Book Drop

The state wants to sell Seattle's library for the blind and move it to Olympia. That could reap big profits but lose volunteers.

Eighteen months after Janell Peterson was born, cancerous tumors invaded her eyes and surgeons had to remove them. Despite losing her sight, she grew up loving to read. Teachers helped her learn braille, and she came to depend on a library for the blind in Portland.

Peterson moved to Seattle in 1968 and soon became a regular at what is now called the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library (WTBBL), located at Ninth Avenue and Lenora Street, near the new high-rises sprouting up at South Lake Union. She’s among 400 volunteers who help the library’s small staff mail books and tapes to thousands of visually impaired people statewide.

“To me, it’s almost like food and water to have my books,” she says. “I can’t live without them.”

In the next two years, however, Peterson’s beloved library may disappear from Seattle. Amid flat funding and rising salaries, the library might move to the Olympia area. There, the library would likely have to find new employees and volunteers to transcribe thousand-page tomes into braille, record audio books, and run a radio program that serves the blind all over the state.

“That person in Spokane would still get their books, but how often and how effectively? I don’t know,” Peterson says. “We have an extremely knowledgeable staff who does brailling for our local Northwest book collection. Who’s going to do that in Olympia?” Peterson also worries that the radio program would be dropped because of a lack of volunteers.

The proposal to move the library turns on a complex partnership between the state and city. Since 1975, the state has contracted with Seattle Public Library (SPL) to operate WTBBL. In recent years, however, state and federal funding haven’t kept pace with WTBBL’s daily operations. SPL has been struggling to run the facility with the current funding, and so the state has decided to take over the library in mid-2008 and try to run it more cheaply.

Secretary of State Sam Reed wants to create a new home for WTBBL in the Olympia area and finance the move by selling the library’s building in Seattle. There’s just one problem: The state doesn’t own the building—the city of Seattle holds the title. Reed sent a letter to Mayor Greg Nickels late last month, asking the city to sign over the building to the state. Nickels plans to respond this week, a mayoral spokesman says.

How the issue is resolved could either undermine or salvage a vital program that’s served Washington’s visually impaired residents for nearly a century.

The state’s library for the blind looks like any other library. The entrance opens up to a receptionist’s desk, reference counters, and rows of bookcases. But this library is more like a warehouse than a community center. Few people come to peruse the shelves lined with books on tape and editions of Danielle Steel and Scott Turow in supersize fonts. Most of the 14,000 patrons order their books by phone.

From a backroom clearinghouse, employees and volunteers ship some 2,000 library materials a day across the state. In other rooms, they record the Northwest book collection onto cassette tapes (the library is beginning to convert to digital recordings) and transcribe works of literature into braille. There’s also a recording studio where a mostly volunteer team reads newspaper and magazine stories aloud for broadcast on an FM frequency picked up by special radios available to the blind (the broadcast will soon be offered on the Internet, the library says).

Volunteer Larry Smith recently sat in one of the small studios reading the front page of Tacoma’s News Tribune into a microphone. He blazed through pieces about Fort Lewis soldiers fighting in Iraq, a proposed study of Puget Sound, and a new Web site to allow citizens to complain about Tacoma city employees. He read from a few other local papers before turning his attention to TV Guide magazine. “I have a lot of friends who are [sight-] impaired, and this is very important to them,” says Smith, who’s volunteered at the library for two and a half years.

If the library were to move to Olympia, he probably wouldn’t make the commute to read the day’s news. “I’m already burning up a ton of gas on my job,” says Smith, who lives in the Fairwood area.

Gloria Leonard, director of WTTBL, isn’t sure how many library employees would move to Olympia. Some have families in Seattle and spouses with good jobs. “Most people are waiting to see how it all plays out,” says Leonard, adding that she’s in the same boat.

In the early 1990s, the state Legislature put up money to purchase the library’s building, which it had leased since the mid-1980s. The price tag was $5.5 million, according to King County assessor records, and the city became the owner. Reed says the Legislature approved the funding with the promise that Seattle would use the building for the library. Now that Reed’s office is taking over the WTBBL, he wants the city to “return the building.”

In a letter to Mayor Nickels, Reed has requested that the city “voluntarily” sign over the property to the state. If the city declines, “I am prepared to seek remedy through the state Legislature,” Reed wrote.

“This wasn’t a gift to the city of Seattle,” Reed said in an interview. He described the city as “a creature of the state” and said the state would eventually get the building, even if Seattle fought to keep it.

Reed’s proposal to relocate the library is motivated by a desire to save money and keep it running for years to come, he says. During the last seven years, state and federal funding for the library has hovered around $1.35 million annually. SPL has had to rely on donations to maintain some library services, says Andra Addison, SPL’s spokeswoman.

Staff salaries could be lowered in Olympia because it costs less to live there than in Seattle. Perhaps the library could rely less on volunteers by automating some services, Reed says.

The sale would likely generate a sweet payoff for WTBBL. The library sits in the shadow of Paul Allen’s massive redevelopment of South Lake Union, with upscale condos, offices, shops, and the Pan Pacific Hotel. Nearby property values have soared, and the WTBBL building, which is less than a block from Allen properties, has doubled in assessed value, to $11.3 million, since 1995, according to county records.

Alison Jeffries, the senior marketing manager for Allen’s real estate development company, wouldn’t comment on potential interest in the library site.

But Reed acknowledges Allen’s presence in the booming neighborhood and expects the state would turn a healthy profit on its $5.5 million investment. “I’ve heard estimates that we could sell it for around $14 million,” he says.