The History of The Seattle Public Library

The first Central Library built in Seattle
The first Central Library built in Seattle

The Seattle Public Library was established as an official city department in 1890, but its roots in the city date back as far as 1868, just 17 years after the Denny Party settled here in 1851. A lumber company vice president borrowed its first book, a brand new copy of Mark Twain's "Innocents Abroad."

Historical Timeline

A timeline of important historical milestones that have happened since the Library’s founding:

1890s

  • 1891: The first public library opens in Seattle as a reading room in Pioneer Square’s Occidental Building
  • 1899: The Library purchases its first non-English books (novels in German)

1900s

  • 1901: Fire destroys the library's first permanent home in the Yesler Mansion, which inspires a $200,000 gift from Andrew Carnegie to rebuild
  • 1903: Seattle selects a Beaux-Arts design by P.J. Weber for its new Central Library Carnegie
  • 1904: Andrew Carnegie donates $15,000 for the construction of the Carnegie Free Public Library on Market Street in Ballard
  • 1904: The Library began sending books in braille by request to blind people in Washington
  • 1905: Construction begins on Central Library Carnegie downtown
  • 1905: SPL opens a small, one-room library on Green Lake
  • 1906: The Central Library opens at its current location in downtown Seattle
  • 1906: University branch library opens in the University Pharmacy at UW
  • 1907: When Ballard is annexed, its public library becomes a branch of The Seattle Public Library
  • 1908: Andrew Carnegie donates $105,000 to build three new libraries
  • 1909: A small public library opens in Columbia City Hall 

1910s

  • 1910: University branch library opens in its current location
  • 1910: Green Lake branch library opens
  • 1910: West Seattle branch library opens
  • 1911: Andrew Carnegie gives the Library $70,000 to construct two new branch libraries
  • 1911: The Library opens a deposit station in a pharmacy in the South Park neighborhood
  • 1914: The Henry L. Yesler Memorial Library opens in the Central District
  • 1914: The Queen Anne branch library opens
  • 1915: The Columbia branch library opens
  • 1917: Andrew Carnegie donates $35,000 to build a library in Fremont
  • 1918: The Library closes for five weeks due to a flu pandemic 

1920s

  • 1921: The Fremont branch library opens
  • 1928: Greenwood-Phinney branch library opens

1930s

  • 1930: Bookmobile service begins
  • 1934: The Henry family donates property on Capitol Hill for a branch library location
  • 1939: Lending of phonograph records begins 

1940s

  • 1942: The High Point Library opens in the cloakroom of the High Point Housing Project
  • 1942: The Library sends 500 books to regional Japanese-American internment camps
  • 1942: The Library debuts two radio shows, one for children and one for adults
  • 1943: Holly Park Station opens to serve a housing development for defense workers
  • 1944: King County Library System opens a North End branch in Broadview
  • 1944: The Library teams up with Montlake Community Club to open a small branch
  • 1945: The first Beacon Hill Library opens
  • 1945: The Ravenna Community Club raises money to open a deposit station
  • 1946: Film library opens with 57 documentary films
  • 1949: The Wilmot Memorial Library opens in Wallingford 

1950s

  • 1954: The first Capitol Hill branch library opens
  • 1954: Seattle annexes the Lake City area and takes over its library from King County
  • 1954: The Northeast branch library designed by Paul Thiry opens in Ravenna
  • 1954: The Library launches its first TV show, "The Challenge of Books"
  • 1955: After annexing Broadview, Seattle reopens the library there as the Oakview branch
  • 1956: Seattle passes $5 million bond for the construction of an expanded Central Library 

1960s

  • 1960: A modern, 206,000 square foot Central Library opens
  • 1961: The High Point Library moves to a larger space
  • 1961: The Southwest branch library opens
  • 1961: An hour long history of the library is produced and airs on KING-TV
  • 1962: The Beacon Hill Library moves to a larger space
  • 1963: The Ballard branch library moves to a larger space on 24th Ave. NW
  • 1963: KOMO Radio station gives approximately 22,000 pieces of popular sheet music of the twenties and thirties to library
  • 1964: The Magnolia branch library opens
  • 1965: The African-American collection is seeded by a donation of books from the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority
  • 1968: Borrow-by-Mail service available at 25 cents per card
  • 1969: Stones removed from Central Library fountain due to widespread protests in downtown Seattle 

1970s

  • 1970: Married women are first allowed to have a Library card in their own name
  • 1972: 8-mm films are made available for borrowing
  • 1973: The Station House Branch (Madrona- Sally Goldmark) opens in the former Fire Station No. 12
  • 1975: The Yesler Library in the Central District is renamed Douglass-Truth in honor of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth
  • 1976: The Quick Information System opens to take questions by phone
  • 1978: Computer-assisted reference services are first implemented
  • 1978: Materials in Vietnamese and Arabic are first added to the collection
  • 1979: A renovation funded by a federal grant adds work spaces and a media center to Central Library, as well as improved access to art and music materials
  • 1979: Televisions with cable are installed at four branches 

1980s

  • 1980: VHS tapes and video discs are first made available to check out
  • 1981: The Rainier Beach branch library opens
  • 1981: The Library begins using electronic mail
  • 1982: An Apple II microcomputer is installed as the first public computer
  • 1984: The Library is unsuccessfully challenged by an anti-pornography group for collecting Playboy magazine
  • 1988: The transition to a computerized circulation system is complete 

1990s

  • 1995: The Library launches its first website
  • 1998: Seattle passes a  $196.4 million bond to double the square footage of neighborhood libraries and build a new Central Library downtown
  • 1999: Holly Park Station relocates to become the NewHolly branch library 

2000s

  • 2000: The relocated Wallingford branch library opens
  • 2002: The Delridge branch library opens
  • 2003: The new Capitol Hill branch library opens
  • 2004: The new Central Library designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas opens
  • 2004: The new Beacon Hill branch library opens
  • 2004: The new High Point branch library opens
  • 2005: The new Ballard branch library and Neighborhood Service Center opens
  • 2005: The International District/ Chinatown branch library opens
  • 2006: The new Montlake branch library opens
  • 2006: The Northgate branch library opens
  • 2006: The South Park branch library opens 

2010s

  • 2012: Seattle voters approve a seven-year, $123 million Library levy
  • 2013: All Library locations open on Sundays
  • 2014: Open Air pop-up library launches at events throughout Seattle
  • 2015:  Wi-Fi Hotspots are made available to borrow
  • 2016: The Library hosts First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare
  • 2017: The Library launches Peak Picks, a collection of best-selling books and in-demand titles that patrons can check out immediately
  • 2018: The Library unveils a new website for the first time in 15 years
  • 2019: Seattle voters approve a seven-year, $219.1 million Library levy renewal
The Seattle Public Library named 2020 Library of the Year
The Seattle Public Library named 2020 Library of the Year

2020s

  • 2020: The Library temporarily closes all physical locations starting in mid-March to minimize the spread of COVID-19
  • 2020: The Seattle Public Library is awarded the prestigious 2020 Library of the Year by Gale/Library Journal for centering the community and equity in its work