Greenwood Branch, The Seattle Public Library

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 10/08/2002
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3980
The Greenwood Branch, The Seattle Public Library,  opened in 1928 as a direct result of the Greenwood and Phinney Ridge communities coming together for a common purpose. The original rented storefront was expanded twice to accommodate readers. In 1954, the neighborhood got its own branch at 8016 Greenwood Avenue N. The library continued through the rest of the twentieth century as a focal point for the Greenwood and Phinney Ridge neighborhoods. The 1954 building closed in November 2003 for the construction of a new and greatly expanded building. The new Greenwood Branch opened in January 2005.

A Community and Its Railway

The Greenwood neighborhood grew up around the stations of the Puget Sound Electric Railway, which connected Seattle to Hall's Lake in 1906, and to Everett in 1910. People could live in a rural setting and commute to downtown for jobs and shopping. As the population grew, the demand for services increased. The closest branch libraries were in Ballard (1905), Green Lake (1910), and Fremont (1921).

In those years, the city limits were at N 85th Street. Seattle elected its city council at large and constituents voiced their needs through a variety of community clubs, which lobbied council members. The Greenwood-Phinney Commercial Club was particularly active in pushing for a library branch. One proposal was for a community center with a library, a gymnasium, and an auditorium, but there were objections because the uses were incompatible.

In March 1926, the library board let it be known that it would give "favorable consideration to the proposition of installing a branch library" (Greenwood Archives) if the community paid for rent, utilities, and janitorial service. Edith Marston of the Greenwood Parent Teachers Association was appointed to head a campaign to raise the necessary money. Marston asked families to subscribe 10 cents a month for two years. She collected $340.80, almost all of it personally.

A Reader's Storefront

On May 16, 1928, the Greenwood-Phinney Branch opened in a storefront rented for $45 a month at 7020 Greenwood Avenue N. There were fewer than 1,000 square feet for 3,000 books shelved along one wall, and 24 seats for patrons. The shelving was painted jade green and the draperies were mulberry colored. A plumber loaned his truck to cruise the district advertising the event with a banner. Members of the Commercial Club, the local Parent-Teacher Associations, and the Women's Progress Club organized the celebration. That first day, almost one third of the books were checked out.

Ferne Harris was the branch's first librarian. She staffed the library on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and evenings, and on Saturdays. The Green Lake Branch immediately noted a drop in patronage, suggesting that Greenwood residents had switched to their new library for their reading. Business was so good at Greenwood that the hours were extended. Demand continued and in January 1929, Greenwood-Phinney became a six-day-a-week library like the other permanent branches in the city.

The branch became a center of community activity, particularly for high school students who had few recreational options after school. Some came to the branch to study, but many used it for "loafing and loitering" (Annual Reports). In the evenings, overcrowding and noise control demanded much of the staff's time.

Not satisfied with a rented storefront, the Commercial Club almost immediately began to offer donated vacant lots to the library for construction of a proper branch. There were no more Carnegie grants to fund construction, however, and the library board declined the free real estate.

They Want More

By 1930, patrons began to complain that they had read what they wanted in the small collection and they wanted more. In early 1932, the branch was remodeled to almost double the space. This came just before drastic budget cuts during the Great Depression (1929-1939). To save money, the branch closed one day a week and staff hours and salaries were slashed.

Circulation increased however, as job-hunting borrowers flocked to the library to read up on new employment opportunities or to fill up unwanted leisure time. Greenwood saw visitors from other branches on the days that those were closed. The problem of overdue books was aggravated by an increased number of hard-pressed families moving away without returning items. Librarians tried home visits to recover books.

Mrs. Hamilton

In 1932, University of Washington graduate Luella H. "Lou" Hamilton took over the branch, and she would serve the Greenwood community for the next 30 years. Hamilton's annual reports detailed events large (World War II and the coming of television) and small (attending a bankruptcy hearing to recover $11.80 for fines and lost materials). In addition to youth-discipline issues, Hamilton's complaints centered around how poorly the building was suited for use as a library and the need for more books. The two coal-fired stoves in the building were a constant annoyance. Hamilton and her staff had to take time to keep the fires burning and to empty the ashes. A small boy in the neighborhood was wont to take the coal shovel.

There was no money for new construction, but the community (encouraged by Hamilton) managed to get another major remodel, expanding into the rest of the rented building in January 1939. Individuals and youth and community groups used the display windows to show off projects and hobbies. Some exhibits brought new visitors into the branch.

One of Hamilton's pet peeves was resolved in the late 1930s when two skating rinks opened in the North End and young people congregated there after school instead of at her library. Hamilton noted with apparent pride that on November 29, 1941, Congressman Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) spoke at her branch about the proposed Alaska Highway. The following morning, Magnuson boarded a train for Washington, D.C., in time to vote for a declaration of war against Japan.

Librarian Hamilton found World War II to be something of an annoyance. She happily helped borrowers with their increased interest in machine shop work, riveting, welding, and shipbuilding, but circulation slipped, beginning in 1942. Hamilton attributed this to gas and tire rationing and to the high demand for war workers who had little leisure time in which to read. High school students who took war work after school were not reading as much either. In 1943, the branch extended borrowing privileges to King County residents north of N 85th Street.

With peace in 1945, Hamilton saw a shift in reading habits. Borrowers asked for works on radio, automobile repair, dog training, growing flowers, and sports and games. Returning veterans were interested in passing civil service exams. University of Washington GI Bill students liked Greenwood because of the availability of texts and the personalized assistance from Hamilton. Hamilton wrote, "Our clientele is composed of a tolerant, kindly people, the average good middle class Americans."

Postwar circulation showed a decline, which Hamilton attributed to book club membership and increased ownership of home encyclopedias. The year 1951 saw a surge in interest in history for Seattle's centennial, but Hamilton noted that television was causing a drop in readership. "We hope, however, that the new toy will not be a permanent attraction," she wrote (Annual Reports).

A New Building

Hamilton's and the community's quest for a proper branch library resumed after the war. She reported, "The floor is worn thin and uneven, the plaster loose, the ventilation poor, the lighting not modern. Since the building is poorly constructed, the temperature is apt to be unstable ... Our work room was colder than the Safeway refrigerator" (Annual Reports).

Bond issues for new libraries failed in 1951 and in 1953, but the City Council appropriated reserve funds for new branches. Greenwood was the first branch built by Seattle in 33 years.

Architects Decker and Christenson designed a steel and reinforced concrete structure on a corner lot at 8016 Greenwood Avenue N. On January 21, 1954, Greenwood Branch opened and Mayor Allen Pomeroy attended the ceremonies, braving snow and ice to make the event. The building featured 9,752 square feet of space (quadruple the old building), seating for 73 in the reading room and for 100 in the auditorium. Circulation jumped immediately and community groups took advantage of the new auditorium in the basement. That same month, Seattle extended its city limits to N 145th Street. The auditorium became a popular venue for weekly film programs and occasional music recitals.

Rowdy Readers

High school students from all over the North End used the branch, but discipline issues returned in the late 1950s. On November 13, 1961, 200 teenagers swarmed the library. The librarian turned out the lights, ordered everyone out, and called the police.

Three days later, the library board ended evening hours at six branches including Greenwood because of "rowdyism" (The Seattle Times). Evening hours were restored two weeks later when parents and schools offered some supervision of students.

The branch windows turned out to be attractive to vandals and were replaced many times.

Changing Times

In 1963, the new branch got a makeover and the staff room moved to the basement work room. This provided more room for books on the main floor. That year, Kodak's Recordak chargeout system was installed in the branch. Borrowers no longer had to write their library card numbers on each chargeout card. Librarians fed the borrower's card into the Recordak alongside the book card and the date.

By the late 1960s, readers expressed an interest in books on witchcraft, drugs, and extra-sensory perception. The branch librarian reported, "This year brought in more of the wandering youth with long hair and unkept clothing" (Annual Report). Evening patronage dropped off due to concerns about safety in the neighborhood. Some staff requested that they be assigned to daylight hours. High school and community college students began to rely upon the improving libraries at school.

Phonograph records available for circulation appeared on the shelves in 1975, but the selection was limited at first to Rock and Roll. When classical titles arrived, circulation improved. That same year, 8mm films could be checked out. In 1993, Greenwood got a personal computer with a grant from Egghead Software. and a computer connection with the main card catalogue.

In 1987, Greenwood became home to the Literacy Action Center (later Literacysource), a non-profit organization that promoted basic adult literacy, English as a Second Language, and citizenship classes. Greenwood also began to feature Spanish, Russian, and Vietnamese language titles. Beginning in 2001, as a reflection in the shifts in population, a Slavic-language translator from the Central Library worked one day a month at each of several North End branches. He assisted Polish, Russian, Czech, and Ukrainian speakers in answering research questions and in using the library.

In 1998, Seattle voters approved the $196.4 million "Libraries For All" bond issue funding a new central library and new and upgraded branches. The 1954 building was demolished and replaced with a structure twice the size. The new branch was designed by Buffalo Design and included an auditorium, an expanded collection capacity of 66,700 books and materials, a special area for teens, increased computer capacity, two study rooms, a quiet room, and 36 underground parking spaces.  It opened on January 29, 2005.

Branch Librarians

  • Ferne H. Harris 1928
  • Mildred O. Miller 1928-1931
  • Luella H. "Lou" Hamilton 1932-1961
  • Dorothy C. Welbon 1962-1971
  • Emily N. Carter 1971-1975
  • Regional management 1976-1989
  • Mary Ross 1990-1998
  • Francesca Wainwright 1998-present

Sources: "Greenwood-Phinney Library 1928-," folder, Seattle Public Library Archives; "Greenwood-Phinney Library -- History," folder, Ibid.; "Greenwood Library 1953-1974 -- Annual Reports," folder, Ibid.; "Library Opening 1954," folder, Greenwood Branch Library Archives; "Greenwood Branch," folder, Ibid.; "Greenwood Branch -- Misc.," folder, Ibid.; "Green Lake Library -- Annual Reports," folder, Ibid.; "Weather No Deterrent: Crowds Gather To Welcome New Library In Greenwood," North Seattle Star, January 21, 1954, newsclipping, Ibid.; Geraldine DeRuiter, "Libraries Now Offer More Help to Slavic Speakers," North Seattle Herald Outlook, December 5, 2001, p. 1; Marshall Wilson, "6 Libraries To Be Closed Evenings Due To Rowdyism," The Seattle Times, March 19, 1961, newsclipping, Green Lake Branch Library Archives; "Minutes of the Seattle Public Library Board," bound volume, Seattle Public Library Archives, Vol. 4, p. 206, 229, 266, 334, 349, 351, 352.
Note: This essay was updated on May 29, 2005, and again on April 13, 2009.

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