The Issaquah Library traces its beginnings to February 1908, when a reading room opened in the back of Enos Guss's barbershop on Front Street. The reading room eventually faded away, and Issaquah's first "real" library, offering slightly more than 1,500 books, opened in the town hall in February 1946. Bigger and better libraries followed in 1963 and 1983, and in 1990 Issaquah voters approved annexing the library to the King County Library System (KCLS). In 2001, KCLS opened the current Issaquah Library in a pleasant, roomy new building at 10 W Sunset in Issaquah.
In the 1860s non-Indian homesteaders settled in the valley that later became Issaquah. Hop farms first dotted the fertile lands near the south end of Lake Sammamish in East King County (hops, used to flavor beer, were a major cash crop in King County in the first few decades of settlement), and loggers and coal miners followed in the 1880s and 1890s. The town of Gilman was incorporated there in 1892, but the name only lasted for a few years. In 1899 the town was officially renamed "Issaquah," the English pronunciation of a local Native American place name variously reported to mean "snake" or "little stream" or to represent the sound of the northern crane, depending on the source consulted.
By 1908 Issaquah's population was hovering between 600 and 700 -- hardly a metropolis, but big enough that talk began circulating in the town about starting a library. Actually, "library" was a stretch. What was practical was a reading room, a place where locals could peruse a few books and magazines. To help make it happen, the Public Library and Reading Room Association was formed, and it held a benefit to raise funds at Issaquah's Oddfellows Hall on January 31, 1908. At the same time, local barber Enos Guss donated a room in the back of his shop, which was located at 131 Front Street N (in 2016, the site of the Bukhara Bar and Grill).
The event was a success, and the reading room opened the following afternoon, Saturday, February 1. It was not difficult to stock: It had all of 40 books, gathered from the state circulating library and from books already in Issaquah. Some of the titles included Poverty, a 1904 study by Robert Hunter that discussed poverty in the United States; A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, a popular book by Isabella Bird that described her travels through the wilds of the Rocky Mountains in 1873; and When the Birds Go North Again, a collection of poetry by nationally known Bellingham writer Ella Higginson. "A number of current magazines have been contributed by the regular readers of the town," reported the Issaquah Independent the following week ("Issaquah Public Library ...") but, alas, the paper did not elaborate on what those magazines were. The room was open weekdays during business hours for those wanting to read a paper or magazine; for those wanting a book, a librarian was scheduled to be there from 2 to 5 p.m. and from 7 p.m. until (probably) 9 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays.
And there the little reading room sat for the next 10 years, until the collection was packed up and moved to the old Gilman (Issaquah) Town Hall at 165 SE Andrews Street. It was placed in a damp room where the books received little (if any) care, and they began to mold. When a new town hall was built in 1930 at 130 E Sunset Way, the books were moved to a room there, but no one considered it to be a library or paid any attention to the books, which continued to deteriorate. The Great Depression, which had begun in 1929, lasted much of the decade, and World War II followed, but soon after the war ended in 1945 there was a concerted effort in the town to open its first "real" library.
The 1946 Library
That effort was aided by the King County Rural Library District (later known as the King County Library System), which had been established less than three years earlier to provide library services to rural residents, many of whom lacked such service. Local communities could contract with the district and obtain access to books and other services. This included a bookmobile, which was in essence a miniature traveling library in a small van or truck, and though it may sound quaint in the twenty-first century, in the 1940s and 1950s a bookmobile appearing in a small rural town was a big deal. It all represented a quantum leap in availability over the meager collections in most local libraries, if there were even a library in the community at all.
At a December 1945 fundraiser and planning session hosted by the local Kiwanis Club, representatives of the state and county libraries explained how the new library system worked. Attendees were enthusiastic, but the town, which needed to contract with the district for the library services, had already allocated its budget for the coming year. Luckily, with the war now over the local Civilian Defense Committee had funds to donate and a contract was soon signed. The town donated the town-council chamber for the library, and the library opened to the public on February 16, 1946.
Though the library was only open 17 hours a week initially (soon boosted to 22 hours), it did well. In its first year of operation the library's book collection expanded by more than 50 percent (from precisely 1,549 books in February 1946 to 2,410 in February 1947), and residents checked out more than 17,000 books during the year. It also stocked 11 magazines (the Issaquah Press reported that Consumer's Research was a favorite) and an up-to-date encyclopedia. By the end of 1946 the library boasted 759 members, more than 60 percent of them children.
The 1963 Library
And thus the little library grew through the 1950s and into the 1960s, as Seattle's suburban sprawl edged closer to Issaquah and the town itself began to grow more rapidly. By the late 1950s it was obvious that Issaquah (which became a city in 1959) needed a new library, but not much happened until 1961, when city officials needed more office space in City Hall and began talking about taking 140 square feet of space from the library. The library was only about 500 square feet, and its collection of about 3,500 books was growing, not shrinking. The library needed a larger space or, even better, its own building.
There were various offers and lots of talk, but the library eventually settled on a practical solution. The Issaquah School District had an old cafeteria building that needed to be moved to make way for a new school. The Library Board offered to move the building at its own expense if the school district would donate it to the library, and the district agreed. In the summer of 1962 the building was moved to Memorial Field just behind City Hall. That November, Issaquah voters approved a $20,000 bond issue to pay for remodeling the building, and work got underway in the spring of 1963.
The new library opened on August 12, 1963 (curiously, it wasn't formally dedicated until July 1964, nearly a year later), with some 10,000 books -- almost triple the amount that had been in the old library just a few months earlier. Circulation in its early years was reported to be a robust 46,000 books. Still only open three days a week at first, by 1970 the library was open four days a week and by this time was offering record albums on loan. (Later in the 1970s the library began offering cassette tapes.) Local residents could even arrange to check out 16mm movies, though they had to travel to the Bellevue Library to get them. But it was only another decade before Issaquah's library became too small and dated to meet the community's needs.
The 1983 Library
The problem was that the city's population had mushroomed in the 1960s and 1970s from 1,870 in 1960 to 5,536 in 1980, and this didn't count people in outlying areas that the library also served. In addition to loaning books and other media, the library provided various programs for children and adults, but by 1980 the 2,000-square-foot building was no longer large enough to adequately serve the community. It had no meeting room, and the entire library had to close whenever there was a program, such as children's story time. More troubling, the library itself had become so cramped that each week librarians had to select a dozen books to return to the county to make room for new ones. Librarians found themselves faced with a Hobson's choice of whether to return contemporary books or classics. Current newspapers were kept for only two months (the 1963 library did not have a microfilm reader), and current magazines were bunched together in boxes in a storage room.
Once again the library needed more space, and in November 1980 Issaquah voters overwhelmingly approved a $320,000 bond issue (matched by the county) for a new and improved library. By 1982 a site had been chosen: the northwest corner of Memorial Park, at 75 NE Creek Way and within a stone's throw of the old library. Construction was underway by the end of 1982, and in the summer of 1983 the new building was ready. The old library closed on July 16 and a few weeks later the former cafeteria building was moved again, to a site on Newport Way where it was reborn as a Church of Christ. The new library opened on July 25, 1983, followed by a gala dedication on August 6.
The library offered 35,000 books, roughly twice as many as the old library, as well as a new VHS video player and a microfilm reader and printer. A slide projector and an overhead projector were available for use, as was a typewriter. (Though on the market in 1983, personal computers were not yet in widespread use and were not provided at the library initially. However, by 1996 the Issaquah Library had 11 of them.) And it sported a 50-seat meeting room that could be used not only for library programs but also for meetings of local nonprofit groups.
In 1990 Issaquah voters approved annexation of the Issaquah Library into KCLS, fully merging it into the library system.
The 2001 Library
Again history repeated itself. Issaquah outgrew the 1983 library just as quickly as it had outgrown the 1963 library. Part of the problem was the continuing population boom in the city: Its population doubled in the 20 years between 1980 and 2000, from 5,536 to 11,212, and more people needed the library's services. But there was something more, which had not been an issue in the early 1980s when the library was being planned. The technological boom of the 1980s and 1990s created a demand for computers and, later, Internet access. Library manager Chapple Langemack explained to the Issaquah Press in a 1996 interview: "People don't just expect books anymore. We're circulating stuff that wasn't invented 10 years ago" ("New Library for Issaquah?").
Once again Issaquah voters stepped up, approving an $8.1 million bond (funded by a property tax increase) that November for construction of a new facility. By mid-1997 a site had been selected on the northwest corner of Front Street N and W Sunset Way. Considerable debate and discussion followed about the new library's design, and ground was finally broken for construction in October 1999. The hoped-for completion date in 2000 slipped into 2001, but by late spring all was ready. The old library was closed in May (and subsequently converted into the Issaquah Valley Senior Center) and its contents shipped to the new library, which opened on June 4, 2001. A dedication ceremony and celebration followed on June 23.
At 15,000 square feet, the new library was nearly double the size of the 1983 library, and it was open seven days and 63 hours a week, with the exception of select holidays. It offered approximately 100,000 items -- not just books, but other media such as CD-ROMs, DVDs, and books on tape -- and in its first year the library circulated nearly half a million items. It tripled the size of its magazine collection, added a Spanish-language section that included children's books, and added several national newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, The Oregonian, and The Washington Post. The library provided 28 computers for in-library use, and within two years it also provided two self-checkout computers that were a big hit with its patrons. It was a solid step into the twenty-first century, and this library continues to serve the Issaquah community today.