Last year, the City Council directed library staff to come up with an estimate for an "ideal collections budget," after a 2006 patron survey showed that collections "are the most important library resource for patrons." The survey summary said: "Patrons described books as the most important media, with multimedia materials important as well. Quick and convenient access" was equally important.

The survey's two priority recommendations: Increase the collections of books, DVDs, CDs and audio books, and decrease the time required for delivery of holds.

Library staff gave the council a $7.4 million "ideal" budget estimate. The current budget is $4.8 million. The mayor has proposed boosting that by $130,000.

City Librarian Deborah Jacobs declined to comment, referring queries on the budget to the mayor's office.

Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis released figures showing that actual collection dollars have increased 68 percent from 2003 to 2007.

But according to the Friends of the Seattle Library group, a substantial portion of those dollars were spent playing catch-up from the years 2002 to 2004, when the collections budget fell by 28 percent.

Library support is "a balancing act," Ceis said. "It goes into operations, into book buying, to maintenance. You have to look at the entire library budget as a whole. We work with the library board on their budget. The library board and the director were happy with the budget."

The collections budget has been shored up by the Seattle Library Foundation, a nonprofit group that raises private funds for the library, and which has chipped in $1 million a year each of the past four years. But in a statement, David C. Williams, Library Foundation president, said enough is enough.

"Patrons wait five, eight, 12 or more months for current literature and nonfiction ... the collection for non-English-reading patrons is insufficient," Williams wrote with Friends of the Library president Hollis R. Williams. "The foundation cannot continue to fill the gap in basic operations funding. Its mission is not, and its donors should not be asked, to pay for basic operations ... The Foundation's million dollars could bolster the library's outreach and programs for immigrant communities, for children and teenagers, for seniors and parents."

Councilmember Steinbrueck, citing the city's budget surplus, says it's time to "make sure these nice new libraries are well stocked. If we don't, it's not keeping faith" with voters who approved the "Libraries for All" expansion, Steinbrueck said.

Roger Valdez, an aide to Steinbrueck, said pondering the library's problems has also made him realize its potential. "During this process, I rediscovered the library," he said. "It's amazing to me that in the age of the Internet, library circulation has gone up 80 percent. People really do use the library."

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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