Burien Library, King County Library System

  • By Glenn Drosendahl
  • Posted 9/08/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20086
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Burien's public library was born in 1938 in a tiny building next to a feed store and grew, through sustained community support, into one of the busiest in King County. It was launched as a joint venture of the Lake Burien Garden Club, the Lake Burien School Board, and the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA). The library's first home was barely more than a shed and had no toilet. Its books were donated by the community and its staffers were, for a stretch, unpaid volunteers. Its second home was a caretaker's cottage next to a playfield. In 1944 Burien became one of the first members of the King County Library System, a move that helped it keep pace with the growing and increasingly diverse Highline area of southwest King County. Twelve years later the library got its first building constructed specifically for that purpose. Grander buildings followed, both financed by county bond issues. The grandest opened in June 2009, sharing a new building with Burien City Hall. The Burien Library featured 32,000 square feet of floor space, dozens of computers, the county system's biggest Northwest Collection, and even a fountain by George Tsutakawa (1910-1997).

Getting Started

The woman generally credited with founding Burien's first public library is Ethel Hoddinott (later McWilliam, 1893-1985). At a gathering of the Lake Burien Garden Club in 1938, she proposed asking the WPA for financial help in launching a library. The WPA said yes, if two local groups would be sponsors. The Garden Club and Burien School Board -- in practice, the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) -- stepped up to fill those roles. Working together as the Lake Burien Library and Recreation Council, women volunteers leased the building next to Wray's Feed Store at SW 152nd Street and 9th Avenue SW. The rent was $1 a year.

Because the WPA grant required that the venture have a recreational component, the library also housed children's activities such as making scrapbooks, working jigsaw puzzles, and playing checkers, and the sign over the door read "Lake Burien Library & Recreation Room." The WPA hired Hoddinott as the first librarian. She varnished the building's only desk, made draperies, and brought fuel from home for the wood stove. The library opened on October 11, 1938, with about 230 books donated by the community. Members paid an annual fee of 25 cents, which allowed them to check out two books and two magazines at a time.

The fledgling library had a treasury of $35 in 1939, and $15 of that was used to buy new books. Found among donated books was a first edition of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer. It was sold to a collector for $135, a significant windfall for the modest budget.

The library was self-sustaining from the beginning, and library organizers soon sought independence from its original sponsors and the WPA. Those parties willingly withdrew, the WPA taking the paid librarian position with it. Restructuring led to a new sponsoring group, the Burien Library Guild, with Mrs. C. A. Tooley as its president. Formed in 1940 and incorporated on October 19, 1941, the guild staffed the library with volunteers until February 1942 and continued to play an enormous role in supporting and growing the city's library into the next century.

Moving Out and Up

With the library pushing the boundaries of its modest home, the Library Board began looking for new quarters. The King County Parks Department offered rent-free the use of the Burien Playfield's unfinished caretaker's cottage at SW 152nd Street and 6th Avenue SW. The house was completed, shelves were added, and on August 14, 1943, it became Burien's library. Although photos show it to be of modest size, it was a big step up from the previous location. The South District News and Burien City Press described it as "spacious ... a large, airy building" ("Burien's New Library").

On February 18, 1944, Burien made the leap from relative outpost to one of the first libraries to join the King County Rural Library District, later to be known as the King County Library System (KCLS), which was established a year earlier. The Burien Library's inventory quintupled, to a total of 1,257 books. Margrette Lemon (1900-1990) became the head librarian in April 1946, beginning a 20-year tenure in that position. Annual circulation more than doubled from 1946 to 1949, reaching 47,252 and making Burien the busiest suburban library in the county.

Foreseeing the need for more space, the Library Guild established a building fund that was fed by such money-making efforts as square dances, card parties, lectures, book-selling booths, luncheons, and teas. Lifetime memberships were sold for $25, annual memberships were $1 for adults and 25 cents for children, and half of those proceeds went into the fund. By 1951, 300 children were participating in the Vacation Reading Club and annual circulation was approaching 76,000. As Burien historian Esther Balzarini (1918-2000) put it, "The cottage began to bulge with people and books" (Balzarini, 113).

A Community Effort

Fundraising ramped up in October 1954 with a house-to-house drive. Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Campfire Girls went door to door delivering pamphlets that explained the proposed building project and asked for donations. The Highline Times called it "the biggest popular subscription effort ever attempted by the community for its own benefit" ("House-to-House Library Fund Drive ..."). Donation forms urged community members to buy a square foot of library space for $10. In return, donors got a square foot of red plastic to display as they wished, showing they were on board. A sign went up in front of the library showing a blueprint of the proposed floor plan, with a shaded area representing the amount raised.

In 1955 the board moved to purchase two lots on the southeast corner of SW 153rd Street and 4th Avenue SW, a site near Highline High School, Sylvester Junior High, and the town's shopping area. The drive netted about $27,500, plus another $8,000 raised later for shelves.

The new library opened on May 5, 1956. It was a modern-looking structure built into a slope, so it appeared as a one-story building from the front but had a lower daylight floor in the back. It occupied the west half of the site, with the other half reserved for anticipated expansion in 10 years. A reported 20,000 books went onto the shelves -- nearly 100 times more than those at the original library. A children's reading room was added downstairs in December 1960.

Finding Funds, Thinking Big

While county taxes paid librarian salaries and covered the cost of new books and equipment, the Library Guild was responsible for the building's utilities, maintenance, and other expenses. The guild relied on membership dues and fundraisers. In the early 1960s, the guild projected annual income was between $2,000 and $3,000. The new library's annual expenses topped $4,000. Finances were "alarmingly low" (Balzarini, 115). To help close the gap, the guild raised lifetime memberships to $50 and annual fees to $2 for adults and $1 for children. Many community groups also contributed. At the same time, the guild was growing a program to honor Northwest authors. Instituted in 1959, it became a prestigious annual dinner that honored a Book of the Year and attracted a Who's Who of talented writers.

Financial relief came in 1966. KCLS took over maintenance of the library (although the guild continued to pay for some upkeep), and county voters approved by 63 percent a $6 million bond issue for rural library construction. The bond issue plus the prospect of federal funds from the Library Services and Construction Act caused Burien to think bigger. The Library Board decided that the portion of the current library site saved for expansion would not be big enough to meet booming demand. The following June the architectural firm of Durham, Anderson, and Freed was hired to begin plans for a 15,000-square-foot building -- triple the size of the existing library -- on a wooded three-acre lot at 14700 6th Avenue SW. The projected cost of the project was $500,000.

The new building opened on January 15, 1970. It was the second-biggest in the King County Library System, with seating for 200, room for 60,000 books, and added services such as lectures, film screenings, and more reference materials. The structure itself featured floor-to-ceiling windows framing the woods, trees incorporated into the entry and view decks, and skylights over the adult, young-adult, and juvenile reading areas. As described in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, its "cantilevered floor structure with recessed foundation walls was designed to lift the building within the trees and suspend it above the existing natural ground cover" ("Larger, Better Library ..."). The building won a 1971 honor award from the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

The library went through some hard times in the 1970s after the state legislature enacted the so-called Lid Law that limited property-tax increases, some of which funded the county's libraries. Corresponding cuts in the KCLS budget for 1977 meant reduced services and staff time and fewer open hours. The Burien Library closed on Fridays and its staff hours, which had totaled 400 per week, were reduced to 312. The library staff association said in a handout to workers, "While 1976 is already bleak, 1977 can only be described as ominous" ("Hours Cut ...").

Expanding Services, Building a Northwest Collection

Apart from such lean times, the Burien Library was able to add steadily to its inventory, equipment, and services. In 1982 an automated checkout system with bar-coded library cards for customers was installed throughout the King County Library System, meaning staff members no longer had to write down the title of every book checked out. In 1991, library catalogs were computerized and put online for public use. Classes on how to use the computers were conducted initially by staff and later by volunteers.

Bolstered by funds from a 1988 bond issue, the 1970 library building was remodeled and expanded by 5,000 square feet at a total cost of $1.6 million. It reopened on May 5, 1993, with more than 80,000 books.

The Burien Library developed an innovative Friday-night program for teens. Called "Escape," it kept the building open to everyone until midnight on those nights but gave teens a room of their own with special activities. Entertainment acts such as rock bands and rappers were booked, along with other activities, including free haircuts and manicures provided by a community-college beauty class. The program started in 1996, funded by a three-year King County grant at $86,000 per year, and drew anywhere from 20 to 200 teens a night. The library also created "Teen Zone," a special area with materials aimed at that age group.

Digital materials -- films on DVDs, books and music on CDs, and eAudio -- were added, as were programs and materials in languages other than English, to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse community. English classes were among the offerings.

A major resource for Northwest history materials was developed at the Burien Library by staff member Maxine Tweny and her husband George, a rare-book collector and history buff serving in the Library Guild. They created and amassed Burien's Northwest Collection, focusing on the history of Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia, including the region's Native cultures. The collection's first printed catalog listed nearly 300 titles. With support from KCLS and the Library Guild, by the early 2000s the collection had grown to about 5,000 items, the maximum capacity of its space in the existing library building.

Library, City Hall in One Big Building

In 2004 King County voters approved a $172 million bond issue that funded a building boom across the library system. Thirteen new libraries were constructed, including one for Burien. It was part of a 10-acre, $193 million project called Burien Town Square, a public-private partnership intended to revive the city's sagging commercial core. Town Square included condominiums, retail space, a one-acre park, and a three-story building and parking garage shared by the library and Burien City Hall, a unique collaboration between the city and KCLS.

The building officially opened on June 13, 2009, at 400 SW 152nd Street. At 32,000 square feet, it was the largest in south King County and 12,000 square feet bigger than the library it replaced. It had seating for nearly 200, plus 51 public-use computers (compared with 30 in the previous building), and more designated space for children and teens than its predecessor. The building was designed by the architectural firm of Ruffcorn Mott Hinthorne Stine. The curved exterior wall on its library portion was mostly glass, serving as a welcoming outside face and providing views of Mount Rainier. It was the city's first building to earn a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. It also won awards for masonry design and interior lighting and a Vision 2040 Award from the Puget Sound Regional Council. The two-story library featured a collection of paintings and other art, including a fountain by famed sculptor George Tsutakawa.

Six months after the library opened, circulation had increased by 13 percent and patron visits by 35 percent compared with the same six-month period at the former library. Some of the boost could be attributed to the library being closer to Highline High School. Another attraction was the growing collection of materials and programs. In April 2016, the library recorded more than 41,000 patron visits, and its circulation topped 32,000.

The new larger library also allowed expansion, for the first time in some years, of Burien's Northwest Collection. The largest of the system's three such collections, it included rare and out-of-print books, along with periodicals, maps, yearbooks, newspapers on microfilm, vertical files of clippings and pamphlets, oral histories, films, and new books, including some on the region's contemporary culture. By 2016, the Northwest Collection encompassed more than 6,500 cataloged items.

In 2016 the Burien Library had the equivalent of 20 fulltime staffers, 56 public computer terminals, and more than 97,000 items in its collection. Its circulation ranked 15th out of 49 KCLS libraries. Among its offerings were classes on computer skills, English, and becoming a citizen; workshops in Spanish on tenant rights; story times in Vietnamese and Arabic; and reading materials in many foreign languages. Third through sixth graders could learn about 3D printing. Extra routers had been added to improve Internet connectivity in the building, and a pilot program allowed patrons to check out devices that would give them "mobile hot spots" for WiFi reception outside the building. With continuing emphasis on technology, diversity, and growth, Burien's library was a true reflection of its community.


Esther Balzarini, Our Burien (Seattle: King County Library System Service Center, 1968); Melba Eyler and Evelyn Yeager, The Many Roads to Highline (Burien: Highline Publishing, 1979), 79-83; Betty Hope, "Burien Library: Tiny Beginning, Now Leads County," The Highline Times, October 30, 1963, p. 3; "Community Study: Burien Library, May 2003," King County Library System (KCLS) website accessed June 10, 2016 (https://w3.kcls.org/community_studies/Burien%20Community%20Study.pdf); "Delivering on a Promise to Voters: KCLS Capital Improvement Plan, 11 Year Report, September 2015," KCLS website accessed June 10, 2016 (https://w3.kcls.org/pdf/11_year_report.pdf); "Burien's New Library," South District News and Burien City Press, August 19, 1943, p. 1; Byron Fish, "House-to-House Library Fund Drive Opens Monday in Highline District," The Highline Times, October 7, 1954, p. 1; "Burien's Library Needs Help," Ibid., October 11, 1962, p. 7; "Larger, Better Library for the Burien District," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 18, 1969, p. 20; Amy Hagopian, "Hours Cut, Employees Laid Off in Library Budget Squeeze," The Highline Times, November 17, 1976, p. 1; Jodi Yancer, "Foot Flurry: Library Stays Ahead of the Pack," Ibid., August 12, 1990, p. A-5; Heather Morgan, "Punk Rock Finds Venue at Library," Ibid., May 27, 1995, p. A-1; Becky Kramer, "Shhhhhhhh! Library Celebrates 50 Years of Quiet," Ibid., October 2, 1988, p. A-3; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "King County Library System" (by Paula Becker), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed June 10, 2016); E. J. Gong Jr., "Booked on Friday Nights," The Seattle Times, August 1, 1996, p. B-1; Ray Martinez, "Hodgepodge Making Way for a New Town Square," The Seattle Times, January 7, 2007, p. E-4; Eric Pryne, "New Burien Square Built; Now It Just Needs People," The Seattle Times, June 13, 2009, p. A-1; Heather Marker, email to Glenn Drosendahl, June 6, 2015, in possession of Glenn Drosendahl, Seattle, Washington.

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