The Seattle Public Library’s Faulty Information Architecture

In order to meet the demands of an increase in local book production, the Seattle Public Library must adopt an architecture that can categorize, store and connect these books with local readers.

There has been much to celebrate in local literary life lately. Business, as they say, is going very well. The Northwest has a vast range of great writers who are producing interesting work that is even getting published in New York. The city keeps finding itself on the top of various arts lists, the most readers, most bookstores, most per capita arts organizations. The rebuilding of the branch libraries and the central library are by all accounts an amazing civic achievement and are (I think rightly) being celebrated as such. Somehow Seattle has squeezed itself out of its selfimage as an engineering town and become, well, something else.

Walking through the library on the night of the Writer’s Room dedication I was struck by how naturally and well the layers of various information technologies coexist with each other in the new space. Computers sat alongside magazines and books. But it is the juxtaposition of the computer alongside book that begins to hint at the underlying tension. Books are physical representations of knowledge and in and of themselves do not have the potential for production. Access to a PC however is not only access to virtual libraries, but is also access to an incredibly powerful machine for the production of knowledge.

Underlying the achievement of the public library is this cultural tension in the production of books moves from the traditional centers of publishing, London and New York and out to the margins. Each year sees an exponential increase in book production, and yet a level (if not falling) consumption of books. The problem isn’t not enough book, or even I think enough readers, but rather how to deal with this glut of information. The public library becomes then not merely a physical and public repository of knowledge, but a vital filter for information and a vital point of production for literature (on its publicly accessible computers.)

How does the library filter information? How open is the libraries’ methodology open to public discussion and input?

At this point, it looks like these issues are not under discussion. A person can suggest a book, but surely a rubric is applied to evaluate and act on the suggestion?

In many ways the information architecture underlying the libraries’ selection, inclusion and exclusion of information stored in the library has a far greater impact on our city then the physical structure where all of this information is contained. In fact, The Writer’s Room, points to ways that the library actually has a hand in the production of our city’s literature, as well.

The application process for use in the writer’s room was one hint toward the way in which the Seattle Public Library is refusing to take on the burden of filtering locally produced information. They require a writer to have paperwork and credentails beyond their writing (or intended writing). The library requires that a writer to use the writer’s room 1) be under contract for a book and 2) demonstrate that they are a scholar who needs access to the library. In this way, then, many essential writers who may merely need private space to write and either produce their books themselves or publish through tiny presses would feel unwelcome.

Already the Seattle Public Library has been unresponsive to the constituency of the library that cannot meet this external vetting process. In a recent exchange between a small press poet, artist and activist, Joseph Keppler and the Seattle City Council and the Seattle Public Library, Lois Fenker wrote:

We are happy that many local writers and publishers approach the Library about having their works included in the Library’s collection. While we appreciate being notified of new titles produced by Seattle area writers, due to the volume of inquiries that we receive, we are not able to include every work in the collection. Print on Demand services – where the printing and binding take place at the point of purchase – have reduced the cost of self-publishing substantially and increased the number of contacts we receive from writers and their representatives.

Fenker goes on to say that they monitor reviews and notice to identify work that may be of interest to the community. And yet, this response places local production in the same field as production from a local as far removed as London. In fact far away production from approved of media centers such as New York and London are more likely to produce notice even in local periodicals than a brilliant work produced in Ballard, say. The Pacific Northwest being so far removed from these centers of approved of production has managed to create a rich culture of locally manufactured literature. Of the top of my head there are a half dozen writers producing worthwhile work from year to work — Mark Ezra, Kevin Sampsell, Joseph Keppler, Willie Smith, Stacey Levine, Kreg Hasegawa, Shya Scanlon, Doug Nufer — and yet our local institution dedicated to the book (The Seattle Public Library) lacks any formal internal mechanism to learn, investigate, and even sense this production or provide access to this organic and vital work to the reading public.

I don’t want to minimize the problem of vetting self-produced work. Visit any book reviewer and you will quickly discover there are more books on more topics being produced than a single person could possible list and organize much less review. Their offices are crammed with hundreds, thousands of books. A daily newspaper, a weekly paper, need to keep moving. They have to publish something to get advertisers to say in business. They are not the appropriate institution to place the burden of making sense of our communities literary production. A bureaucratic organization that isn’t seeking to make money, one that has a mission to serve the information interests and specifically book related interest of our community, it would seem the library would be this organization or even a literary arts organization such as Richard Hugo House, would take up this burden. So far, everyone has only mentioned reasons why not. If we are indeed a community that caters to our community, shouldn’t we honor and respect the literary production of our community the extent that we at least store, catalogue, and explain what is going on here in our city? Or it just enough that we have a place where he can convenient check out the latest issue of Wired and pick up the newest diet book?

I personally find my reading drawn to arbitrary filters. One of these filters is proximity or region. I am more likely to pay attention to work produced in my own region than I am likely to pay attention to work produced in another region. I am even more likely to pay attention to work produced in my cluster of cities (Everett, Bellevue, Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia) than I am in Portland, Spokane, and Vancouver BC (however I try to keep up with these as well). I believe this work, by dint of proximity and the relation then of a writer to their context (i.e., locale) cannot help but work on a shared body of knowledge.

Anyway, I hope the Seattle Public Library opens a dialogue with the community about how it finds and acquires books to include in the collection. The library is undoubtedly an essential institution, and it would be excellent if the information architecture matches the brilliance of its physical architecture.


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