Before 1945, residents of Mercer Island, on the east side of Lake Washington, relied on borrowing books from Seattle across the lake because there was no public library on the island. That year, with assistance from the King County Library System (KCLS), which had been created three years earlier, a library was opened in the Emmanuel Episcopal Church at East Seattle, a community in the northwest corner of the island. As population grew and more of the island was developed, demand for library services increased. In 1955 a new building was constructed in the center of the island. Over the next 30 years, the library was expanded twice to offer greater book capacity and more space for patrons. Then a brand-new building was completed in 1991. Two years later, voters approved a proposal to annex the city-owned library to the King County Library System, which had been providing library services under contract with the city for many years. In the spring of 2016, a remodel of the Mercer Island Library, scheduled for completion in July, was underway.
First Library Opens in East Seattle Church
When the first settlers came to Mercer Island in the 1880s, the land was undeveloped, with large stands of timber, no roads, and no bridges connecting the island to the mainland. The first regular ferry service didn't begin until 1890, with round-trip service across Lake Washington primarily for day and weekend visitors coming from the city of Seattle. For the several decades that followed, those who did live on the island had to rely on water transportation to obtain goods and services, from grocery deliveries and spare farm equipment to mail delivery provided by the steamer Dawn.
Books were an equal challenge to obtain, although they could be borrowed from the Seattle Public Library. An account from the family of Dorothy Brant Brazier (1908-1994), whose grandparents lived on the Island around 1900, described how the trip to borrow books involved a two-mile trek each way on foot, a ferry ride, and cable car once in the city. Convoluted as it was, the practice persisted for almost half a century.
A solution came from the local community on the island, through the combined efforts of the Preschool Association, PTA, and South Mercer Island Community Club, with support from the newly created King County Library System (KCLS). The Emmanuel Episcopal Church, which had been built in 1914 in the community of East Seattle at the north end of the island, agreed to provide rent-free a 12-by-12-foot room (known as the Guild Hall) to serve as a new library. The timing for the effort was also the result of the emergence of King County Library System, which had been established by voters in 1942 as the King County Rural Library District to provide library services to rural county residents, as a new regional force for supporting libraries in communities around the county.
With the help of islander Harry Slater (1897-1985), the island's representative to KCLS, the first library on Mercer Island opened to the public on January 11, 1945. While not officially responsible for the Mercer Island library's operations or staffing, KCLS did provide support in the way of books to fill the new space. Beatrice Lavender (1897-1982) was the first librarian for the community, a volunteer position that was unpaid. She was later joined by fellow librarians Mrs. R. G. Gayhart (from 1948 to 1951) and Mrs. Paul Holloway (from 1951 to 1969).
A Central Location
By 1953 the population of Mercer Island had grown to 8,300 residents from 4,500 three years earlier. The island was experiencing new pressures from an expanded population, ranging from increased need for road maintenance and sewers to services such as fire and police departments. Nevertheless, voters in the election that fall decided against either incorporating as a city of their own or annexing to the city of Seattle.
The library was also experiencing pressing needs for expansion to meet public demand. As with the first library effort, a grassroots effort led to new plans to address the future of the island's library. A library board was put in place, representing 24 different community groups scattered around the island. Two daughters of one of Mercer Island's first settlers, a German immigrant named Vitus Schmid (1849-1924), advocated the use of an acre of land that had been given by their father in 1890 as the site of a school. The Allview Heights School was built on the Schmid plot near center of the island, but it had closed after just five years for lack of students and remained empty until finally torn down.
Library board member Alla May Luckenbill (1875-1955), a longtime resident who had lived in the island since 1885, supported transfer of the land from the school board to the library board so that a new 1,200-square-foot building could be built. She worked closely with both Mercer Island Library Board president Sherman Diamond (1909-1979) and the Schmid sisters, Caroline (1891-1994) and Theresa (1878-1961). Following the land transfer, more than $10,000 was raised by the community through local fundraising efforts, with "bake sales and cookouts" providing revenue for the library (Reynolds, "She Wrote ...").
The groundbreaking for the site at 44th Street and 88th Avenue Southeast was held on April 26, 1953. In yet another show of support, building-committee member and architect Jesse Wilkins (1892-1969) designed the new library at no cost and with enough space for 10,000 books. Luckenbill witnessed the new library's opening on October 18, 1955, two months before her death.
By 1960 various opposing factions with the Mercer Island community were struggling to define a new governing structure for the island. Some advocated for new development, public services, self-government, and a progressive approach that encouraged business interests and an expanded tax base. Other residents felt little change was needed or desirable, that the undeveloped landscape found throughout much of the island should be left undisturbed with development kept to a minimum. Business owners in the island's small business district were the first to take action: They filed to incorporate the 70-acre business district as the Town of Mercer Island. In response, a second petition (which actually reached voters first) sought to incorporate the rest of the island as the City of Mercer Island. Voters approved both incorporations, giving the island not just one, but two, elected governments, each with its own council, mayor, budget, and voter base.
With the official incorporation of the City of Mercer Island on July 5, 1960, the Mercer Island Library found itself under the new city governance structure, while it still maintained a library board independent of the city's authority. Residents within the town's jurisdiction could use the library but were required to pay $5 per year for the service. In the same year that the city and town incorporated, the library, again in need of greater space to serve patrons, completed a $25,000 fundraising campaign for a planned 1,920-square-foot addition.
On October 17, 1962, the newly expanded library was dedicated, and at the dedication ceremony Library Board president Ruth Solomon (1911-2004) gave the deed for the library land to Mayor Tom Barto (1893-1983) with the understanding that the city would now be responsible for financing the library. Following the board's advice, "the city council then voted to maintain KCLS services by contract" ("Mercer Island Library 2010 Community Study," 3). The Library Board, which had represented so many diverse community interests over the past decades on behalf of the library, was replaced by a new seven-member Library Advisory Board appointed by the city council. The year 1962 also saw the establishment of Friends of the Mercer Island Library, a group made up of residents with a shared interest in supporting library operations through volunteer activities.
Several years later the library underwent another major expansion, with the 1966 purchase of land on the southern border of the library site making possible a 5,422-square-foot expansion completed in 1969. It also continued to increase its book holdings, to 44,000 volumes in 1971 and 54,000 in 1985. The City of Mercer Island had also consolidated governance of the island, as a merger of the separate city and town governments was approved by Mercer Island voters on May 19, 1970.
The changes in local government had little visible impact on library operations. As a public venue, the library had become a positive fixture within the community, playing host to a growing number of different community activities, such as musical concerts, art displays, and providing new resources like library catalogs accessible on microfiche. The city continued its contractual arrangement for library services provided by the King County Library System.
A New Home
By 1988 the Library Advisory Board had begun working on options for the next facility to serve as the library, and how it would be operated. In the following year, the board recommended to the Mercer Island city council that any new building should not include annexation of the library to KCLS, which the council in turn approved as the way forward. The decision not to annex to KCLS at that time was made in large part due to some island residents' fears that doing so would allow for future local taxation for library services that were provided.
But a new facility was needed. The age of the building that had served the community since 1955 was showing. Retired Librarian Ruth Gershevsky (1902-1996) recalled the shortfalls and long-term effects created over the years as a result of the various expansions:
"I saw how the first building was constructed. The materials were inexpensive, as we couldn't afford anything better, and it wasn't built the proper way. We've had leaks and termites, and mushrooms sprout inside the little room used for an office. When the last addition was built, we shortchanged the children by not providing a separate room -- and we shortchanged the adults, who have the children underfoot ... and the community room itself was inadequate: too small and designed so it can't be used after the library is closed. Ever since 1969, we've been saying we want more, but in 1969 we couldn't visualize what would be needed" (Reynolds, "She Wrote ...").
On November 7, 1989, Mercer Island voters approved a $2.18 million bond measure for the construction of a new library building on the same site as the existing one. During construction, library staff under KCLS continued to provide books for checkout in a small temporary space next to the state-run liquor store. Fortunately, the need for such operations in the northern commercial part of the island was short-lived. On June 1, 1991, the new library designed by Louis Nelson Architects opened to the public.
Annexation to King County Library System
Public use of the library facility continued to undergo diversification in terms of programming, even as its audience base remained consistent. According to Gershevsky, who supervised 40 county branch libraries between 1952 and 1962, the Mercer Island Library "always has served an almost equal proportion of adults and children" (Reynolds, "She Wrote ..."). In keeping with its commitment to appeal to younger audiences, the patio near the front entrance of the new library featured the bronze sculpture Between Two Worlds (1991) by Georgia Gerber (b. 1955), a playful portrayal of a young boy reading a book and lying against a nine-foot rabbit, with a second, life-sized rabbit at the boy's feet.
Not long after the opening of the new building, the City of Mercer Island entered into an agreement with KCLS on August 26, 1991, that set forth conditions for transitioning the library to the county system, in the event a special election decided in favor of annexation of the library to KCLS. Included in this agreement was a 50-year lease of the land to the county, with the city retaining ownership of the property. The agreement also called for KCLS to pay the construction costs of the newly opened building, and "thereafter fund all aspects of library operations within the City including but not limited to insurance, maintenance and utility costs associated with the library building" ("Library Services Interlocal Agreement," 2).
A year later, the city also employed a "SWAT team" (Reynolds, "Plans for ..."), which included librarians from four other municipalities and members of the Mercer Island Advisory Board, to determine whether the Mercer Island Library should become a new "municipal" model independent of KCLS, or be annexed to KCLS, which would allow islanders to be taxed by the county for library services. In 1993 an election decided the future of the Mercer Island Library: Island voters overwhelmingly endorsed becoming part of KCLS, with 78 percent approving the annexation.
Resources for the Community
Under KCLS, the Mercer Island Library continued to add new resources for the community. It was the first in the system to make computers that could access the Internet available to the public. By 2009, the new Mercer Island Library of KCLS had received more than 200,000 visits and circulated more than 400,000 items. Opportunities and services offered ranged from Story Time for the very young in the morning hours to weekday-afternoon Study Zone Tutors assisting students with homework assignments. The library included a children's area with books and interactive computers for early learning, an extensive media collection of books and movies on DVD for checkout, a bank of computer stations for searching the library catalog, listening to audio tracks, or reading e-books. A separate room located off the main lobby provided space for community gatherings and special programs, while the main library space offered seating, tables, and cubicles placed throughout for uses ranging from comfortable reading to individual study.
In keeping with its history as a library always looking ahead to its next iteration, the Mercer Island Library began work in 2012 on planning for a remodel of the existing 14,886-square-foot building. The process encountered active engagement from community members, looking to combine time-tested attributes such as an open foyer space with new twenty-first century technology and increased room for more books and user space. The renovation, dubbed the "Mercer Island Refresh" by the Friends of the Mercer Island Library group, got under way in May 2016, with a temporary location providing services until the completion of the work, scheduled for July ("Mercer Island Library Closure Information ...").