West Seattle Branch, The Seattle Public Library

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 10/05/2002
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3963
The West Seattle Branch was the first of the Carnegie branches opened by The Seattle Public Library. Since 1910, it has continuously served the community as a resource for knowledge and citizenship, with breaks only for mandatory closure during the influenza pandemic in 1918, and for remodeling during the 1980s and again in 2003. The West Seattle Branch was the seventh to be renovated as part of Libraries For All, a $196.4 million bond issue passed by Seattle voters in 1998. The renovated library reopened amid great celebration in April 2004.

A New Library for a New Neighborhood

When Seattle annexed West Seattle in 1907, boosters wanted to take every advantage of services from the new city. Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) was offering grants to cities to build free libraries and Seattle had already (in 1906) built a large library downtown. The City of Ballard built a Carnegie library too. Carnegie stipulated that the community would have to provide the land and the operating budget. In 1908, West Seattle developer and former West Seattle City Councilman Uriah R. Niesz and other residents donated several lots in the Admiral district on the plateau at the corner of College Street W (later SW College Street) and 42nd Avenue SW. This would guarantee a branch west of the Duwamish River. Carnegie gave Seattle $35,000 to build a branch library there.

Seattle architects W. Marbury Somervell (1872-1939) and Joseph Coté designed a building with three main reading rooms, a central lobby, meeting rooms, and offices. The structure was completed in March 1910 at a total cost of $38,344, but opening was delayed until the summer.

On Saturday, July 23, 1910, hundreds of people attended the opening ceremonies, which featured remarks by Mayor Hiram Gill (1866-1919), City Councilman Uriah Niesz, and library board chairman George Alfred Caldwell "G.A.C." Rochester, as well as a performance by a baritone soloist. The West Seattle Men's and Women's Improvement Clubs decorated the building for the event.

A Lovely, Country-Like Place

The following Monday, the collection of 5,546 books was available to patrons who signed up for library cards. The facility was immediately popular among West Seattle High School students, but librarians had to do a bit of marketing to bring in other visitors. At that time, West Seattle residents were clustered around the ferry landing to the north, Gatewood to the south, and Alaska Junction. Long-time West Seattle resident and early visitor to the branch Margaret Mary Davies recalled, "It was a lovely, country-like place to visit ... very peaceful" (Herald).

The West Seattle staff posted flyers at the ferry landing and around the area inviting readers to visit. Lists of new books were posted at the post office and published in the local newspaper, but circulation growth was slow. The library served to pull the separate communities together as civic and youth groups met in the librarian's office or in the staff lunchroom. West Seattle was the only one of Seattle's Carnegie branches to lack an auditorium.

By 1915, the collection had grown to 8,212. Borrowers could check out books and if an item was not available, librarians would phone the Central Library and obtain a book on reserve. In the summer of 1917, the staff tried a sub-station at the Gatewood Pharmacy, but ended the experiment a year later because there was no one to staff the site. During World War I (1917-1918) the branch was used for war service work such as book drives for servicemen. Boys sorted sphagnum moss for use in bandages. Many workers at shipyards on Harbor Island lived in West Seattle and the library noted an increase in demand for titles such as Holm's Practical Shipbuilding.

At the end of 1918, the branch closed for several months along with schools, theaters, and other public gathering places, due to the influenza pandemic. (The pandemic reached Seattle in early October 1918, and within the next six months 1,600 Seattleites had died.) In April 1919, smallpox struck Seattle and the Board of Health seized and burned 70 West Seattle volumes from the quarantined homes of West Seattle borrowers where the disease had appeared.

More Students, More Books

In the 1920s, patronage at the library increased as people moved to the area. West Seattle High School enrollment tripled between 1917 and 1923 to 1,402 students. In addition to vacation reading clubs and children's story hours, the children's librarian visited every grade school classroom in the area to introduce the library to students. The principal of Jefferson School was able to bring unruly classes into line by threatening to cancel their field trips to the library.

In 1926, adult education courses in Biology, Literature, Psychology, and Poetry became available. The following year Drama, Physical Science, and Astronomy were added. In 1927, Irene Tully took over as the branch librarian, a post she would occupy for the next 30 years. The downtown library ran out of space for books and began using the branch basement for storage. For the next 54 years, the West Seattle Stacks became another responsibility for the branch librarians.

Like everywhere in the city, the years of The Great Depression (1929-1939) impacted the West Seattle branch. Staff salaries were cut, married women with working husbands were dismissed, and the branch closed its doors one day a week. The bookmobile had served distant parts of West Seattle and when it was parked to save money, more users began relying on the branch. Storytimes were cancelled, but staff managed to work in a few readings for children. When the budget improved in 1935, storytimes were one of the first services restored. Librarians had to visit borrowers' homes to retrieve overdue materials. Sometimes staff had to resort to letters from the Corporation Counsel and the Juvenile Court to get books back into circulation.

Library buildings receive heavy use and by the 1930s, the West Seattle branch began to show some wear. The staff had to pin a surplus army blanket over the front doors in the winter to keep the wind off the circulation desk. Beginning in 1938, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided workers to paint the library and refinish the old furniture. That program ended with the beginning of World War II.

The War Years

After the U.S. entered World War II, the branch became the neighborhood air raid warden headquarters. Civil Defense personnel held weekly training sessions in first aid and air raid response. The skylight was painted black to conform to blackout regulations. The branch saw some new borrowers in the form of soldiers who manned anti-aircraft batteries in the area. But the large number of young men called into the service and working in war plants meant that the young women assigned to the stacks in the basement had to struggle with larger volumes.

Tens of thousands of war workers and their families flooded Seattle, creating a severe housing crunch, and the U.S. Government build the 1,300-unit High Point project in West Seattle. In November 1942, High Point Station was opened in the project administration building in an old cloakroom. Librarians from West Seattle staffed the station three afternoons a week with books from the branch collection. High Point opened its own school in 1944 and the demand for books went up even more.

Books for Baby Boomers

The 7.1 magnitude earthquake on April 13, 1949, closed nearby Lafayette School. The displaced students were distributed to other schools, churches, and to portable classrooms. The books from Lafayette went into storage in the West Seattle Branch. This happened at the time when the postwar baby boom swelled student population. The number of schools doubled and the children's librarian could not physically visit all the classrooms, as was the custom. A second high school, Sealth, opened in 1957. Three bookmobile stops and the stations at High Point and Fauntleroy reflected the demand for library services in the early 1950s.

In 1949, West Seattle was the test site for a new circulation technology manufactured by Kodak, the Recordak. This was an automated system that photographed the borrower's library card, a date card, and a punch card from the book. The new system was quite popular since it reduced the lines at the checkout counter. One borrower commented, "At last the library has reached the machine age" (Annual Report).

The 1952 annual report noted that 78 percent of patrons arrived by automobile. Library usage increased throughout the 1950s until the opening of the Southwest Branch in 1961 and then West Seattle noted a drop in traffic.

In 1965, the Boeing Co. experienced some cutbacks and the staff at West Seattle found that many patrons (about one-fifth) were Boeing employees and their families. As layoff notices went out, the demand for information on resumes went up. The branch adjusted to patron tastes over the years.

In 1968, paperback books were available for loan. In 1975, long-playing phonograph records -- LPs -- joined the collection. In 1981, a microfilm version of the main library catalog allowed users to look up any book in the Seattle system. Before, they could only consult the branch catalogue or travel downtown to use the main catalog.

Old Splendor and New Brilliance

In 1984, Seattle voters approved the 1-2-3 bond issue to fund renovation of the Carnegie branch libraries. West Seattle got its makeover in 1987 and closed for the work to be done from February to October.

Architect Sean Robinson updated the building by adding a wheelchair ramp to blend with the original design. Rosettes on the ramp were specially cast to conform to the older ironwork. The skylights, which had been painted black in 1942 to thwart enemy bomber crews, were at long last restored to let light through. The aluminum front doors were restored to wood and glass, and the lighting was returned to its 1910 splendor with 1980s brilliance. The composition shingle room was replaced with imported slate. Refinished furniture and new carpeting graced the interior. Mayor Charles Royer told the crowd at the dedication that the renovation "was very faithful to the history of the building" (Herald).

Computers arrived at West Seattle, first to help manage circulation. The system was expanded to handle requests for books. Until then, requests were written on pieces of paper that traveled from branch to branch. A computer catalogue for the public arrived in 1992. By 1997, computers capable of access to the World Wide Web were available to patrons.

The 1998 "Libraries For All" bond issue provided $196.4 million for a new central library and new or upgraded branches. Renovation began on West Seattle in 2003, and the branch reopened in April 2004. It is now graced with the auditorium that the staff had asked for since 1910, an improved lobby, better lighting, new windows, and staff offices.

Branch Librarians

  • Dorothy Hurlbert 1910-1911
  • Marion Higgins 1911-1914
  • Christine Hargrave 1914-1917
  • Grace Jean McIntosh 1917-1919
  • Ida E. Adams 1919-1927
  • Irene Tully 1927-1958
  • Doris Rossbach 1958-1966
  • Edith Ann McElrath 1967-1972
  • Rita Krueger 1972-1977
  • Regional management 1977-1990
  • Karen Spiel 1990-2002

Sources: Karen Speil, comp., "West Seattle Library Timeline," typescript, Archives, West Seattle Branch Library; "West Seattle Branch -- Quarterly Reports," folder, Ibid.; "West Seattle Branch Library is Formally Opened to the Public," West Side Press, July 27, 1910, clipping, Ibid.; David Schaefer, "Two Neighborhood Libraries Reopen," The Seattle Times, October 23, 1987, clipping, Ibid.; Dan Williams, "Memories Fill Library's Shelves," News-Herald, July 23, 1980, clipping, Ibid.; Clay Eals, "City Books Branch Bash," West Seattle Herald, October 21, 1987, clipping, Ibid.; Clay Eals, "New/Old Library Draws Crowd," West Seattle Herald, October 28, 1987, clipping, Ibid.; Marge Caskey, "Library's Restoration Nears End," West Seattle Herald, September 23, 1987, Ibid.; "West Side Library To Open Tomorrow," The Seattle Daily Times, July 22, 1910, p. 5.
Note: This essay was updated on May 30, 2005 and again on September 10, 2008.

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