As King County's population boomed at the start of the twenty-first century, the King County Library System (KCLS) made plans to expand. In 2004, voters approved a $172 million bond measure, allowing KCLS to build 16 new libraries and renovate or expand dozens more. In 2010, KCLS was the busiest library system in the nation by circulation. It would later relinquish the top spot to the New York Public Library, but would remain in the top three. In 2011, KCLS won one of the most prestigious awards in the library world when it was named the Gale/Library Journal Library of the Year. It was cited as a role model for the nation's libraries. This is the second of a two-part history of the King County Library System.
The Heart of a Growing Community
KCLS began the new millennium by vowing to reaffirm its status as "the heart of the community" (2002 Annual Report, 1) -- in fact, it was essentially the heart of 43 communities, which were served by the 43 libraries that KCLS then operated. Each library sought to meet the unique needs of its own community, while the library system as a whole embraced its entire service area -- almost all of King County except Seattle (which has its own public library system). KCLS continued to pursue partnerships with the 18 different school districts that operated within the area it serves. Teacher training, outreach to teens and to very young patrons, and improving data resources remained important focal points. Free programs taking place in the libraries were increased and promoted, free computer classes helped older patrons join the digital age, patrons of all ages enjoyed literacy events sponsored by various libraries, and new self-check stations sped up the checkout process. King County residents gave KCLS a vote of confidence -- and a much-needed infusion of operating revenue -- in February 2002 by passing a measure to lift the local levy lid with a 64 percent yes vote.
King County's population was booming. It grew to more than 1.7 million between 1990 and 2000 -- a jump of 230,000. To help meet the new demand, in 2000 and 2001 KCLS opened new libraries in Woodmont, Auburn, Maple Valley, Richmond Beach, and Issaquah. An innovative storefront library in a Bellevue shopping mall, called the Library Connection @ Crossroads, also opened in 2001. This storefront concept proved so popular that KCLS followed it three years later with the Library Connection @ Southcenter in Tukwila.
KCLS officials realized that services and facilities had to be expanded throughout the rapidly growing county. In February 2003, KCLS put before voters a $158 million bond issue to provide the funds necessary to build new libraries and renovate older ones. The bond measure needed a supermajority of at least 60 percent yes to pass. When all the votes were tallied, it received only 52 percent in favor. This was a serious blow to KCLS. Library officials attributed it to "tactical errors," including insufficient public outreach, as well as "bad timing," during a period when voters were nervous about the economy and the looming war with Iraq (Merlino).
KCLS resolved to demonstrate a renewed commitment to customer service, literacy services, and youth-services outreach. Library administrators and staff then went into "essentially every community" to determine what people wanted from their library system (Merlino). They found that people did not necessarily want KCLS to cut back its building plans. For instance, some patrons told them that library parking lots were so crowded that fights were breaking out for precious parking spaces. As a result, KCLS came up with a new plan that called for even greater expansion. KCLS spread out the proposed improvements so that there was "something for every single library in the system" (Merlino). In the end, KCLS decided to bring an even bigger bond measure -- $172 million -- before voters in fall 2004.
Early feedback from patrons indicated that they did not think it was "an exorbitant amount to be asking for," even though the economy remained tough in 2004 (Merlino). The bond issue called for replacing, expanding, or renovating most of the KCLS libraries and building three new libraries in communities that had never had one (Newcastle, Greenbridge, and the East Hill/Panther Lake area of Kent). This time around, King County's library supporters were determined to get the word out. A private group called People for Libraries raised $150,000 to purchase TV and radio ads and yard signs. The Seattle Times endorsed the bond issue, saying it was "fundamental to helping a quality system keep up with demand" ("Yes for ...").
Building and Renovating Libraries
On election night, September 14, 2004, library supporters were somber after seeing some nerve-wracking early returns. Yet by the end of the night, the $172 million bond measure passed with a comfortable 63.57 percent approval. The resulting ambitious capital construction project schedule would be the library system's principal focus for many years to come. As of late 2015, 82 percent of the bond funds had been expended. The more urgent needs had been scheduled first, while renovation projects of relatively younger libraries were scheduled later. A few projects would stretch into 2017 and beyond.
The 2004 bond issue resulted in the construction of 16 new libraries, which were completed between 2007 and 2017:
Snoqualmie Library, August 2007
Black Diamond Library, May 2008
Fall City Library, May 2008
Muckleshoot Library, June 2008
Greenbridge Library, November 2008
Carnation Library, January 2009
Burien Library, June 2009
Sammamish Library, January 2010
Lake Hills Library, September 2010
Kenmore Library, July 2011
Duvall Library, August 2012
Newcastle Library, December 2012
Federal Way 320th Library, September 2013
Skyway Library, January 2016
White Center Library, May 2016
Tukwila Library, April 2017.
The bond issue also funded the renovation and/or expansion of many existing libraries, with those projects completed between 2006 and 2016 as follows:
Skykomish Library, October 2006
Bothell Library, 2006
Algona-Pacific Library, 2007
Shoreline Library (expanded parking lot), October 2007
North Bend Library, 2008
Woodinville Library, 2008
Des Moines Library, January 2008
Covington Library, March 2008
Woodmont Library, July 2008
Redmond Library, January 2009
Richmond Beach Library, January 2009
Issaquah Library, December 2009
Kirkland Library, December 2009
Kent Library, March 2010
Federal Way Library, June 2010
Newport Way Library, April 2011
Lake Forest Park Library, January 2012
Library Connection @ Southcenter, January 2012
Auburn Library, September 2012
Maple Valley Library, April 2013
Bellevue Library (parking garage), June 2013
Vashon Library, March 2014
Fairwood Library, December 2014
Kingsgate Library, March 2016
Mercer Island Library, July 2016
Valley View Library, December 2016.
Another new library and a renovation project were both scheduled to begin in late 2017 or early 2018. The Kent Panther Lake Library (a project previously known as the Kent East Hill Library) was to be a 6,000-square-foot library in the Panther Lake area, which did not previously have a KCLS library. Planning for interior renovations to the Boulevard Park Library was also underway in 2017.
A Busy and Award-winning Library System
While this ambitious work was being accomplished, KCLS continued to serve its most basic function -- providing books and informational services for its patrons. In 2005, about 18.3 million items were checked out. More and more services and materials were made available online. That same year, 98 million transactions took place on the library's website, kcls.org.
Around this time KCLS surveyed its patrons, who asked that information, materials, and resources become easier to find and use. The website was redesigned, making navigation more user-friendly. By 2009, 88.6 million visits were made to the catalog and 26.8 million visits were made to the website, putting the total at considerably more than 100 million. In-person patron visits to KCLS libraries also continued to rocket upward. In 2009, 10 million people visited KCLS libraries, almost double the number from 10 years before.
In 2010, KCLS reached a remarkable milestone: It became the busiest library system in the U.S., after several years as the second-busiest public library system in terms of circulation (after Queens, New York). In 2010, a total of 22.4 million books, movies, compact discs, and other items were checked out from KCLS libraries -- an increase of 5 percent from 2009. More than 100,000 new library cards were issued in 2010, up 10 percent from the year before. And, despite difficult economic times, King County voters approved another levy-lid lift in February 2010, ensuring operating funds to benefit King County Library System patrons in the coming years.
Over the next few years KCLS traded the top spot in circulation with other several other library systems, including the New York Public Library's Branch Libraries, the Multnomah County Library in Oregon, and the Queens and Brooklyn libraries. However, KCLS remained in the top tier of the nation's libraries in multiple categories. Data from the 2012 fiscal year showed that KCLS was third in the nation in circulation, seventh in library visits, and 11th in total holdings (print and electronic).
In addition to those measures of quantity, in 2011 KCLS was given a prestigious award for quality. The Library Journal announced that the King County Library System had won the Gale/Library Journal Library of the Year Award. KCLS director Bill Ptacek (b. 1951) noted its significance: "There's not a bigger award in the library world" (Gwinn).
The Library of the Year Award is given to the library that "most profoundly demonstrates service to the community; creativity and innovation in developing specific community programs or a dramatic increase in library usage; and leadership in creating programs that can be emulated by other libraries" ("Library of the Year Nomination Guidelines"). The award included $10,000 and a cover story in Library Journal.
"For decades, the King County Library System has earned a reputation as a model for libraries throughout the nation and the world," said the cover story (Berry). The story cited several areas where KCLS was a role model, including its commitment to energy efficiency in construction and maintenance, its high levels of community fiscal and volunteer support, its outreach to students and seniors, its business and job-finding resources, and its innovation in technology and eBooks. Director Bill Ptacek explained the library's success this way:
"There are four factors that allow us to effectively manage KCLS. First is that we are an independent taxing district. Second, we plan for the long term, and our planning is done by collaboration between labor and management. The union is right with us from the beginning. Third, we believe that people will come if they can get good stuff at the library. That means a strong effort to build relevant collections, whether they are books, videos, databases, or online. Finally, we try to use technology effectively and well" (Berry).
KCLS certainly used eBook technology effectively -- in 2011, its eBook use went up by 355 percent and by 2012 it led "the U.S., Canada, and Australia in eBook circulation" ("History"). In 2013, KCLS patrons downloaded 1.7 million eBooks and downloadable audiobooks.
Take Time to Read
Innovation of a different kind was at the heart of the KCLS "Take Time to Read" campaign, a multi-year effort from 2011 to 2013. The objective was to encourage people to read whenever they had a few minutes. "Reading chairs and collections of 'quick reads' were set up in retail outlets, medical facilities, at the DMV, and other such busy places. Free 'Gift of Time' cards were distributed at the libraries to push the idea" (Berry). One patron said the "Take Time to Read" program helped her pass the time while in the waiting room at a tire store. Funding was provided by the King County Library System Foundation.
KCLS also reached out beyond the library walls with its Library2Go! project, which brought the venerable bookmobile concept into the twenty-first century. The 2004 bond issue funded 17 vehicles -- vans and mobile computer labs -- which allowed KCLS to take library services to day care centers, low-income housing facilities, senior centers, summer-learning sites, and community festivals and events. Mobile Learning Labs were each equipped with seven computer stations, while other vans provided more traditional bookmobile service at sites that included many small home-based day care centers around the county. Ptacek told the Library Journal that this helped plant the seeds of lifelong library use among kids. In 2015 Ptacek left to become CEO of Calgary Public Library in Canada. Gary Wasdin, executive director of the Omaha Public Library since 2010, was chosen as the new KCLS director.
KCLS continued to focus on many bedrock issues, including a longtime commitment to K-12 education. An extensive after-school homework support program offered help to 11,000 students in 2016. The KCLS online tutoring resource, tutor.com, provided nearly 35,000 online tutoring sessions that year. The annual Summer Reading Program had 42,000 participants. The early childhood literacy programs -- a key focus for decades -- had some new twists. The Fiestas program provided early learning skills to the county's Latino population. Kaleidoscope Play & Learn programs, emphasizing early learning and family engagement, attracted 22,789 attendees in 2016.
Continuing to Innovate and Grow
KCLS continued its goal of staying abreast of new technology with a new hotspot lending program, allowing patrons to borrow an internet hotspot device. Two new eBook kiosks were installed at SeaTac Airport, allowing patrons to download reading material while waiting for their flights. KCLS continued to provide resources for small businesses and people seeking jobs. It also hired a social worker on staff at the Auburn Library, to provide resource assistance to the many library patrons who needed help navigating the health and human services system.
KCLS remained committed to green construction and renovation practices. The bond issue projects were designed and built to environmentally friendly standards in five areas: site planning, water conservation, energy savings, recycled materials, and interior air quality. As part of their site design, several of the new libraries had rain gardens in which water from rooftops and parking lots was directed toward the trees and shrubs of the garden ("Delivering on a Promise ... 2015").
Like many other libraries and library systems around the country, KCLS had to grapple with difficult questions about censorship, free access to information, and protecting children from obscene material. In 1994, it developed an internet filtering policy, which was refined in subsequent years, including 2012 and 2015. It instituted an internet filter for those under 17, as well as an even more restrictive "Max Filter" for the children's areas ("Internet Filtering Policy"). Yet it also allowed patrons to opt out of filtering. The library's 2017 mission statement defined one of its core values as "Intellectual Freedom," along with "Knowledge" and "Diversity, Equity & Inclusion" ("You, KCLS and the Road Ahead").
As King County kept growing, so did KCLS. It maintained its place among the busiest libraries in the country. In 2016, KCLS had 10 million patron visits; had 703,987 registered cardholders; and had 4.3 million items in its collection. Its 3.5 million eBook downloads made it the No. 1 library in the U.S. for downloads on Overdrive, the nation's major library eBook service.
In March 2017, Wasdin resigned after the board became aware of a violation of the KCLS code of conduct. On April 27, 2017, the board appointed Stephen A. Smith, a King County Library System Foundation board member, as interim director, then launched a search for a permanent director.
In addition to the libraries from the 2004 bond issue, KCLS had in the meantime added several other new libraries. Redmond Ridge Library Express, a limited-service book facility, opened in 2009. In 2012, voters in the city of Enumclaw approved the annexation of the Enumclaw Library into KCLS, making that southeast King County city the latest of many to fully incorporate its library into the King County Library System. In projects outside the 2004 bond issue, a new Renton Highlands Library was built and opened in March 2016, and the Renton Library was remodeled in 2015. That brought the total to 49 libraries as of mid-2017 -- and KCLS was busily preparing plans for the new Kent Panther Lake Library, which when completed would become the King County Library System's 50th library.
In 2017, KCLS celebrated its 75th Birthday. The King County Rural Library District created by voters in 1942 had started out with only a few tiny country libraries and a balky bookmobile named Belinda. Nobody had any idea how big it would grow -- and how big a part it would eventually play in King County's civic and cultural history.
To see Part 1, click "Previous Feature"