Cool house

How could the city go wrong picking an architect whose name sounds like "cool house"? But I'm still amazed that, with a selection process for the design of the new downtown library that seemed geared to the usual safe, tame choice, Rem Koolhaas, the token wild and witty visionary, was the last architect left standing. Consider, however, this precedent: Once before Seattle tapped an architect better known as a theorist and writer to design a signature public building. And it got the pomo pastiche that everyone loves to hate, Robert Venturi's Seattle Art Museum. Still, Koolhaas has proven his chops with actual buildings in a way that Venturi hadn't. . . .

It's at the library . . . whoops

While you wait to marvel (or gasp, or shudder) at what Koolhaas comes up with, remember this: It's what's inside a library that counts—a multitude of vital, mundane functions, not just a grand architectural gesture. The Seattle Public Library is better run and funded now than it's been in a generation. But it's still running on bad choices made years ago. I was reminded of this recently when I sought a three-year-old article from a major aviation magazine. It wasn't posted on the Web, nor on the library's Infotrac periodicals database, nor in the scatter of back copies on the public shelves (in a library that used to pride itself on its aviation archives). Sorry, said the librarian: That magazine was stored both bound and on microfilm cassettes until 1993. Then, with the growth of online indexes, the cassettes were scrapped. It was bound until 1994. "But we lost our bindery," the librarian explained, "and we aren't doing as much binding as we used to."

In fact, the library scrapped its bindery in the early '90s, as a cost-saving move during a round of budget cuts. Administrators weren't sorry to see it go; they were eagerly promoting electronic reference systems then and demoting paper. (They also "recycled" the card catalog and culled worn-looking books from the shelves.) They assured skeptics that it would be cheaper to send books out for rebinding than bind them in-house. But when subject librarians tried to send books out, they'd sometimes find them on the discard stack. And every once in a while, when you gotta find something, you pay the price for those past decisions.

Could have been worse. I know someone who sought a five-year-old issue of the New Yorker. Sorry, she was told; that issue came out after the library stopped acquiring the film cassettes and before it resumed saving The New Yorker on microfiche. As far as Seattle's civic archive is concerned, whatever was in that issue doesn't exist.

Kudos to the periodicals librarians who are going back and ordering microfiche prints to fill some of those holes in their archive. But as electronic media come and go so quickly, an old-fashioned bound volume doesn't seem quite so archaic.

Al in the balance

Sure enough, no sooner did the new, looser, and funnier Al Gore announce his presidential candidacy then he zipped out to shore up support in the Northwest, the next best thing to home turf. How could the man who wrote Earth in the Balance fail in Ecotopia? Like the song says, if he can't make it here, he can't make it anywhere.

Still, some of Gore's natural allies in the local green machine are grumbling that he and the administration he fronts have let them down, by allowing new loopholes in wetlands protection and not requiring tug protection for tankers crossing the Strait of Juan de Fuca. On another visit last fall, Gore promised that a rescue tug would be there to guard the strait before the scary winter weather arrived. But a temporary tug trial wasn't undertaken until spring had nearly sprung, and then only at the instigation of US Rep. Norm Dicks (with no follow-through toward ongoing protection). And now the feds are blocking another strategy, supported by the State and the Makah tribe, to help fund a tug with restoration payments from the Tenyo Maru oil spill.

Still, Republicans strive to paint Gore as a raging "environmental extremist." Perhaps they should lay off; the label may actually help him appeal to the broad electorate. And does he really deserve it? One true green crusader, David Ortman, checked to see how Senator Al Gore rated with the League of Conservation Voters before his 1992 election as veep and found a number of Republican senators topped his conservation voting record. In 1985 and '86, two Republicans, including Washington's Dan Evans, matched Gore's 67 percent rating from the league and eight topped it. In 1987 and '88, six Republicans matched his 50 percent—and nine surpassed it.

Then, presumably while working on Earth in the Balance, Gore seemed to get religion. In 1989, he scored a perfect 100 with the conservation league. The next year, only two Republicans matched his 92 percent green record. In 1991, just four matched or topped his 73 rating.

But since then, he's been carrying the administration's water, which isn't the same as fighting for everyone else's lands and waters.

High-touch worm

Advice for modern managers: Do you strive to cut through the cloud of anonymity and alienation that binds your workplace? In this age of isolation through voice-mail and e-mail, do you wish your Dagwoods and Dilberts would talk to each other? Don't just hold the occasional office mixer and run new employees' mug shots in the newsletter. Catch a worm—such as the one that paralyzed many Microsoft-based systems two weeks ago. Perkins Coie, one of Seattle's biggest and slickest law firms, got knocked offline by the ExploreZip worm. Without computers, one staffer recounts, "We had to punt, but it was dealt with fairly well." And whaddaya know, there was an upside: "We actually got to talk to each other face-to-face. It was nice."

Just imagine the intimacy a Y2K crash could engender. Remember all those babies born nine months after the big New York blackout?

 
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