The area of eastern Bellevue served by the Lake Hills Library has seen it all, from forest to farmland to first Northwest planned residential development to the diverse tech-savvy community of modern Bellevue. The library's service area occupies the city's eastern flank, bordered by Lake Sammamish to the east, the I-90 corridor to the south, 130th Street to the west, and Highway 520 to the north. As of the 2010 census, approximately 60,000 of Bellevue's 122,000 residents lived in the Lake Hills Library's service area. This is a diverse and well-educated population, with minorities comprising 40.8 percent of Bellevue's population in 2010 and fully 60 percent of the total population holding a bachelor's degree or higher. From its founding as the Cascade Library in 1960 as the project of a club society through its expansions in 1968, 1991, and 2010, the Lake Hills Library has grown with the community into a modern window on world culture in the digital age, while retaining its traditional feel as a place for study and learning.
Another Kind of Crop
The first settlers to clear the forested hills just west of Lake Sammamish were mostly Japanese Americans. Many were Nisei (second generation) whose parents, the Issei (first-generation immigrants), were prohibited from owning land by the 1921 Washington Alien Land Act. They performed the back-breaking labor of clearing old-growth forests and turning the land into arable farmland, which they planted with berries. Bellevue's first Strawberry Festival was held in 1925, and by the 1930s Bellevue was synonymous with berry farming. The festival attracted thousands of visitors annually and was a source of civic pride, but the face of the festival -- the Strawberry Queen and the posters of white Americans -- belied the predominantly Japanese labor that helped make it possible.
Then came Pearl Harbor, the outbreak of open hostilities between the United States and Japan, and the order for internment of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast. In 1942 Bellevue's 300 Japanese residents were forcibly relocated, and the Strawberry Festival came to an abrupt end. Nor were the dislocated families welcomed back at war's end; of the original 60 Japanese American families, the 16 that dared return were met with hostility, the racism of the "Japanese Exclusion League," and repeated acts of vandalism and terror. This marked the end of the farming era, and eastern Bellevue was ripe for another kind of crop -- the new suburban housing development.
Western Bellevue was already established as a thriving town in prewar years. It had its own library, founded in 1925 by the Women's Club with a gift of 300 used books "in a long, narrow, dark room at Parrish's Café on Main Street at 100th Avenue" (McDonald, 72). After changing locations several times, on February 5, 1944, the Bellevue Library became the fifth library in the newly organized King County Library System (KCLS). But the Lake Hills area was far removed from western Bellevue and was not yet considered part of the city -- which itself did not incorporate until 1953.
"A Fine Residential Area"
In 1954, developer R. H. "Dick" Connor acquired 1,200 acres of wetlands, former berry farms, and second-growth timber in the Lake Hills area, with a grand scheme to build the Northwest's first planned residential community on the model of Levittown, New York. Connor worked closely with builders George Bell (1917-2006) and Ted Valdez (Connor's son-in-law), as well as architect and structural engineer John Andersen, a Northwest pioneer of pre-fabricated flooring and framing. Over three decades, the Bell-Valdez firm built 15,000 mostly single-family ramblers and split levels for middle-income families on the Eastside. Readily available loans under the GI Bill and a booming economy fueled by Boeing created plenty of demand for the 4,000 homes built in Lake Hills, starting at $13,000 each. With early advertisements touting "a fine residential area in a relaxing country atmosphere" (McDonald, 123) and "getting away from it all just 20 minutes from downtown Seattle" ("Lake Hills Community Study," 1), eager buyers snapped up the homes as fast as Connor and his team could build them, despite cynical wags who referred to the planned development as "Fake Hills" (Stein, 46).
The Lake Hills Community Club was the de facto government of this unincorporated development, and the Lake Hills Swim Club was its social center. But in the rainy Pacific Northwest, people craved books. In 1958 a group of Lake Hills residents came together to form the Cascade Library Association, for the purpose of exploring the establishment of a library to serve the Lake Hills community. The Cascade Library Association met with a committee from the community club, and together they formed a plan to expand the clubhouse to make room for a library at the club. Referring to their efforts, a 2007 community study stated:
"The Community Club began a membership campaign for the expansion and the Library Association began a fundraising campaign to provide maintenance funds. Bell and Valdez offered to build the addition at cost while King County Library System (KCLS) offered to provide books and staff" ("Lake Hills Community Study," 2).
More than $1,000 was raised from about 200 contributors in a one-night door-to-door fundraising drive. Additional funds were then raised via rummage sales, fashion shows, and benefits in private homes.
Ready for Its Own Library
The Cascade Library Association's campaign reached fruition on November 8, 1960, with the opening of the 1,100-square-foot Cascade Library. This precursor to the Lake Hills Library was located inside a specially built addition to the rear of the Lake Hills Community Club. In its first 50 hours of operation, the Cascade Library checked out 2,588 books. Circulation for its first full year of operation in 1961 totaled 60,000 books. Clearly, the East Bellevue community was ready for its own library.
The library remained in the back room of the community clubhouse for most of the 1960s, but it was not long before the need for a separate facility became apparent. In 1964 Congress amended the Federal Library Service and Construction Act of 1957 to make federal matching funds available for so-called rural library projects. In 1966 King County voters passed a $6 million bond measure to build or improve 20 KCLS libraries. These two funding sources, combined with local funds raised by the Cascade Library Association, enabled the community to construct a 7,600-square-foot library next door to the community club. This new building opened as the Lake Hills Library on December 2, 1968. The name change was made to avoid confusion with the Vista Library in the Cascade-Fairwood area of what is now Renton, now known as the Fairwood Library.
The next year, 1969, the Lake Hills area was annexed into the City of Bellevue. While this annexation may have been advantageous for certain city services, it did not seem to help the Lake Hills Library when it began to outgrow its 1968 facility. The Bellevue Library Advisory Board recommended expansion of the Lake Hills Library in 1980, but the Bellevue City Council rejected the idea due to lack of funds. This prompted library supporters to look elsewhere for support of of both Lake Hills and the downtown Bellevue Library. They launched a ballot initiative to annex the two Bellevue libraries to KCLS, which Bellevue voters approved on May 21, 1985. As soon as the Lake Hills Library annexed to the King County Library System, funds became available for a renovation and expansion. The project was completed in 1991, adding 1,400 square feet to the existing structure, bringing it to 9,000 square feet.
An Increasingly Diverse Metropolis
Changes in the area continued with the influence of neighboring Microsoft and an influx of people from all over the world eager to fill tech-industry jobs. Throughout the last decade of the twentieth century and first decade of the new millennium, as immigrants poured in, an already diverse city became increasingly so. Census figures for Bellevue in the year 2000 showed a 28.2 percent minority population, jumping to 40.8 percent in the year 2010. Overall, by 2009 more than 40 percent of the population on the Crossroads area of Bellevue, just north of the Lake Hills Library, and more than 33 percent of West Lake Hills, was foreign-born.
The population influx brought increased library use at Lake Hills, so when, in 2001, the redeveloper of Crossroads Mall approached KCLS about opening a storefront library at the mall, the offer was eagerly accepted. This led to the opening of what was called "Library Connection @ Crossroads," conceived as a user-friendly and high-tech browsing connection to the library for people who don't necessarily seek out a traditional library. Because it was located only 1.3 miles away, Crossroads was initially administered under the Lake Hills Library.
While all this change was going on, the Lake Hills Library continued as the primary library for East Bellevue, in the facility that was built in 1968 and renovated in 1991. The library also reached outside its building by taking programs and services into the neighboring community. The 2007 community study reported that the Lake Hills children's librarian regularly visited the six Head Start classes at the public schools in the area, in addition to participating on "Getting School Ready" teams at Lake Hills and Sherwood Forest elementary schools to help foster early literacy. "These teams build strong connections between the library and other community agencies, the schools, parents and childcare providers" ("Lake Hills Community Study," 6).
A Modern Window on World Culture
Even though the Crossroads Library helped ease demand, by early in the twenty-first century a larger Lake Hills Library was essential. A 2004 capital-bond measure set aside funds for a new 10,000-square-foot facility in the former Lake Hills Shopping Center, now re-branded as Lake Hills Village. The intervening recession of 2008-2010 slowed this development, but a beautiful new Lake Hills Library facility was opened on September 11, 2010, on the corner of 156th Avenue SE and Lake Hills Boulevard. This was a rare situation in which a library served as an anchor tenant for a shopping center. Lake Hills Village was different from a traditional mall in that there were no giant commercial anchors and the developers aimed to mix office and residential uses with small commercial uses. That made it well-suited for a library as anchor tenant.
The opening was well-received, with approximately 1,000 community members in attendance. The new $3.2 million, 10,000-square-foot building featured a beautiful light wood cantilevered ceiling and exposed wooden beams, with ample windows to admit natural daylight.
In 2015 the Lake Hills Library checked out nearly 355,000 items and received more than 146,000 patron visits. This was down somewhat from the previous year, similar to trends throughout the King County Library System, which coincided with increased use of digital downloads. Lake Hills registered 1,364 new library patrons and clocked 992 hours of volunteer time. In addition, the Lake Hills Library clocked 1,762,245 minutes of patron computer usage in 50,874 separate sessions -- the equivalent of roughly 3.35 years of computer time in a single year. As of 2016 the library was open seven days a week, from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday and somewhat shorter hours Friday through Sunday.
The 2007 Lake Hills Library Community Study observes:
Libraries everywhere are experiencing the friction between an older clientele who expect a quiet library and a younger population for whom social networking -- online and in person -- is a priority. Throw young families from different cultures into the mix and you have an interesting library stew. This is cast into high relief because of the homogenous nature of the original residents of the Lake Hills housing development, many who remain in the area ("Lake Hills Community Study," 1).
From the sheltered confines of a clubhouse to the bright, sustainable, and high-tech 10,000-square-foot library anchoring the mixed-use Lake Hills Village, the Lake Hills Library has grown with the diverse East Bellevue community into a modern window on world culture in the digital age, while still retaining its traditional feel as a place for study and learning.