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Friday, July 18, 2008

Every Visit to the Seattle Central Library Reminds Me of the Cheese Shop Sketch

posted by on July 18 at 12:17 PM

Customer: It’s not much of a cheese shop, is it?

Owner: Finest in the district!

Customer: (annoyed) Explain the logic underlying that conclusion, please.

Owner: Well, it’s so clean, sir!

Customer: It’s certainly uncontaminated by cheese….”

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Because. . .  the book stacks are mostly out of view from the entrances?

Posted by lostboy | July 18, 2008 12:53 PM

The library got the whole information revolution thing exactly backwards. It's trying way to hard to be relevant in a post-book future world. The are lots of terminals and public art installations and whatnot.

What it should have done was to concentrate on books. It's should be the last best refuge of the book. You should walk in and see books everywhere. Books surrounding you. Great vistas of books. Books books books. Sure, have the other stuff, but hide it. Books #1!

As it is the actual stacks on are in one column on one side of the middle floors.

Posted by Chris | July 18, 2008 1:03 PM

Mostly because when looking for a specific book, it is inevitably lost, checked out, non-existent or generally unavailable.

It's a lovely place to visit, write in, take visitors to, but not a reliable place to find a book.

Posted by Jonathan Golob | July 18, 2008 1:12 PM

The library and Monty Python? Shouldn't this also go in the nerd category?

Posted by asteria | July 18, 2008 1:12 PM

The reason the central library works is because it has open air space, instead of stacks and stacks of books introducing constant musty book smell and even worse constant mother-of-god-what-is-that homeless smell.

Posted by The CHZA | July 18, 2008 1:16 PM

The Central Library rocks, though it's ugly as sin. Yes, it's hard to get a specific book, which I find to be a problem at any busy library. Fortunately you can put a request in for a book and they'll deliver it to whatever branch is closest to you.

A public library needs a lot of terminals these days, there's a world of information in there. Plus the Central library has huge stacks and a lot of room to EXPAND, which is essential for any relatively new library. The public library needs to meet the public needs, and the public needs internet access and word processing.

Posted by dwight moody | July 18, 2008 1:39 PM

Don't let the facts get in the way. The new Central Library has well over twice the space for books that the old one has. They made sure of this in design specs so as to avoid the mistake made in San Francisco where books were given low priority.

As for ugly, I guess it is in the eyes of the beholder. I far prefer the library to the new City Hall and scores of other boring buildings in town done in the requisite NW colors of sandstone and green glass.

Posted by tiptoe tommy | July 18, 2008 1:49 PM

@2 is right.

And I say that as someone who has been there hundreds of times to get books.

Posted by Will in Seattle | July 18, 2008 1:58 PM

@2: Libraries are not about books. They're about information. The book has only ever been a vehicle. It's my favorite vehicle, and it will never die, but there are also lots of other info sources that a library needs to make available. And that library has room for lots and lots of books.

@3: Any urban library (and possibly smaller ones as well) is like that now. The book you want is often wanted by someone else. That's why they have the request process.

I adore that building.

Posted by Terry | July 18, 2008 2:12 PM

Do they still make books?

Posted by Digital Boy | July 18, 2008 2:16 PM

Room for books, but no books. SPL's collection is a national embarrassment; it's appropriate for a library system the size of Billings, not Seattle. KCLS is FAR SUPERIOR in this regard. Bellevue Regional is a better library than Seattle Central, and they have terminals too.

Trendy talk about the information age ignores the fact that something like 0.0001% of recorded human knowledge is online.

Posted by Fnarf | July 18, 2008 2:21 PM

It's people like you what cause unrest!

Posted by katiedewi | July 18, 2008 2:24 PM

Thank you Mr. Golob, for brightening up my afternoon. The Cheese Shop is probably my favorite skit of all time. I could merrily partake in helping this thread devolve into Monty Python quotations, but let's face it, I would feel shame.

Posted by kid icarus | July 18, 2008 2:33 PM



It's like walking through all of Kubrick's films at the same time.

It's the CENTRAL Library, ie the HQ...if you want books, go to your branch and/or order them through the inter-library system.

Posted by michael strangeways | July 18, 2008 2:34 PM

Every time I go I look for someone using a Spindle or other e-book reader.

But none exist.

Yeah: it's for books.

Deal with it. And get us some more books.

Posted by Will in Seattle | July 18, 2008 2:55 PM

It's actually a reliable place to find an old book. Most of the SPL's academic/ research works (including social theory) are very dated, from before the 1990s, many before the 1980s. But some are fairly rare. The good thing, for me, anyway, is that they're rarely checked out, so that one can have a very successful trip to the downtown library to use a variety of resources that you might not need to check out.

As for more popular works, and multimedia, the whole library system is largely oriented toward online requests and branch library delivery systems. People don't browse bookshelves nearly as much as they used to. The downtown library reflects that reality. Which I don't think is necessarily a bad thing.

I do think that SPL's purchasing of pop culture shlock-- 218 DVD copies of Will Smith's I Am Legend???-- is excessive, and has partly (and unnecessarily) squeezed out more esoteric and academic purchases.

Posted by Trevor | July 18, 2008 2:55 PM

The libraries in San Francisco and Paris are worse (hair-raisingly). Actually, I love said building. In addition to being beautiful and a great library (IMO), it might be the closest thing Seattle has to a usable piazza.

Not only is the San Francisco library a poor design for which the director discreetly threw away most of their books, but their homeless problems are so awful that when I tried to work there I ended up having to lock myself into a glass cubicle (available in 1-hour increments).

Posted by Amelia | July 18, 2008 2:59 PM

Yeah, it's soooo depressing walking along those ramps past row after endless row of completely fucking empty shelves with nary a tattered paperback to be seen in the rushing-to-infinity single-point perspective distance. It's a disgrace, I tells ya'.

Are you all just completely blind, mental morons, or just clueless poseurs who haven't actually ever stepped foot inside the new library since it opened?

And you know, maybe if you showed some interest in something besides the latest Clive Custler techno-thriller, you'd have a better chance of finding what you want not already checked-out.

Posted by COMTE | July 18, 2008 3:01 PM

I just find it funny that the only Philippe Djian book the library has is the second of a trilogy.

And the spotty collection is not a central vs. branch library issue; I always check the online catalog when looking for a book, and am still surprised by what's completely absent (or conversely, in the case of the DVD collection, what's there).

Posted by MvB | July 18, 2008 3:09 PM

If they didn't purchase all those copies of the pop culture shlock, the hold lines on them would be 3 years long. It's what the people want. It's the "public" in public library.

Posted by Terry | July 18, 2008 3:21 PM

@ 20: It doesn't need to be mutually exclusive.

As for everyone ripping the central library's book collection, what don't you get about the fact that so much of the library system is now about hold shelves and circulation through neighborhood branches?

Posted by Trevor | July 18, 2008 3:56 PM

Thank you so much! For four years I've listened to people rave about the Central Library and wondered why no one notices there are so few books.

Sure, libraries are about information, but I can access the internet from dozens of places in this city. I want more from the library, things I can't get online or find eventually in the dollar bin at a used book store. I want the books that bookstores don't carry, the minor works of major figures, old dusty philosophy books, obscure writers who are nonetheless important to a particular field of thought. The Seattle library feels like no one is paying attention, there's no sense of a collection of books.

Posted by Erica T. | July 18, 2008 4:24 PM

I assume their budget is not unlimited.

The options are not strictly "books" or "internet". The libraries have all sorts of online databases now. (Although, most libraries let you use your membership to access their databases from your local coffee shop! Aren't they grand!)

And 22, what you're looking for is an academic library. You can generally make arrangements with a local university, through a community pass of some sort. Public libraries aren't academic libraries, they can't afford to be.

We live in a wonderful library world now, what with all this interconnectivity, interlibrary loan and such. It's human nature to bitch, but I think the library system does a great job. If you all went back in history even 30 years, you'd be lost.

Posted by Terry | July 18, 2008 4:37 PM

Terry, the downtown library doesn't need to encompass all the possibilities of the information age. I mean, have you seen Google Books? It's easy to get sucked in with it and spend hours looking at books from hundreds of years ago. And the glorious thing is that you can do that anywhere. Hell, you can even do it on your phone now. But we're just talking about a central library here. And of course it's socially useful to provide computer access for everybody, but this is a $150 million building. If you're going to have a physical presence at all it should exploit what it has going for it, that is, actual physical space.

If it's not going to be a palace of books you might as well shut it down and stick with neighborhood branches and interlibrary loans. I'm sure there will be another bond issue in 20 or 30 years to remodel, so maybe they'll get it right next time.

Posted by Chris | July 18, 2008 5:29 PM

@23: there is no imperative to have 200 copies of the latest will smith movie. you could cut that by half and the harm to people would be no tragedy. there's no failure of mission if the library fails to fully replicate the netflix experience free of charge.

but if the library devotes a disproportionate share of its budget to satisfying pop culture appetites that will always dwarf its capacity to satisfy them, then the library will squeeze out the kind of diverse collection that makes libraries places where people discover new items rather than going to find what they know they already want.

Posted by Trevor | July 18, 2008 5:58 PM

@25: "The harm to people would be no tragedy" -- Who are you to say? People used to read novels, now they watch movies. It's a PUBLIC library. It's their tax dollars too. You say they can join netflix, they might say you can go browse Amazon.

My own interests are more in sympathy with yours, I expect, but it's not just my library. It's everyone's. And if 400 hundred people have a hold on a movie at a given time and so they order 200 copies to satisfy the demand, I can't say that what I would like them to buy is more important.

Also, I don't know, but I have a notion that anyone ordering a whole lot of dvd copies gets them at a discounted price. (I've developed this theory because a lot of the netfix disks don't have the original label.) So those 200 disks might not cost all that much, while books are $40 per (ish), regardless.

Posted by Terry | July 18, 2008 6:25 PM

Ahh, Professor Golob, you tickle both halves of my brain.

Posted by blank12357 | July 18, 2008 6:28 PM


What?! That book smell is one of my favorite things in LIFE, are you kidding me? I want some incense that smells like tons of old books, as my current collection is neither extensive nor old enough to produce that smell in my house.

Anyway. I love the central library, but yeah, it has never occurred to me to go there expecting to find a specific book. I place holds at my local library when I want that.

Posted by violet_dagrinder | July 18, 2008 7:29 PM

Libraries are not about information. They're about books. I'm not about to advance the idea that 200 copies of Will Smith's latest movie in the library means the death of literacy -- but, Jesus, if any one sentence DOES promote the death of literacy, it's "libraries are about information, not about books."

From an economic perspective, libraries should make certain information-age technologies available for free: that will help people without Internet access job hunt, get the news, and get involved. It's a life-line. Libraries shouldn't see themselves as middle-class culture shops that don't serve an entire community.

But: a library is fucking about books. It's not for semantics that the phrase "book library" doesn't exist. You talk about CD libraries, DVD libraries, sex toy libraries -- but when you have a bunch of fucking books on the shelf, it's just a goddamn "library" for a reason. That's not merely because the book predates other vehicles of information; it's not because of some operation of discursive power whereby books, home to textual language, privilege themselves in written and spoken discourse. (Or whatever else anti-literary lit majors are probably saying these days. And no, I'm not imputing that logic on Terry or anyone else -- but it's the kind of conclusion English departments train their students to reach these days.) A fucking public library exists to collect what's most inconvenient or impossible to collect elsewhere -- BOOKS. Not DVDs, not CDs, not a handful of PCs. Books. Terry said it himself: you can buy the latest pop culture ephemera for dirt cheap in bulk, but a massive collection of books takes time and money and space. It's best suited to a public enterprise, which you don't need to see I Am Legend.

Christ. Libraries aren't about books? Libraries are not about the lowest common denominator. They're not about taking taxpayer money and buying what some jagoff assumes serves the lowest taste factor of the taxpayers. That's what P.T. Barnum's fucking circus is for. Libraries are houses of culture that, in a humane age, also become public service outlets for the disadvantaged.

Posted by "Book Library" | July 18, 2008 7:55 PM

@26: Your opening line betrays your ignorance of the modern age and the mission of all 21st century libraries: to ensure that patrons are effective and efficient users of information. That holds true whether patrons are looking for details on how to groom a horse in an old Usborne guide or watching I Am Legend in order to make a comparison between that film and Omega Man. Libraries are just about books? That's kind of like saying diners are only about hamburgers. Without the milkshakes, fries, and onion rings, the experience wouldn't be the same.

I suspect that you were born before 1965 and are holding on to the old definition of a library with a gnarled and wrinkled mitt.

Posted by Information Guru | July 19, 2008 7:47 AM

The Kirkland library, which is not very big, kicks the downtown library's ass. Why? Because at the Kirkland one you can walk right in the door and find a book. Somehow, the Seattle Public Libraries people forgot how important that is.

Posted by Greg | July 21, 2008 5:46 PM

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