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Thursday, May 18, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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King County libraries may curtail key service to patrons from Seattle

Seattle Times staff reporter

For more than half a century, patrons of Seattle and King County libraries have been allowed full privileges at both library systems.

That may be about to change.

The King County Library System, currently losing $823,078 a year on the arrangement, will decide May 30 whether to end a key service to patrons from Seattle: putting books and other materials on hold. County residents would still be able to put books on hold in Seattle.

Eliminating the service would save money, according to a joint study by the libraries, because it takes up to seven workers to move a reserved book from one library to another, deliver it to the patron and later return it to the shelf.

Seattle Public Library trustees have agreed to that cost-saving measure, which was proposed by King County Library System Director Bill Ptacek. If approved by county library trustees, the agreement would mark a departure from the libraries' long-standing policy of allowing each other's patrons unfettered access to books and services.

"It's really uncomfortable to have to do anything that's going to interrupt anybody's library services," Ptacek said.

Patrons still could obtain library cards for both systems and could borrow any circulating material they find on the shelves.

Renton and Enumclaw residents, who also are outside the King County system, could still put books on hold.

The county system, a tax district separate from county government, says it can't afford to keep losing money because more city residents are using its libraries than the other way around.

Seattle officials would have liked to pay for continued full service, said Seattle Public Library trustee Linda Larson, but, "We did not have the money in our budget to do it — period."

Trustees agreed to ending holds for Seattleites in county libraries in part because many of those patrons were "jumping the queue of the Seattle system" by ordering books from King County's larger collection, Larson said.

Seattle and King County have had an understanding since the early 1980s that if one system was losing money because of heavy use by the other system's patrons, its losses would be reimbursed by the other system.

Until recently, King County paid money to Seattle.

Officials with both libraries were surprised when a 1999 study showed Seattle book lovers were using King County libraries more heavily, leaving the county with a $677,000 budget problem.

The county system — which began in the basement of Seattle's central library in 1942 — is now the nation's second-busiest library system (behind Queens, N.Y.), with an acquisitions budget more than twice Seattle's.

Seattle agreed in 2003 to pay King County $104,000 a year for three years while both systems watched to see if reconstruction of Seattle's Central Library and expansion of neighborhood libraries would narrow the gap.

But the gap widened, as King County also rebuilt branch libraries, expanded its book collection and kept libraries open longer hours than Seattle.

A survey in June found that King County was spending $927,078 more to serve Seattle residents than Seattle was spending to serve county residents.

Seattleites borrowed 80,000 books from King County in June, while county residents borrowed 25,800 from the city.

Seattle residents checked out nearly half of the books loaned by King County's White Center Library and almost one-third of books taken from the Shoreline and Skyway branches.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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