On September 26, 2012, author, educator, and civic leader Eric Liu (b. 1968) brings to a close 10-plus years as a Seattle Public Library board member. Also an executive and a former presidential speechwriter and adviser, Liu was appointed to the position by Mayor Greg Nickels (b. 1955) in 2002. During his years of service the Seattle Public Library has remodeled many of its branch libraries, built a new Central Library, and fully computerized its library services. In 2012, the Board of Trustees initiated and helped pass a seven-year, $122 million levy to improve its core library services.
A native New Yorker, Eric Liu had been in Seattle only a few years when he was appointed to the Seattle Public Library Board of Trustees. He had been a White House speechwriter for President Bill Clinton (b. 1947) in his first term and then deputy domestic policy adviser during Clinton's second term. Liu wrote The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker in 1998. The book was a New York Times Notable Book selection and was featured in the PBS documentary "Matters of Race." Liu came to Seattle as an executive with digital media company RealNetworks.
In addition to his work as an executive and on the library board, Liu continued his writing with Guiding Lights: The People Who Lead Us to Our Purpose in Life (2004); The True Patriot (2007), co-authored with Nick Hanauer; Imagination First: Unlocking the Power of Possibility (2009); and The Gardens of Democracy (2011). Putting his ideas into practice, Liu founded the Guiding Lights Network, an organization dedicated to "promoting great citizenship." He and Hanauer created the True Patriot Network and Citizen University to further the teachings of progressive patriotism. In 2013, Liu is a columnist for TIME.com and a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com, and continues a series of weekly interviews called Seattle Voices for the Seattle Channel (Channel 21).
A Decade of Service
The Seattle Public Library is governed by a five-member citizens' board of trustees, appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council. Board members serve five-year terms without pay and can only serve two terms. Joining the board was natural for Liu, who had a lifelong love of libraries. His mother was a librarian and Liu was a strong believer in the public library's important role as a center of democracy.
When Liu was first appointed as a library trustee, citywide budget cuts were requiring hard choices. Rather than lose staff, the library board decided to close all branches for a number of low-user days, saving money while preventing staff layoffs. But despite the poor economy, the Seattle Public Library was actively remodeling many of its branches and building new ones, thanks to voter approval of a 1998 levy to upgrade and expand the city's library facilities.
Community residents participated in what the library called "Hopes and Dreams" meetings, giving input on what kind of branch they wanted, including programming, services, and the building itself. Several of the branch remodels received design awards. The biggest capital project was building the new Central Library, which had already begun when Liu became a board member. Designed by architect Rem Koolhas (b. 1944), the downtown Main Branch opened on May 23, 2004.
Liu's 10-year service spanned the terms of three City Librarians -- Deborah Jacobs, Susan Hildreth, and Marcellus Turner. It was a time of rapid technology change for the library: the online catalog was updated, the library web presence evolved (eventually delivered in several languages), Wi-Fi became available at all library branches, patrons could check out their own books, and Seattle Public Library became a leader in offering eBooks and videos online. But it was the engagement with Seattle citizens that Liu enjoyed the most about his trustee position.
In thanking Liu for his considerable contributions to the Seattle Public Library, Board President (and HistoryLink Co-founder and Executive Director) Marie McCaffrey (b. 1951) remarked that she considered him a "civics icon" -- she had recently searched online for a good image to represent the word "civics" and his picture came up in the search list. This was due to his life's work in education about the rights and duties of citizenship.
Liu had stayed on the Board of Trustees a few months longer than his allotted two terms, until a replacement was found. Kristi England, a public affairs director for APCO Worldwide, replaced him. With 18 years of experience in public affairs and community relations, England served as campaign manager for the successful 1998 "Libraries for All" levy.
Attending his last board meeting as a trustee on September 26, 2012, Liu remarked that he had greatly enjoyed his two terms and was leaving with a sense of gratitude and pride. Working with the Seattle community and the library's staff had been highly rewarding. In his words, the Seattle Public Library has gained respect in the city because its workers are "great people with a great commitment" ("Seattle Public Library Board Meeting") and while he would no longer be serving on the Board of Trustees, he would be starting as a board member of the Seattle Public Library Foundation. Responding to fellow trustees who said it would be hard to imagine working without him, Liu replied that he would be nearby. "Don't hesitate to call; the Bat Phone is always on!" ("Seattle Public Library Board Meeting").