Library Board scrambles for special meeting on rebranding issue; City Hall reacts

Update: 10:57am. Following the post is an email update from Seattle Public Library's Director of Communications, Andra Addison.

The Seattle Public Library Board of Trustees appears to be responding proactively to the barrage of criticism the SPL rebranding initiative has received from patrons, the public, library donors, and the media over the course of the last month. Board members have called for a Special Meeting to vote on the rebranding initiative before their Wednesday, October 28th regularly scheduled meeting which has the branding initiative on the agenda.

On October 17, Trustee Dan Dixon said in an email to Trustees President Theresa Fujiwara:

…I propose that we call a Special Meeting on either Tuesday or Wednesday to resolve the issue. Notwithstanding our published meeting of October 28, we can proceed by giving notice of our intent to meet and the subject. It's my intent that we put this issue behind us quickly for the benefit of all parties and the Library. I believe that we all concur for various reasons that moving forward with a branding campaign is not in our best interests. I also believe as noted in my earlier message that we have heard enough from the public that this decision will be appreciated.

With over 400 comments sent to SPL and the SPL Foundation (not counting social media) about the proposed rebranding, the majority of them highly critical of it, Dixon’s characterization of the public response is understated, but he did go on to propose a specific course of action:

I would propose a motion in three parts to accomplish our resolution of the issue:
  • That we formally indicate that we are not moving forward with a branding campaign.
  • That we intend to utilize the data derived from our survey and other preliminary work to inform and extend our general Library marketing efforts.
  • That we draft a message from the Board of Trustees to Library patrons (and staff) that thanks them for their amazing support and affection for the Library and for their helpful comments during our survey; and that we will not be moving forward with the branding campaign.

Dixon seems very confident that this three-pronged resolution will be passed by the BOT in the proposed Special Meeting, and he has plans for a statement that he wants disseminated shortly after that meeting. His email to Fujiwara continued:

The messaging would go out soon after our special meeting so that our patrons will know and that with respect to the branding campaign it may not be necessary to attend the October 28th meeting.

Dixon’s email is significant for at least two reasons:

  1. it’s out of the ordinary for a Trustee to preemptively call for a “Special Meeting” on an issue that is already scheduled to come up for a vote a week later, and
  2. it makes clear that the Trustees have already made up their minds on the rebranding initiative in private, rather than holding their discussions about it in an open public meeting as required by Washington state law.

In her October 17th email to Dixon, Fujiwara commended him on his proposal and approved his call for the special meeting:

“Thanks Dan!

This looks like a good option to me - thoughtful, transparent and deliberate. We are scheduled for both an operations and finance committee meetings on Tuesday so maybe we can substitute or squeeze in a brief special meeting. As long as Gary agrees that we are not violating any public notice procedures, I think we should run this by the other trustees and ask MT to move forward with the logistics.

I truly appreciate the time you have taken to propose these next steps to move us forward and communicate with the public in a timely manner.

Do you want me to follow up with trustees and MT?“

(Gary in Fujiwara’s email is Gary Smith who provides legal counsel to SPL, and MT is Marcellus Turner. The “logistics” are posting the notice of a Special Meeting and its agenda on the SPL website, and notifying the Seattle Times about the meeting twenty-four hours before the meeting occurs.)

Dixon replied with a simple “Yep. That’s why I wanted to run by you first.”

So, if the Board does hold a Special Meeting in advance of their regularly scheduled meeting, what would they stand to gain?

  • They might save a little face, if there is any left to save.
  • They might stanch the flow of blood from their self-inflicted wounds, and possibly decrease the damage done to the reputation of the library. They voted to approve the initial $365,000 expenditure on the research stage of the rebranding in the fall of 2014 full well knowing that the implementation of the rebranding would cost a lot more money than the research would. They also knew that the Foundation had already said that they would not be paying for implementation which, according to Marketing Director Stephen Halsey’s recent guestimate would add approximately $700,000 to the cost of the rebranding. It’s unclear where that money is supposed to come from, but it’s fair to say that some of it would have to come from public coffers.
  • Special meetings of the Board of Trustees are not televised on the Seattle Channel as all regularly scheduled meetings are. So those of us who can’t make it to the meeting would not be able to see what went on. Fewer eyeballs might mean less criticism.
  • Many members of the media would not get the memo in time to switch gears and attend a meeting that is not the scheduled meeting where a decision on rebranding was supposed to be made. So, The Seattle Public Library and its Board of Trustees may dodge some additional criticism from the press.
  • And maybe, just maybe, this decreased criticism will add up to regaining the good will of some SPL benefactors who have made it clear that they are so angry about SPL’s poor stewardship of Library funds they are considering writing the Library out of their wills and stopping their donations to it.

Word about the questionable management of the rebranding project has spread all the way to The City Council and the Mayor’s office. In a meeting with Friends of the Seattle Public Library Board Member Jill Novik and Bill Stafford, member of the Board of the Seattle Public Library Foundation, Chair of the Parks, Seattle Center, Libraries, and Gender Pay Equity Committee, Councilmember Jean Godden raised the issue of rebranding.

According to Novik’s summary of the meeting, Godden “noted that Council is getting a lot of negative feedback from folks about this issue and it is not enhancing the image of SPL.” Novik went on to say, “They also want information from us as to how much full implementation of the rebranding would cost. Although we made it clear that the study was privately funded, Godden's impression is that it might be prudent to table the study for the time being.”

Keep in mind that the Council holds the purse strings for the Library and that the 2016 city budget is so much on their minds right now that they have cancelled nearly all committee meetings for weeks in order to work their way through the decisions they must make about the budget. In the 2015 budget, SPL garnered nearly sixty-nine million dollars of public money. Next year’s budget will likely be amended and approved by the Council in late November. Until then, it remains to be seen if SPL will be financially impacted by the branding fallout.

City Council Candidate Tammy Morales spoke out to Mayor Murray and the City Council on her campaign website where she addressed the rebranding endeavor and The Seattle Public Library’s poor stewardship of library funds:

“What an offensive waste of money,” she called the rebranding project. "Why is the Seattle Public Library approving this kind of spending? And where are the Mayor and Council on all this? …That the money is reportedly coming from the Seattle Library Foundation is no excuse. This effort could not have been started without the explicit approval of the Library Director&hellip. I love the Seattle Public Library and their awesome employees. But their leadership is letting them down.”

On the plus side for SPL, yesterday the Library did an amazing (or an incredibly tonedeaf) thing. They posted this excerpt from Alberto Manguel’s New York Times October 23rd Op-Ed, “Reinventing the Library” on SPL’s Facebook page:

It is in the nature of libraries to adapt to changing circumstances and threats, and all libraries exist in constant danger of being destroyed by war, vermin, fire, water or the idiocies of bureaucracy.

But today, the principal danger facing libraries comes not from threats like these but from ill-considered changes that may cause libraries to lose their defining triple role: as preservers of the memory of our society, as providers of the accounts of our experience and the tools to navigate them — and as symbols of our identity.

“Ill-considered changes” would be an apt characterization of SPL’s rebranding effort. Manguel’s op-ed provides a sweeping view of libraries in history and how their function has changed over time. Now, when librarians, staff, and facilities are called upon for a myriad of social services ranging from baby sitting, to attending to the needs of homeless patrons, to helping the unemployed find jobs, and even providing medical care to some, Manguel asserts that books must remain at the core of libraries’ mission as they have been throughout history.

To their credit, SPL provided a link to the full text of this exquisitely written op-ed. I wonder if posting it on SPL’s Facebook page was a blunder or a beautiful act of rebranding sabotage carried out by a well-intentioned, book-loving librarian.