The Seattle Public Library celebrates the completion of the "Libraries for All" capital project on September 13, 2008.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 9/17/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8773

On September 13, 2008, The Seattle Public Library celebrates the successful completion of its ambitious "Libraries for All" capital project with open houses at the Central Library and in the 26 new and remodeled branches funded by the project.  Architects who designed the buildings and artists whose work graces them welcome library users, many of whom carry a commemorative "Libraries for All" passport.  These passports feature information on each facility and a designated space that librarians can imprint with branch-specific rubber stamps created for the event.

Passport to the Library

The passports were meant to encourage patrons to visit multiple libraries rather than just their home branch. Each passport contained a Seattle map that was color coded by region and marked with library locations.  Metro bus routes to each library were provided, as well as contact information, photographs, and an explanation of each facility's project.  Architects, artists, and contractors for each branch were specified. 

Patrons who managed to visit every branch and the Central Library and collect 27 stamps before January 2, 2009, were entered in a drawing for a basket of book-related items and lunch with the city librarian.  The passport project was inspired by library patrons Marsha Donaldson and Bill Ferris, who visited each branch on their own as the branches opened, and thought other patrons would enjoy seeing how each branch uniquely reflected the neighborhood it served.

Bond, Buildings, Books

Nearly 70 percent of Seattle voters approved the $196.4 million in "Libraries for All" bond measure on November 3, 1998.  The Library Foundation pledged to raise another $83 million for "Libraries for All" and for ongoing endowments. Bill and Melinda Gates donated $20 million in the largest gift to a public library in American history. "Libraries for All" upgraded The Seattle Public Library's system with new facilities, technology, and books.

After the bond measure passed, the Seattle City Council and The Seattle Public Library board of trustees established a Citizen Implementation Review Panel to provide citizen oversight of "Libraries for All" building program.  The panel was made up of 15 citizens who met monthly to monitor implementation and provide feedback to the library board.  Each branch library had a designated Citizen Implementation Review Panel steward who kept track of the project and who was able to answer questions from the public at community meetings.

Deborah Jacobs, city librarian at the time the bond measure passed and throughout construction, explained how the bond measure was achieved in an interview with The Seattle Times reporter Stuart Eskenazi:  "Libraries for All", Eskenazi wrote, "wasn't just a cute moniker.  It was meant to drive home a sense of ownership that communities -- all communities -- could take in their libraries ... (Jacobs) attended 100 community meetings in three-and-a-half months to start building that public support.  'We asked people: What do you want in your new library? And we asked that question in every single neighborhood'" (September 12, 2008).

Listening and Planning

During the planning process for each library project, Deborah Jacobs and library board members held numerous meetings with the residents of the neighborhoods that were or would eventually be served by each branch. Their goal was soliciting ideas from the people who would be using each branch most heavily, in order to tailor facilities to the needs, dreams, and desires of that particular community as much as was possible.  Branch locations, choice of architects, building designs, and varying services offered came out of these meetings with community members.  Participating in this process gave users a sense of ownership in their neighborhood's branch.

Library planners also worked with the Seattle Landmark's Preservation board, nominating many existing branches for Historic Landmark status.  The Landmarks Board voted landmark status for the Green Lake, Lake City, Magnolia, Northeast, Douglass-Truth, University, Fremont, Queen Anne, and West Seattle branches.

Projects, Projects, Everywhere

"Libraries for All" funds were used to replace the existing Central Library; replace the Ballard, Beacon Hill, Capitol Hill, Greenwood, High Point, and Montlake branch libraries; renovate the existing Fremont, Green Lake, Madrona-Sally Goldmark, Queen Anne, University, and West Seattle branch libraries; expand the existing Broadview, Columbia, Douglass-Truth, Lake City, Northeast, Rainier Beach, and Southwest branch libraries; renovate and expand the existing Magnolia branch; relocate the existing NewHolly and Wallingford branch libraries; and build new branch libraries in Delridge, International District/Chinatown, Northgate, and South Park.

NewHolly was the first branch project completed, opening November 20, 1999.  The new 362,987-square-foot central library, designed by Rem Koolhaas/OMA of The Netherlands in collaboration with the Seattle firm LMN Architects, opened on May 23, 2004. The last branch project completed was Magnolia, opening July 12, 2008. 

Library openings were community celebrations and often featured musical performances and appearances by local VIPs, from politicians to library board members to LuLu the library book fairy.  LuLu, green-skinned, eight feet tall, and sporting a spangled tutu, was the official mascot of "Libraries for All" openings and re-openings.

Community Choice

In response to community requests, almost every branch included one or more community meeting rooms.  These rooms are heavily used by both library patrons and by those who might not otherwise visit libraries.  Many branches feature large windows that flood the space with natural light, providing an antidote to Northwest weather.  Some branches add an abundance of task lighting, encouraging patrons to linger and read rather than just checking books out. Urban branches and the Central Library address their wide diversity of users with multi-lingual materials tailored to each neighborhood's constituency, special areas designed for tutoring, and comfortable seating areas that offer a respite to patrons who may have few other places to enjoy reading without exposure to the elements.

Branches in neighborhoods whose demographics show high numbers of children include spacious children's areas featuring child-sized tables, chairs, and computer terminals.  Most feature cozy window seats, couches, or chairs where children and their parents or caregivers can read together.  A massive boulder that penetrates the exterior wall of the children's area in the Greenwood branch stimulates creative play.  The spacious children's area in the Central Library includes family restrooms and a special space for story hour.  The Ballard Branch, heavily used by young adults and situated near a skate park, has a special area for teenagers.

Responding to community input, some branches were designed with especially environmentally conscious materials.  Some communities wanted their branch building to stand out architecturally, while others asked for libraries that harmonized with the streetscape.  Several neighborhoods specifically requested libraries that shared space with other community service organizations, and some neighborhoods were diametrically opposed to that notion. 

Nearly every branch featured art pieces designed for that facility. At some branches the artists creating this art involved interested patrons in their creative process, resulting in work uniquely tailored to that particular community.  The Beacon Hill Branch included a visual and aural instillation of poetry and prose written by residents of the neighborhood.

Increased Square Footage and a Surge in Users

"Libraries for All" nearly doubled the existing square footage in The Seattle Public Library system.  Circulation of books and materials has also nearly doubled since 1998.  According to The Seattle Public Library, more than 9.3 million books and materials circulated in 2007, the system saw 11.6 million in-person and virtual visitors, and 61,299 people registered for library cards.

Since the start of "Libraries for All", The Seattle Public Library has added 1,871,825 books and materials. Also, 22,000 downloadable e-books, audio books, and music and video recordings have been added to the library's holding.

Paul Schell (1937-2014), Seattle's mayor from 1998 to 2001, told The Seattle Times that "Libraries for All" "was a key element in the city's program for building strong neighborhoods.  It was done right, and Seattle should be very proud" (September 12, 2008).

Artists for the project included

  • Mandy Greer
  • Ann Hamilton
  • Gary Hill
  • George Legrady
  • Tony Oursler
  • Lynne Yamamoto
  • Donald Fels
  • Andrew Schloss
  • Dale Stammen
  • Miles Pepper
  • Theresa Batty
  • Iole Alessandrini
  • Gu Xiong
  • Nick Lyle
  • Jean Whitesavage
  • Marita Dingus
  • Vivian Linder
  • Fernanda D'Agostino
  • Valerie Otani
  • Steve Gardner
  • Rene Yung
  • Linda Haworth
  • Jane Grafton
  • Mary Iverson
  • Monad Elohim
  • Kristin Tollefson
  • Rebecca Cummins
  • Heather Dew Oaksen
  • Dana Lynn Louis
  • Dennis Evans
  • Anna Skibska
  • Ariela Boronat
  • Franklin Joyce
  • Katherine Kerr
  • Morgan Brig
  • Richard Elliott

Writers and poets for the project (Beacon Hill Branch) included

  • Anna Balint
  • David Bowen
  • Stephanie Cerezo
  • Kathleen Craig
  • Elaine Iwano
  • Ted Iwata
  • Janice Kennedy
  • Xiu Vinh Mao
  • Claudia Mauro
  • Shira Richman
  • Craig Thompson

Architects for the projects included

  • Office for Metropolitan Architecture & LMN Architects
  • Bohlin Cywinski Jackson Inc.
  • Carlson Architects
  • Miller Hayashi Architects
  • Johnston Architects & Cutler Architects
  • Cardwell Architects
  • Stickney Murphy Romine Architects
  • Schacht Aslani Architects
  • Hoshide Williams Architects
  • Snyder Hartung Kane Strauss Architects
  • Buffalo Design
  • ARC Architects
  • Heliotrope Architects
  • Weinstein A/U Architects + Urban Designers
  • The Miller/Hull Partnership
  • Streeter & Associates Architects
  • Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects

Contractors for the project included

  • Hoffman Construction Company
  • PCL Construction Services Inc.
  • Steele Corp.
  • Graham Contracting Ltd.
  • Summit Central Construction Inc.
  • Walsh Construction Co.
  • Construction Enterprises and Contractors Inc.
  • Biwell Construction Inc.
  • W. G. Clark Construction Co.
  • Cope Construction Co.
  • Bayley Construction Co.
  • Absher Construction Co.
  • Harmatta Construction

Sources: "Libraries for All" Capital Projects," Seattle Public Library website accessed September 14, 2008, http://www.spl.org/lfa/projects/projects.html; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Patty Murray wins re-election to U.S. Senate and voters approve medical marijuana and abortion rights, and Seattle's "Libraries for All" bond on November 3, 1998" (by David Wilma and Kit Oldham) http://www.historylink.org/  (accessed September 14, 2008); Stuart Eskenazi, "Something for Everyone," The Seattle Times, September 12, 2008, p. 1; Susan Gilmore, "Passport to Seattle's Libraries," Ibid., September 14, 2008; Tan Vinh, "Sorely Needed Branch Finally Opens," Ibid., July 11, 2004, p. B-1; "In This Town We Love Our Libraries," Ibid., November 11, 1998, p. B-4; Susan Byrnes, "Critics Hard To Come By For "Libraries for All" Plan," Ibid., April 23, 1998, p. B-1; John Marshall, "A Moment With Joshua Prince-Ramus/Architect," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 12, 2008, p. D-1; ""Libraries for All" Reaches $43 Million of Total Goal," Ibid., May 5, 2000, p. B2; Herbert Muschamp, "The Library That Puts On Fishnets and Hits The Disco," The New York Times, May 16, 2004, website accessed September 14, 2008 (www.nytimes.com); "Libraries for All" Passport," issued by The Seattle Public Library and Foundation in 2008.

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