The Fee Library

Are subscription libraries seeing a rebirth? If Seattle is any indicator, it appears so

October 30, 2015

Joseph Janes

Summer in Seattle was glorious—warm and sunny, producing bumper crops of all sorts (including both my tomatoes and the weeds in my backyard), mirroring our dramatic growth as gobs of new people continue to move here. Buildings were being built and entire neighborhoods transformed. And that’s not all.

You can imagine my reaction when our local public radio station introduced a story about the plans for a new library, opening January 2016. Not the sort of thing one hears every day, and my interest deepened when the details emerged: This isn’t a new branch of Seattle Public Library (SPL); it’s a new subscription library, rather grandly named Folio: The Seattle Athenaeum.

Seriously. When we think of subscription libraries today, they evoke a sort of charming, sepia-toned reminder of days gone by. In many ways, these paved the way for the emergence of free, publicly supported libraries more than a century ago, and a few of them are left, as curiosities—harmless, unthreatening. But nobody starts them today, right? Guess again.

The man behind this isn’t, as some might expect, some oblivious arriviste Amazonian who doesn’t “get” our egalitarian vibe. Quite the opposite. It’s the brainchild of David Brewster, a man with deep and abiding civic roots, who started the alternative Seattle Weekly and the independent online journal, as well as our beloved Town Hall, the city’s community cultural center. This is a guy who commands great and much-deserved respect and has been deeply ingrained in the cultural life of Seattle, creating community space and conversation for half a century. Which, for me, makes this all the more vexing.

Folio’s website waxes rhapsodic about the library’s vision: “Folio is a gathering place for books and the people who love them. Devoted to the intellectually curious, Folio offers circulating collections, vibrant conversations, innovative cultural and civic programs, and work spaces for writers. Come to Folio for an hour, a day, a week. The books are waiting for you.”

Sounds lovely.

Much of Folio’s language revolves around books and reading but also writing and the literary life. The organization also offers to “house” large collections from members so that they will no longer be “frozen assets not currently available for public enjoyment.”

So many questions. Will this come to anything? Would this undermine our existing public library systems? I believe this is all well intentioned even if it is does sound somewhat more Madame de Pompadour salon than 21st-century Pacific Northwest.

Why does this bug me, and how should we think about this? Folio appeals to many aspects of what everybody expects in a library: stuff, of course, as well as comfy space in a historic building downtown (within view of the downtown branch of SPL, no kidding). People also expect community, of a sort. Services? Maybe. (Folio just hired a part-time “librarian consultant,” whatever that means.)

I don’t wish them ill—or well. I guess I just wish nobody had thought this necessary. One hundred fifty years ago, yes, these were critical and pioneering ways for communities to pool their resources to acquire and share books and space. Today, though, it’s difficult to see this as anything other than separatist and exclusionary. I searched Folio’s website in vain for a single mention of diversity—economic, cultural, or otherwise—which is fine; it’s their clubhouse, and they can do as they like with it. But at a minimum individual membership of $125 a pop, well, y’know. I feel myself sag a bit every time I think about it.

Or perhaps, this is the new wave for a new future. Will this be unique to us, here and now, or is this coming to a city near you? Time will tell, and that might be another story.…


Linda Braun

Everything Is Messy

The changing business of providing services to youth and families

Keith Michael Fiels

The New ALA Strategic Directions

Advocacy, Information Policy, and Professional and Leadership Development