Public response to SPL survey sharply against City Librarian Marcellus Turner's rebranding plan

Over 14,000 people recently took a Seattle Public Library survey about a "branding initiative" that would change the face of the library and cost well over a million dollars, according to SPL Communications Director Andra Addison. Advised by heavy-hitter Hornall Anderson, City Librarian Marcellus Turner is spearheading a campaign to rename the library and replace its familiar logo, all in an effort to more clearly project the image described in this "brand statement":

"The Library provides access to knowledge, experiences and learning for all. We preserve and create opportunities for the people of Seattle who make it such a dynamic and desirable place to live. When we're empowered as individuals, we become stronger together."

The survey asked if this verbiage would help move the library forward. A response to a public records request reveals that half of those who answered said no it would not. Asked if changing the name from the Seattle Public Library to Seattle Public Libraries would help move the library forward, 70% said no.

Over 5,000 survey respondents wrote personal comments about the library rebrand, the majority very critical:

  • "You have a virtual monopoly…so why do you need a brand?"
  • "Is this something hatched up by a Board of Trustees that doesn't understand the real reason libraries exist?"
  • "Please stop the insanity and focus those $$ on programs and outreach to people who need it most."
  • "This whole exercise is a solution in search of a problem."
  • "Fire the person responsible for this whole mess."
  • "…y'all have gone down the rabbit hole of fancy words and lost your collective minds."

Of course some survey takers liked the proposed rebranding, but less than 1% wrote comments in support of it. The overwhelming majority opposed it; they rejected the "branding initiative."

Even though there were hundreds of survey respondents who said they love the Seattle Public Library, what they'd heard about the branding initiative spurred some to take a tough stance on their future relationship with it:

  • "I'm not voting for a library bond again."
  • "I'm never donating to the Foundation again."
  • "Where on earth was the Library Board in this process? No confidence in them or head librarian."
  • "Count me out as a donor. I am removing SPL (or whatever you want to call yourself) from my will."
  • "…someone (or more than one) is trying to justify their position—I fault the Board."
  • "Someone should be fired!

In addition to the survey input, other public records reveal that Turner and SPL Director of Marketing Stephen Halsey received over 400 emails expressing astonishment, shock, regret, anger, and sadness over what many called a waste of time and money. All were library cardholders, but some were also large contributors, and some are on the Library and the Library Foundation boards of trustees as well. An email written by Ina Tateuchi, one of the libraries largest lifetime contributors and SPL Foundation Board member, says:

"…If the Foundation has this much money extra it could be better spent otherwise donors will think their money is not needed. How many librarians could you hire with this amount for 1 or 2 years? How many computers could you purchase? How many after school programs could you fund? Perhaps salary cuts for major executives should be considered for this kind of funding? The library is a PUBLIC institution, not a private company with overpaid top executives."

Gary Kunis, The Seattle Public Library's largest single benefactor, and former Cisco Vice President and Chief Science Officer, who oversaw many corporate branding campaigns, said in an email to Turner:

"…rule number one of branding is to not rely on consultants for anything. Branding, logos, mission statements, etc. must come from the passions of the people working within the organization…. People that I know with only a passing interest in the Library have reacted in a very negative and cynical way to the proposed changes…."

Dan Dixon, one of the five members of the SPL Board of Trustees, said in an email to fellow trustees and Turner, "…I believe that the initial public response has reminded this Trustee of my primary fiduciary duty: to defend and extend our Library by asking harder questions in a more timely manner. I regret that I didn't do a better job in this area."

In an email to SPL Director of Marketing Stephen Halsey, a librarian at a South Seattle library branch raised two important questions about the survey: "Will there be a non-online version of the survey? …Is it going to be available in other languages?"

…there was no printed version of the survey. And it was published in English only. Is this any way for a 21st century library in Seattle to show their regards for diversity and inclusion of all our Seattle communities?

SPL has acknowledged that Halsey didn't reply to the librarian. In fact, there was no printed version of the survey. And it was published in English only. Is this any way for a 21st century library in Seattle to show their regards for diversity and inclusion of all our Seattle communities?

The SPL Board of Trustees discussed the branding initiative for an hour and a half at a hastily scheduled special meeting on Saturday, October 10, which I attended. Board President Theresa Fujiwara said, "Being President of the Board has been kind of painful the last couple of weeks. This has been a difficult journey." She appeared not to have made up her mind, but later she seemed to agree with Dixon's assessment of the situation.

Trustee Marie McCaffrey said, "I'm having a really hard time with it. I'm just so conflicted…." But she went on to say that she's leaning towards Dixon's point of view as well.

Turner told the trustees he'd hoped for more responses to the survey, implying that that might have made a difference in the overwhelmingly negative response to the proposed rebranding. Speaking at length about SPL's accomplishments under his leadership, Turner also took the opportunity to try to protect Hornall Anderson from the branding fallout: "We shouldn't ruin the reputation of Hornall Anderson," he said.

He concluded by saying, "Your choice is to approve the whole branding, approve none of it, or you can approve certain components of it. You have to make a decision. You're scheduled to vote on it on October 28." What he didn't say is that the rebranding research has already cost the Seattle Public Library Foundation $365,000 in donor money that will be down the drain if the rebranding isn't implemented. He also didn't mention that Halsey has projected that the cost of implementing the changes will be over $700,000.

The SPL Board, as Turner suggested, can choose to ignore the survey results and flood of negative emails and vote to implement the rebrand at their next meeting, but at least two of the five seem strongly inclined not to do that. Two seem torn, but leaning toward nixing the rebrand. And the fifth board member, Tre' Maxie, was not present at the meeting to give his opinion.

Dixon said, "I think we unknowingly picked a fight that we don't need to have…I don't want to duke it out with the public…. We work for the people. The people don't work for us. And I think the people have spoken."

"None of this is a reflection on you or on your team," he said to Halsey. "We're just addressing the matter as it is. And now we need to reformat, reform, using the things we've gathered…. We may not do this as a traditional branding campaign."

So, while the Board tiptoed around the City Librarian's and the Director of Marketing's accountability for their use of SPL donors' money, those of us who love SPL and don't want to see it go down the rebranding road don't have to be so circumspect. If you want to voice your opinions to Library administrators and the SPL Board of Trustees, the last opportunity will be just before the vote on Wednesday, October 28, 5:00 p.m., on the 4th floor of the Central Library. You can also email them at, or send a letter to the board: 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle, WA 98104.