It’s noon at the Fremont branch and an eager librarian in a blue Reading Rainbow shirt fast-walks to the front desk to tell her coworkers, “It’s 12! Libby is back,” she said, referring to an app that allows patrons to check out books despite The Seattle Public Library’s slew of down systems. 

She and another librarian behind the desk pull out their phones to check their holds, but after several moments of silent suspense a banner pops up showing that the system is currently experiencing an abnormally high volume of users.

“Orrrrr, maybe in an hour,” she says. 

The ransomware cyber attack on May 25 dramatically reduced SPL’s services. While patrons can still check out physical and digital media via the Libby app and the SPL Overdrive site, and while all 27 branch buildings remain open (though several currently operate with reduced hours), many vital services remain missing. 

Borrowers cannot return physical media or place holds on anything, Interlibrary Loans are down, in-building WiFi is down, public computers are down, mobile hotspots are virtually impossible to checkout, the catalog won’t update, and no one can use the printers. 

For patrons, the consequences of these outages are obvious. Those who rely on the library for free internet can’t use it. In 2023, SPL reported over 360,000 sessions on its public computers. Partly for that reason, many branches are strikingly quiet–yes, even for a library. 

The cyber attack’s impact on staff, though, has been less obvious: How does the library even still function?

Seattle Public Library spokesperson Laura Gentry declined my request to interview librarians, saying they had “a number of other priority issues to attend to.” While Library admin decided to attend to those issues, I decided to spend a cumulative 18 hours at multiple SPL branches, including Beacon Hill, Fremont, Capitol Hill, Wallingford, Ballard, and Northgate to see how librarians were faring in the aftermath of the cyber attack. Here’s what I found.

Making Do

To understand how many services SPL provides to Seattleites, check out the sign behind the desk at the Fremont library. 

In a mixture of pen and print, branch staff posted a list of neighborhood cafes that offer WiFi with purchase (many), potentially free WiFi locations in the vicinity/Seattle (not so many), and alternative printing locations. (Fed-Ex offers the cheapest rates at $0.80 per page.) 

It’s telling how many different types of places librarians need to enumerate to fill the void left by the outage, reminding us that the libraries serve as the city’s office, study room, rest stop, refuge, print shop, and, of course, book-lender. 

Even though patrons cannot officially check out books or other physical media since the catalog won’t update, the librarians created an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of who has what, an updated method from the early days of the outage, when some noted checkouts with pencil and paper. 

Other antiquated technology can still factor into their work days. With the system down and the WiFi out, one librarian admitted to turning to the trusty fax machine as a safe workaround to share documents.

To verify an item's location for a patron, librarians must physically check their shelves or call other branches to see if other librarians will check their shelves in return.

Although librarians encourage patrons to hold onto checked-out items, people continue returning books and movies. Those items will wait in an off-site warehouse until the system comes back online. Librarians couldn’t say exactly how they’ll integrate those items back into the catalog.

Offering Empathy

It’s not only that librarians have had to find analog solutions around the system outage, their job has become a blend of information and consolation, offering an understanding ear to a long line of befuddled and/or disgruntled patrons.

Visitors now often speak out in disbelief at the lack of WiFi–one frustrated library-user claimed it as a constitutional right. Others are understandably upset about the lack of a timeline until services return. 

During my hours camping out at the library, I saw librarians spending as much time offering sympathy to patrons as they did finding books and/or physical media. Dozens and dozens of times I watched librarians nod, make an understanding face, and explain in low tones that the system was down, that it probably wouldn’t be back up next week, and that they really didn’t know when it’ll be fixed.

Some staff occasionally used more absolutist language to properly convey the severity of the situation. My personal favorite overheard moment happened at the Northgate branch: 

Patron: “So, can I still place a hold on my account? 

Librarian: “It’s down. Nothing works.” 

Some staff said they felt like bartenders; part server and part therapist. According to one librarian, the administration has asked them to practice patience with patrons, a request they thought unnecessary: “Of course we will be … this affects us, too!”

Different, but the Same

In many ways, though, the library remains unchanged. On Friday, June 14 at 9:58 am,  nearly 20 people were waiting for the Ballard branch to open. As patrons entered the building, the library became a roof for those seeking shelter, a bathroom for those who had to go, a place to read the paper, and a place for children to read picture books.

Without public catalog computers, many patrons have become shelf-browsers, opening up perhaps a more pleasurable way to experience the library than a less-embodied online search. Within the last week, I’ve enjoyed slowly learning the Dewey Decimal System (you can find me in the 700s) just as often as I’ve felt annoyed at having to type offline.

At 1 pm that day in June, just as the tech workers were making their way to the PCC hotbar, and just after I successfully used Libby to check out The House on Mango Street, a patron approached the librarian to ask how she was holding up. She tilted her head thoughtfully and said, “Well, everything’s broken.” Then they both broke out in laughter with the same delirium that follows sleep deprivation. After a few more giggles, the librarian found a positive tone. “But no, seriously, we’re making it work,” she said. 

Three weeks later, the initial shell-shock of early June seems to have passed. For the most part, both patrons and librarians seem to be adapting, persevering, and reading on. 

Follow the SPL blog for outage updates.