Auburn Library, King County Library System

  • By Linda Holden Givens
  • Posted 12/08/2016
  • Essay 20227
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The Auburn Library traces its origins to small back rooms in a local bakery and then in a drugstore. The Auburn branch of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union sponsored and maintained the early library from 1904 until 1906. Then the city began funding and operating the library, which moved to the second floor of the new city hall. In 1912 the city received $9,000 from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to build a new public library. Auburn's Carnegie Library opened in 1914 and served the city for 50 years. In 1964 the library moved to new larger building in a quiet neighborhood at 9th and H St. In 1997, with the city struggling to fund needed improvements, local voters approved the Auburn Library's annexation to the King County Library System (KCLS). Three years later, KCLS opened a new Auburn Library located both on the city's major arterial (State Route 164) and in Les Gove Park. Renovated and expanded to 20,000 square feet in 2012, that building continues to serve the Auburn community.

From Slaughter to Sweet Auburn!

The city of Auburn, previously named Slaughter, is located west of Stampede Pass some 28 miles south of Seattle. It is bordered by Federal Way to the west, Kent to the north, Algona and Pacific to the south, and unincorporated King County and the Muckleshoot Indian Reservation to the east.

In 1875, Dr. Levi Ward Ballard (1815-1897) and Mary Esther Ballard (1833-1909) homesteaded 151 acres near the confluence of the White and Green rivers. The Ballards filed part of their homestead land as the first plat for the town of Slaughter on February 23, 1886. The town was named in honor of Lieutenant William A. Slaughter (1827-1855), who had been killed during conflicts with Native Americans three decades earlier. On November 21, 1887, the Ballards platted the first addition to the town of Slaughter.

In 1891, the town of Slaughter was incorporated. However, many residents disliked the name because of the word's ordinary meaning (they did not appreciate the local hotel being referred to as the Slaughter House). On February 21, 1893, a bill was passed by the Washington State Legislature to change the town's name from Slaughter to Auburn. Irving B. Knickerbocker (1864-1954), the businessman and attorney who wrote the bill, took the new name from the opening line of "The Deserted Village," a 1770 poem by Oliver Goldsmith: "Sweet Auburn! Loveliest village of the plain" ("Auburn -- Thumbnail History").

On September 25, 1902, the Seattle-Tacoma Interurban Railway brought growth and development to the White River Valley area, creating an economic explosion for Auburn. With the success of the Interurban, new companies and businesses began moving into Auburn to take advantage of the rapid transportation for their goods.

Library Beginnings

By 1902, the earliest known effort to organize a library started in the homes of the town's residents with a deep desire to learn and circulate books among themselves. The effort found a home in a small room in the back of the bakery operated by Isaac Frank Young (1846-1909), where women volunteers staffed the town's first library.

The library soon moved from Young's bakery to a room in the back of the Auburn Drug Store on West Main Street. The library in the drug store was sponsored and maintained by the Auburn branch of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), an organization that supported a variety of causes in addition to temperance. Two members of the local committee, Sarah L. Reed (1847-?), who served as the librarian in charge, and Emma M. Gilmore (1854-1944), took the lead in the increasing the library's social and intellectual activities in the community. The Auburn WCTU participated in the traveling library program offered by the state of Washington. Fifty carefully selected books were sent from the Washington State Library and made available for circulation. The small collection of books changed from time to time to provide fresh material.

The success of the WCTU-sponsored library and the traveling library program encouraged city officials to work toward establishing a city-run public library in Auburn. In 1901 the state legislature had passed an act enabling counties, cities, or towns to establish and maintain free public libraries. Along with many Washington cities, Auburn took advantage of the opportunity to do so. By 1905, Auburn residents had voted to allocate $1.5 million for public library work. Auburn mayor Arthur H. Meade (1857-1945) appointed a library board of five trustees: E. B. Walker (1866-1929), James T. Reed (1843-?), Frances M. Berlin (1865-1956), E. Bronson Smith (1867-1937), and Arthur C. Ballard (1876-1962), son of town founders Levi and Mary Ballard.

In 1906, plans were made to build a two-story wooden city hall building that would include space for the public library. The new city hall was constructed on the southeast corner of First and A streets at a cost of $650. The fire department was located on the first floor, with the treasurer's office and council chambers on the second floor. And Auburn's library moved from the Auburn Drug Store to a modestly furnished room on the second floor of city hall. The first city library and general reading room was open to the public three afternoons and evenings each week for a total of 15 hours. Isadora (Dora) Ayers Gunn (1884-1964) was appointed librarian and paid $20 per month to keep the room clean, organized, and open. Mary Fife Smith (1859-1944) became librarian after Ayers Gunn resigned, and she extended the service hours. During this time period many libraries, especially those outside large cities, were not self-service. Visitors would request a book from the librarian, who would retrieve it and then shelve the book when the patron was done with it.

First Free-Standing Library, Funded by a Carnegie Grant

The library grew rapidly over the next six years as the number of those who utilized and appreciated its services increased along with the city's population. In 1911 the Carnegie Corporation of New York established a library program to provide support to cities and towns interested in building free public libraries. Enthusiastically, Auburn's library board submitted a letter on August 11, 1911, explaining the city's request for a grant of $10,000. The following year on May 17, 1912, the Carnegie Corporation of New York sent a letter agreeing to provide a $9,000 grant.

The library board immediately began planning the building of a Carnegie Library in Auburn. Architect David J. Myers (1873-1936) was hired to design the new library. On January 13, 1913, board member Arthur Ballard and his wife offered to donate two of their lots on the corner of Auburn Avenue and Third Street NE. The property, previously occupied by apple orchards, was across the street from the Ballard home. The donation was made on the condition the land would revert to the original owners if it was not used for library purposes. On January 17, 1913, the library board accepted the donation from the Ballards and plans for construction of the building at 306 Auburn Avenue began immediately.

Frederick L. Berner (1863-1936), a contractor from Auburn, was hired in March 1913, to build the library, with an initial completion date of that June. However, almost from the beginning of construction, delays and cost overruns plagued the project and it was not until February 1914 that the library was completed. But when finished, Auburn's Carnegie Library was a handsome 5,000-square-foot brick building. Massive oak doors opened into an entry from which a few steps climbed to a main floor divided into three sections. The large circular fir-wood librarian's desk dominated the center section, with a children's section to the right and one for adults to the left.

The new library's opening on February 20, 1914, was celebrated with speeches and musical performances in front of an enthusiastic public. Noticeably, even though a total of 1,542 volumes were moved from the old library space in city hall, there appeared to be a shortage of books in the new library because its shelves could accommodate 7,000 volumes. Beginning with pleas at the opening ceremonies, library board members immediately set about seeking donations of more books, and of money to purchase books.

Time to Move

The Carnegie Library served the city of Auburn and the surrounding area for half a century. Use of the library increased steadily as the population rose not only in the city but also in neighboring towns whose residents patronized the library. The collections of books, magazines, newspapers, and reference materials also increased over the years. Gradually, the library outgrew the Carnegie building, which also received "little modernization" in its five decades of service ("Auburn Library 2008 Community Study"). In 1957, the library board began planning for a larger and more modern library. A bond issue for $255,000 was placed on the 1962 ballot and residents approved it with 75.9 percent of the vote in favor.

The new Auburn Public Library was built at 808 9th Street SE in a comfortable residential neighborhood just off Auburn Way, the city's main street. The Auburn architecture firm Don Allison & Associates handled the design, and R. D. Anderson Co. of Fife served as general contractor. The one-story, 12,000-square-foot building was first occupied on Monday, March 23, 1964. It was formally dedicated on Sunday, April 12, 1964, slightly more than 50 years after the dedication of the city's Carnegie Library. Refreshments were served by the Friends of the Library and music was performed by the Brilling String Quartet.

The new library's interior featured acoustical tile ceiling and chipboard wall finish. There were both tile and carpeted floors. When it opened the Auburn Public Library had 20,000 books in its collection. The librarian was Betty Beck Roberson (1898-1972), who had been the city librarian since 1950.

With the library no longer using the Carnegie building, the city tried to sell it, but the property reverted back to the Ballard family in accordance with the terms of the original donation. They sold it to Robert E. Smith, who converted the building into a dance studio. The Auburn Carnegie Library building was entered into the National Register of Historic Places as a landmark on August 3, 1982.

Annexation to the King County Library System

Under respected librarian Betty Beck Roberson and then her successor John L. Holmes, the Auburn Public Library continued to serve the needs of the still-expanding population. However, city funding did not keep pace with the library's needs, and indeed declined during the late 1970s and early 1980s. City officials studied the library's operations and recommended a series of improvements and a schedule for achieving them. But funding for the recommended improvements was not forthcoming: City voters rejected proposed library bond measures in 1989, 1990, and 1991.

The city responded with another study, this one carried out by a citizen task force appointed by Mayor Charles Booth. In 1995 the task force recommended that city voters decide whether to annex the Auburn Library to the King County Library System. Joining KCLS would turn the responsibility of operating the library, and the portion of Auburn residents' tax revenue devoted to library operations, over to the county-wide system, allowing the Auburn Library to benefit from both a broader tax base and a much larger collection of library materials.

A special election was held on February 4, 1997, for Auburn residents to vote on the annexation question, and 70 percent voted in favor of annexation. The annexation took effect on January 1, 1998.

Building and Expanding a New Library

With support from KCLS and $4 million in development costs paid by the city, planning could get under way for a new 15,000-square-foot library designed by Olson Sundberg Architects. A groundbreaking event to celebrate the start of construction was held on Saturday, March 13, 1999, and the new Auburn Library opened to the public April 19, 2000.

The library at 1102 Auburn Way S (State Route 164) was situated on a busy arterial -- and next to the well-known Big Daddy Drive-In restaurant -- but also within Auburn's Les Gove Park. As such, it "was designed [both] to integrate with the Les Gove park campus and [to] have a street presence on the well-traveled" highway ("Auburn Library 2008 Community Study"). The library's features included meeting rooms for programs and public use, study rooms, access to computers and the internet, and reading nooks. The lobby featured a glass display case for use by the library and/or community groups.

The large and growing collections included dedicated Children's and Teen sections, many newspapers and magazines, books in a variety of languages including Spanish and Russian, and an English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) collection. In addition, the Auburn Library was "home to the largest genealogy collection in the System through a partnership with the South King County Genealogical Society" ("Auburn Library 2008 Community Study").

Like many KCLS libraries, Auburn also featured examples of public art. These included Mnemosynes Opus by Dennis Evans and Nancy Mee, which was composed of visual symbols representing knowledge and learning. Richard Laonde's whimsical Circus Train, hung in the children's area, depicted a toy train set featuring images representing the Auburn area, including the historic Carnegie Library, the city's old train station, and Mount Rainier.

Since its opening, KCLS has continued to update the Auburn Library's facilities and services. A $5.7 million expansion and renovation -- one of many projects funded by a $172 million library capital bond approved by voters in 2004 to fund improvements throughout the system -- was completed in September 2012. The work significantly expanded the library, to 20,000 square feet, by extending the building on two sides. New glass walls provided increased views of Les Gove Park. There was a new central reading area, the entryway was modified, and parking was added. A rain garden was developed to capture and manage rainwater in an environmentally sustainable way.

In the renovation, new technology upgrades were provided for printers, laptops, servers, and hardware. There were upgrades to the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system, and wireless access was provided. An Automated Materials Handling (AMH) system was installed to handle returned items more efficiently. The AMH included a module called "TurnMate," an automated book-sorting feature, which the Auburn Library was the first in the United States to use. A new staffing model was implemented allowing librarians to focus on community outreach and online services. 

In the six months after the renovated library reopened, visits increased 23 percent over the six months preceding the start of the project. Libraries are constantly changing and adapting and the Auburn Library is no different. More than a century after its founding, the Auburn Library will circulate millions of items annually in 2016 and beyond, continuing to serve its community as demand both increases and evolves, and technological transformation rapidly defines the future.


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