Library History

The initial move to form a public library in Seattle came only 17 years after the first white settlers arrived on the shores of Puget Sound. It was July 30, 1868, when 50 residents of the rough-hewn logging town gathered to form a library association, good intentions that produced only minimal success over the next two decades. A new Ladies Library Association in 1888 provided the strongest foundation yet for The Seattle Public Library. In 1890, the city established the Library as an official city department, designated to receive 10 percent of the amount raised by city licenses and fines.

The new public library opened in 1891 on the fifth floor of the Occidental Building in Pioneer Square. A lumber company vice president borrowed its first book, a brand new copy of Mark Twain's "Innocents Abroad."

The fledgling Library endured an itinerant existence during its first decade. Tight budgets forced moves to two more upstairs locations downtown and several crises nearly led to the closure of the Library. But librarian Charles Wesley Smith still managed innovations, including the first book stacks on the West Coast open for patrons to browse.

Good fortune finally seemed to smile on The Seattle Public Library in 1899 when it rented the Yesler Mansion, the city's most elegant structure. The Library was transformed from imperiled transient to civic showplace and annual circulation soared by 26 percent to 137,941 volumes.

Then disaster struck. The wooden Yesler Mansion was consumed by fire in the early morning hours of Jan. 2, 1901, a New Year's horror that destroyed most of the Library's collection and sent shockwaves through the city.

Four days later came another shock. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer trumpeted its great scoop: Andrew Carnegie had agreed to donate $200,000 to build a new "fireproof" library in Seattle after city officials promised to buy a new library site and guaranteed an annual maintenance amount of $50,000 - such a lofty figure that the nation's pre-eminent library philanthropist thought it was a mistake in the secret telegram from the distant Northwest. He was assured that $50,000 was "none too large" for Seattle's needs. Carnegie responded with one of his largest library donations and his notation, "I like your pluck."

Choosing a site for the new library produced two years of debate and rancor between the City Council and the Library Board. Newly expanded from five to seven members by city charter and newly empowered by a state Supreme Court ruling that firmly established its governance of library affairs, the board finally decided to act alone. The city spent $100,000 in 1902 to buy the city block bounded by Fourth and Fifth avenues and Madison and Spring streets.

An architectural competition to design the new Carnegie library in Seattle drew entries from 30 firms, with Peter J. Weber of Chicago selected as winner. The German-born architect produced a classic Beaux-Arts design for the 55,000-square-foot structure, which featured massive pillars and spacious interiors.

Construction of the new library consumed more than two tantalizing years before it was formally dedicated on Dec. 19, 1906, during a gala evening that drew an excited throng of 1,000 people.

The new library was swamped with patrons. In its first year of operation, the number of registered borrowers skyrocketed 94 percent to 19,229 and the number of books taken out increased 50 percent to 454,735.

These were heady days of growth for The Seattle Public Library, both downtown and in surrounding neighborhoods. Seattle's annexation of Ballard in 1907 yielded the Library's first full-scale branch, a two-story brick structure donated by Carnegie.

A Carnegie gift of $105,000 produced three more buildings, which opened during two triumphant weeks in summer 1910. The first was the West Seattle Branch, which was followed by the Green Lake and University branches. Another $70,000 donation from Carnegie resulted in two more branches, the Queen Anne Branch in 1914 and the Columbia Branch in 1915.

The first branch financed by city funds also opened in 1914, the Henry L. Yesler Memorial Library, named to honor the city's pioneering sawmill owner and longtime library supporter. The Yesler Branch, which served a hardscrabble area that was home to many newcomers to the city, soon became the busiest branch in the Library system.

Times of growth gave way to times of challenge. The final months of World War I erupted in a worldwide influenza epidemic that caused more than 1,000 deaths in Seattle and resulted in a city quarantine that shuttered public gathering places, including the Library, for five weeks.

The 1920s produced more up-and-down years for the Library; one of the highlights was the 1921 opening of the new Fremont Branch, courtesy of a $35,000 donation by Carnegie. But Fremont also represented the end of an era - the last new library branch in Seattle financed by the philanthropist and the last new library branch built in the city for three decades. That gap was one of the great disappointments in the Library's long history.

The Depression pummeled The Seattle Public Library. Jobless men seeking refuge crowded into the Central Library. Those looking for work or diversion snapped up library books at unprecedented levels, sending circulation past 4 million for the first time in 1932. Yet, at the same time, Library budgets shrunk precipitously, forcing layoffs of employees and termination of programs. The Library was caught in a painful double bind seen during tough economic times - soaring demands and evaporating resources.

A forward-thinking 10-year plan for The Seattle Public Library published in 1930 included the urgent need for a $1.2 million bond issue to expand the cramped Central Library. Yet by decade's end, only two of the seven goals in the 10-year plan had been put into effect, and the Library's 1939 budget still was $40,000 less than its 1931 budget. The Depression instilled "so many hard lessons," wrote librarian Judson T. Jennings, that it left The Seattle Public Library "without illusions."

Aiding the Allied cause in World War II infused The Seattle Public Library with a new sense of purpose and patriotism. The Library rallied to provide the latest war information to stressed citizens on the home front and booming war industries, including The Boeing Airplane Co. But the internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast cost the Library some of its most loyal patrons.

The new Friends of The Seattle Public Library, organized in 1941 to help celebrate the Library's 50th anniversary, worked to expand public awareness and financial support for the Library's needs. Those efforts escalated after the war ended, with much attention devoted again to the inadequacies of the aging Central Library.

Progress came in slow and fitful steps over the next decade, with construction of a $400,000 book stack addition to the Central Library in 1949, construction of three modern new branch libraries in 1954 and passage of the Library's first-ever bond issue in 1956 after failures in 1950 and 1952.

The style of the new branches demonstrated just how long it had been since The Seattle Public Library had been in the construction business: Greenwood, Susan J. Henry on Capitol Hill and especially the North East Branch, designed by noted Seattle architect Paul Thiry, were modern structures decidedly different from the Library's Carnegie branches.

So, too, would be the new Central Library, designed by the Seattle firm of Bindon & Wright, a $4.5 million expression of the International Style. It would rise on the same downtown site as its Carnegie predecessor, which had become an object of scorn when it finally fell to the wrecking ball after the library had relocated most of its collection to a building at Seventh Avenue and Olive Way.

The 206,000-square-foot Central Library was dedicated on March 26, 1960, and drew 5,000 eager patrons. The crowd gawked at the library's thoroughly modern features over five spacious floors, including the first escalator in an American library, a drive-up window for book pick-ups and the first extensive use of new artworks to grace a new public building in Seattle. There were distinctive art pieces by James FitzGerald, Glen Alps and Ray Jensen, but the first fountain by sculptor George Tsutakawa proved to be a particular favorite.

Throngs kept coming even after the library opened for regular business. Patrons checked out 5,000 books on the library's first Monday and the atmosphere in the opening weeks was likened to a department store during the holiday shopping season. The new Central Library loaned out almost 1 million volumes in its first nine months, a 31 percent increase over the previous year's circulation.

The Seattle Public Library, so long struggling with disinterest in a shabby headquarters, found itself confronting a different problem in its new home. So many people were using the new library, especially young people, that the collection was often left in a shambles, with entire subject areas depleted. The new library was in danger of being loved to tatters.

Completion of the Central Library reaped benefits well beyond downtown. There was $500,000 remaining from the 1956 bond issue and that allowed The Seattle Public Library to build three new branches and buy land for a fourth.

The Southwest Branch opened in 1961, followed by a new Ballard Branch in 1963. In 1964, the Magnolia Branch opened and became perhaps the most distinctive branch in the library system. Designed by noted Seattle architect Paul Hayden Kirk, the quintessential Northwest design, with distinct Japanese influences, won a top national honor award for architecture. The fourth new branch was many years and many frustrations in coming. The Broadview Branch was finally dedicated on Jan. 25, 1976, a testament to the unstinting efforts of neighborhood activists who called themselves the "world's greatest naggers."

Another triumph by neighborhood activists led to the 1975 renaming of the Yesler Branch to the Douglass-Truth Branch to honor two of the country's most prominent Black leaders from the 19th century - Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. The Yesler Branch had been rescued from likely closure in the 1960s by its own neighborhood, the increasing prominence of the branch's African-American collection, and the tireless efforts of a branch librarian named James Welsh.

Difficult days descended again on The Seattle Public Library in the 1970s and 1980s, with tight budgets, constricted services and several bitter controversies. Among the rare bright spots were:

Renovation of the Central Library in 1979, courtesy of a $2.3 million federal grant, which refurbished and expanded public areas;

Construction of the new Rainier Beach Branch in 1981, the result of another federal grant, this one for $1.2 million.

The establishment of The Seattle Public Library Foundation in 1980 to increase outside financial support of the institution, capstone to the public-spirited career of Virginia Burnside, then president of the Library Board.

The Seattle Public Library celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1991, only two years after completion of a remarkable $4.6 million restoration project to assure the long-term luster of the Library's six Carnegie branches; the project received a prestigious honor from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The focus soon turned to the Library's physical needs in the upcoming new century and these ambitions were formalized at the best possible time. Circulation had soared past 5 million items by the mid-1990s, the Library's annual donations topped $1 million, and the dot-com frenzy was fueling an economy that seemed to promise a limitless future.

Seattle voters in 1998 approved the largest library bond issue then ever submitted in the United States. The landmark "Libraries for All" bond measure, which proposed a $196.4 million makeover of the Library system, garnered an unprecedented 69 percent approval rate at the polls. The massive measure doubled the square footage in the Library system and resulted in four new libraries in communities without library service, the replacement, expansion or renovation of 22 existing branches and a spectacular new Central Library.

Twenty-nine major national, international and local firms sought the opportunity to design the new Central Library. The Library Board's architectural choice for the project was as bold as "Libraries for All" itself. The surprise winner was Rem Koolhaas and his Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam, in partnership with the Seattle firm of LMN Architects. The iconoclastic Dutch architect had no major buildings built in America when the Library Board selected him over two other finalists, but the board's choice seemed insightful a year later when Koolhaas was awarded architecture's highest international honor, the Pritzker Prize.

This 11-floor, 362,987-square-foot library, a dazzling avant-garde symphony of glass and form, has many innovative features, including:

  • A "Books Spiral" that displays the entire nonfiction collection in a continuous run;
  • A towering "living room" along Fifth Avenue that reaches 50 feet in height;
  • A distinctive diamond-shaped exterior skin of glass and steel.

The new Central Library's unorthodox shape, unlike any other building in Seattle, is the result of its use of five platform areas to reflect different aspects of the library's program; its form indeed follows its function. It includes a 275-seat auditorium and parking for 143 vehicles. The Library for more than two years provided services in a temporary 130,000-square-foot library in the Washington State Convention and Trade Center at 800 Pike St., while the new Central Library was being built.

The new Central Library opened May 23, 2004, and immediately prompted international interest.

"Libraries for All" was completed in 2008. The final price tag for the project, including donations and other gifts, totaled $290.7 million.

The public was invited to a daylong celebration on Sept. 13, 2008. The Library distributed free commemorative Library Passports and invited people to tour all 26 new and remodeled branches and the Central Library for prizes. The passports featured beautiful color photographs and highlights of each building project. By the Jan. 2, 2009, deadline for the prize drawing, 356 people had visited every Library location and completed a "Library Passport."

The Seattle Public Library was remade on a scale unmatched by any other public library system in the country in order to meet the changed demands of the 21st century. "Libraries for All" cemented The Seattle Public Library's reputation as a national treasure, shared and appreciated by all. 

The Library Board adopted a new strategic plan in February 2011. The Strategic Plan will guide the Library's efforts and is intended to set an ambitious course for the future of the Library and the enrichment of Seattle's residents.

On Aug. 7, 2012, Seattle voters approved a $122 million Library levy to supplement city funding and preserve the investment in the 1998 "Libraries for All" bond measure. The levy will provide $17 million annually to stabilize funding and address the four areas identified by the community: keep libraries open, more books and materials, improve computer and online services, and maintain buildings.

In August 2019, Seattle voters overwhelmingly approved a seven-year, $219.1 million renewal of the 2012 levy to support basic operations, as well as fund an increase in operating hours, e-materials and early learning programs. It also funded the elimination of daily overdue fines, which began in January, 2020, reinstating an estimated 52,000 accounts.

In March 2020, the Library temporarily closed all physical locations due to the COVID-19 pandemic and transitioned many in-person services online to serve the changing needs of patrons during this unprecedented time.

In recent years, the Library has deepened its focus on equity and social justice, through programs such as lending Wi-Fi hotspots to help address the digital divide and hiring a community resource specialist to connect marginalized populations with essential social services. In 2020, the Library was named the 2020 Library of the Year by Gale/Library Journal for these and other efforts to center equity in its work and prioritize underserved members of its community.