Mercer Island opens its first public library on January 11, 1945.

  • By Fred Poyner IV
  • Posted 5/24/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11234

On January 11, 1945, the first public library on Mercer Island opens in East Seattle at the northwest corner of the island, which has been the center of the island's community for half a century. The library is housed in a single room donated by the Emmanuel Episcopal Church. Books are provided by the King County Library System (KCLS), which was established three years earlier to serve residents in rural areas of the county. An all-volunteer staff operates the first library, which will be replaced by a new building a decade later.

Developing Slowly

From the time of Mercer Island's earliest settlers in the 1880s, East Seattle, a community in the upper northwest corner of the island on the east side of Lake Washington, served as the de facto center for business and community services on the island, which was an unincorporated part of King County until 1960. East Seattle was one of the three original areas of land platted on the island in 1890. Development progressed at a slow pace. In 1890 only two roads were available for travel on the island and and there were no bridges linking the island to the mainland on either side of the lake. Goods and services were obtained by rowboat, barge transport, or a ferry that crossed Lake Washington to Seattle on the western shore.

The desire to see as little change to island life as possible was a common sentiment shared by many residents, and a factor seen at work in all facets of community development over the island's history, from the choice of political governance to the establishment of public infrastructure (water supply, mass transit) and usage of public amenities (parks). Another contributing factor with long-term effects on the community was a wariness of strangers, as noted in a 2010 community study: "[T]he small community of Mercer Island has a population of 24,371. The Island was first settled in the 19th century and since the second settler arrived, there has been tension between long-term residents and new arrivals" ("Mercer Island Library 2010 Community Study," 1).

By 1918 East Seattle boasted a grocery store, a post office, a dance studio, and even a candy company. However, in addition to drivable roads, the community also lacked a library. If books were desired, the Seattle Public Library was the closest option. An account from one family of early settlers described the trip to borrow books via a two-mile trek each way on foot, a ferry ride, and then a cable car once in the city.

Books from KCLS, Space in a Church

With the opening of the Lake Washington floating bridge on July 2, 1940, Mercer Island became a new gateway for Seattle on the east side, and both visitor traffic and settlement on the island expanded. Between 1940 and 1960, island population would increase from 1,200 to 12,000 total residents. This expanded highway access to the island and resulting increased development was one of several factors in the early 1940s that led to establishment of a public library on the island.

Two years after county voters created the King County Library System (as the King County Rural Library District) in 1942, islander Harry Slater (1897-1985) became the local representative for county library-system meetings. Beatrice Lavender (1897-1982) volunteered to serve as the island's first librarian. What was still needed was a suitable space, and this was achieved in 1944 with the help of the Emmanuel Episcopal Church. The church had been established on the island in 1909, and the building constructed in 1914 at West Mercer Way and what is today Southeast 27th Street. The Guild Hall inside the building -- only a 12-by-12-foot room -- was donated as space for the new library. The KCLS headquarters in Seattle provided the necessary books to fill the new East Seattle library that now served Mercer Island's residents. The library officially opened its doors on January 11, 1945.

Besides incurring no cost for its book inventory the library had other advantages, including free rent, a location adjacent to what was then the only school on the island, and local support from a variety of groups, including the Parent Teacher Association (PTA), Boy Scouts, South Mercer Island Community Club, and the Preschool Association.

The Guild Hall library location lasted only a decade, as the island's population continued to grow and ever-increasing demand for books required a larger and more purpose-built facility. Several options were debated as to where the new library should go: a continued presence in East Seattle, into a shopping center, or at the center of the island. After negotiations with the school board proved fruitful in securing land for a new building site near the island's geographic center, the library board was successful in a public fundraising campaign to construct a new 1,200 square foot library facility designed by architect Jesse Wilkins (1892-1969). The Guild Hall library was closed, and the new library opened on October 18, 1955.

After the City of Mercer Island incorporated in 1960, the city owned and maintained the library property and contracted with the King County Library System to provide library services. The 1955 library building was expanded twice before being replaced in 1991 by a brand-new building. In 1993, voters approved annexation of the city-owned library to the King County Library System.


Sources:

"Mercer Island Library 2010 Community Study," King County Library System website accessed May 24, 2016 (https://w3.kcls.org/community_studies/Mercer%20Island%20Community%20Study%202010.pdf); Jane Meyer Brahm, Mercer Island: From Haunted Wilderness to Coveted Community (Mercer Island: Mercer Island Historical Society, 2013); Judy Gellatly, Mercer Island Heritage (Mercer Island: Mercer Island Historical Society, 1989); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Mercer Island Library, King County Library System" (by Fred Poyner IV), http//www.historylink.org (accessed May 24, 2016).


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