White Center Library, King County Library System

  • By Glenn Drosendahl
  • Posted 12/14/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20241
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The early history of the White Center Library followed a winding path. The library began in a private home in 1943 and moved to the basement of a fieldhouse in 1946, the year that the White Center Library joined the King County Library System (KCLS). Fifteen years later in 1961, the library moved into a converted gymnasium transported from Seattle. Library Guild members, faced with booming book circulation and an untenably small space under the fieldhouse, had led a broad-based community effort to buy and transform the former gym into a source of civic pride. White Center benefitted from KCLS bond issues approved by voters in 1966 and 2004, each leading to a new, bigger, and better-equipped library building. The first new building opened in 1976, and the most recent White Center Library opened in May 2016.

Library in the Fieldhouse

Before there was a library in White Center, an unincorporated neighborhood in southwest King County located between West Seattle and Burien, community members could borrow Seattle Public Library books from a station in Rossner's Grocery Store at 16th Avenue SW and SW Barton Street. That arrangement lasted from 1924 to 1930.

In 1943, Mount View School PTA members began operating a library of donated books in the home of Nel Freeze (1914-2003). In 1946, the library moved into the basement of the White Center Fieldhouse, and joined the recently created King County Rural Library District, which later adopted the name King County Library System. The district provided books and paid for a librarian. The White Center Community Club and the local Commercial Club paid for maintenance.

The fieldhouse space was less than ideal. Located under the building's front porch, it was long, narrow, and poorly lit. And it was noisy from the thumping of basketballs in the fieldhouse overhead. The White Center Library Guild, a volunteer group, was formed in 1952 to improve conditions. Lela Pinson was its first president. The Guild began fundraising through such means as raffles, collecting scrap metal, and asking businesses and residents for donations. Those efforts enabled the group to build shelves for the library and start saving for a better place.

In 1953, Gertrude Finney (1910-2011) became head librarian. She would serve in that position for 20 years and be a major figure in the push for a new library space, writing a regular feature in the White Center News and being named White Center's Woman of the Year in 1957. In her later years, she recalled some of the challenges of running a library under a fieldhouse, including basketballs rolling into the room and boys fighting outside: "Dealing with rowdy boys was part of the head librarian's job" (Mathison, "Legendary Ex-Librarian ..."). At her urging, the Library Guild paid for installation of a separate library entrance in 1955. A sign over the original entrance said "Women," since it led to both the library and the women's restroom. "We lost a lot of men" because of that sign, Finney recalled (Knapp, 97).

Importing a New Home

Space was inadequate and circulation was growing. The number of books checked out in February 1956 was more than double what it had been in February 1955. The increase prompted the Commercial Club and the Guild to begin looking for a new site and to redirect the money received in library fees, which were set at $5 per year for businesses and $1 a year for individuals. For the first time since the fieldhouse library opened, fees would go for something other than lighting, shelves, or other improvements. They went instead into a building fund. Meanwhile, library hours were increased to six afternoons and evenings a week. By 1959, patrons were checking out an average of 5,000 books every month.

A new building was found in an unlikely spot -- Seattle's Lower Queen Anne neighborhood. An annex that had served as the Warren Avenue School gymnasium needed to make way for the city's Century 21 world's fair. White Center Library advocates bought the portable structure and moved it to leased space on the fieldhouse grounds. Funding the purchase and the cost of renovations were Library Guild savings and money raised during a one-and-a-half year building-fund drive.

The resulting library building, located at 1205 SW 102nd Street, was dedicated on April 18, 1961. Major design changes had transformed the rather clunky structure. It gained a covered entryway porch with wide glass doors on one side, a group of tall windows facing the street, and a fenced, landscaped garden. Unlike the fieldhouse basement, the inside was brightly lit. At 2,100 square feet, the new facility also was four times larger. Much of the work in transforming the gym was done by volunteers. A newspaper account hailed the community-wide effort and put the cost of the project at $10,000 ("Library Classic Example ...").

Building the Next Library

In 1966, county voters passed a $6 million KCLS bond issue to build or improve 20 libraries. By 1971, White Center had outgrown its building on SW 102nd Street. The Guild successfully applied for bond-issue money and began taking steps toward a new structure. A vacant lot on 16th Avenue SW was purchased in 1972. The following year the firm of Ridenour-Cochran-Lewis was hired as project architect.

The new library, roughly three times bigger than its immediate predecessor, was dedicated on August 29, 1976. It cost $300,000. Features touted in the dedication ceremony program were a multi-purpose room, a conference room, carpeting, air conditioning, staff rooms and work rooms, and two display cases. The library had a collection of 24,000 books. Circulation for the year was nearly 90,000 items.

Computers and Crime

The building that opened in 1976 was the scene of two unusual events in the following decades. One was the robbery of some expensive equipment. The other involved a hostage-taking situation at a nearby pharmacy, with police using the library as a temporary headquarters from which to negotiate with the hostage takers.

The robbery occurred on May 8, 1982. KCLS had recently installed a million-dollar computer system for staff to keep track of items reserved, checked out, and overdue. Along with that system-wide project, White Center was picked as one of two libraries to get an Apple II Plus microcomputer as a pilot project to determine whether personal computers for patron use would be a worthwhile investment. Patrons had been able to use the equipment for about three months at White Center when burglars entered through a side window and took the entire Apple II system, including a printer, a color monitor, and disk drives. Head librarian Bruce Schauer told a reporter, "They knew what they were after. They took everything that belonged to the computer" (Mitchell). The stolen equipment was valued at nearly $5,000. It had been in nearly constant use since it had been installed, which was a factor in KCLS concluding that personal computers were an important part of its libraries' future.

The hostage-taking, on August 16, 1990, evolved out of an attempted armed robbery at a pharmacy near the library. Police set up a temporary headquarters in the library, with hostage negotiators talking to the would-be robbers in the drugstore by phone from the office of head librarian Robin Rothschild. Some patrons were escorted from the library; others stayed put while dozens of police came and went during the five-hour standoff at the pharmacy. All three of the hostages were eventually released unharmed, but the incident drew much attention. The Seattle Times reported that "hundreds of residents lined the street and shared rumors" during the standoff (Seven, "Hostage-Takers..."). Coverage dominated the front page of the next edition of the White Center News.

Growing Needs

White Center's library got an $80,000 facelift in 1991, the money coming from a successful 1988 county bond measure. Workers updated the electrical system, installed new carpeting and new cabinets, and painted the entire interior. By then the White Center Library had a collection of nearly 40,000 items, including materials in Vietnamese, Korean, Cambodian, and Spanish. Still, the community's needs were once again outgrowing the library building, a condition increasingly common throughout the King County Library System by 2002.

Help arrived in the form of a successful $172 million bond measure in 2004. It was earmarked for replacing, expanding, or renovating libraries throughout the county, adding improvements such as more access to wireless technology, space for teens to get homework help, self-checkout stations, and much more. Among the libraries scheduled for replacement with a new building was the White Center Library, because of its age, condition, and over-crowding.

Getting the new building would take more than a decade. The reason was the possible annexation of White Center by either Seattle or Burien, the two cities adjoining the unincorporated area that included White Center. This prospect created uncertainty as to whether the White Center Library would remain part of KCLS, because while the Burien Library had annexed into KCLS in 1993, Seattle operates its own public libraries. On August 18, 2009, the City of Burien annexed the southern portion of North Highline, an unincorporated area bordered by Seattle, Burien, SeaTac, and Tukwila. The existing White Center Library was within that area, but close to the border and no site had been designated for a new library building.

With Seattle and Burien both potential suitors for the rest of North Highline, the KCLS Board of Trustees voted to delay action on a new White Center Library, while also considering consolidating the White Center and Boulevard Park libraries as a cost-saving matter. The White Center Library Guild led by President Rachel Levine fought to delay any decision until the annexation question was settled.

New Bigger Building

When North Highline voters in November 2012 overwhelmingly rejected becoming part of Burien, KCLS director Bill Ptacek (b. 1951) decided it was time to end the delays. He said KCLS was not ready to consolidate the White Center and Boulevard Park libraries, and gave the unofficial go-ahead for the long-promised new library building for White Center: "We have the money. The community has a need. We are ready to go" said (Mathison, "Update ..."). On February 23, 2013, the Board of Trustees made it official, approving construction of a new 10,000-square-foot White Center Library on the corner of SW 107th Street and 14th Avenue SW to replace the nearby existing library building.

Construction began on March 19, 2015. The architecture firm was NBBJ of Seattle. In contrast to the project's long wait for approval, construction of the $8.5 million building went relatively quickly. The new White Center Library was dedicated on May 21, 2016. In addition to being nearly a third larger and having wireless access and more computers than the previous building, it was brighter, thanks to skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows along its street-facing wall. The new building offered "woodsy views of 100-foot tall fir trees saved during construction" and its landscaping also included a rain garden designed to hold and slow water run-off during storms ("Delivering on a Promise ...," 22).

It also came with civic high hopes. The location, at 1409 SW 107th Street, had been a trash-strewn empty lot. It was close to hundreds of low-income apartment units, home to many, including immigrants, who would be served by the library. That location for the library had been favored by the White Center Chamber of Commerce and others, who believed that the library could stimulate economic growth in the area. The Highline Times reported that "It is expected that the new $5+ million library will be a redevelopment opportunity for the White Center business district and become an anchor to the south end of the White Center business district" (Robinson, "Update ...").

In one sense, the White Center Library had come full circle. The new building was adjacent to Mount View Elementary, the school whose PTA members had organized the community's first library73 years earlier.


"Delivering on a Promise to Voters: KCLS Capital Improvement Plan 12-Year Report, September 2016" King County Library System website accessed December 1, 2016 (https://w3.kcls.org/capital_bond/12%20Year%20Capital%20Bond%20Report.pdf); Michael Truman Knapp, White Center Remembers (White Center: The Print Shop, 1976), 97; Clay Eals, West Side Story (Seattle: West Seattle Herald/White Center News, 1987), 89; "100 Years of Being Valuable to Others: Gertrude Finney, Librarian, Reaches the Century Mark," West Seattle Herald, September 10, 2010, p. B-1; Eric Mathison, "Legendary Ex-Librarian Passes Away at Age 100," Highline Times, January 14, 2011, p. 1; "Need for New Library Seen," White Center News, March 23, 1956; "White Center Library Does Booming Book Business," Ibid., March 19, 1959; "W.C. Library Buys Building; Fund Drive Eyed," Ibid., December 5, 1959; "Dream Comes True," Ibid., April 13, 1961; "Library Classic Example of Community Purpose," Ibid., April 13, 1961, p. 1; Sue Mitchell, "Library's Popular Computer Stolen," Ibid., May 19, 1982, p. 1; Tim St. Clair, "Hostages Held Five Hours; Library Turns into Police Headquarters," Ibid., August 22, 1990, p. A-1; June McKivor, "White Center's New Library is a Shiny Gem in Town," Ibid.," April 28, 2016; "White Center Library: A Bicentennial Community Event," dedication ceremony program, August 29, 1976, historical documents vertical file, White Center Library, Seattle, Washington; "White Center Library 10th Anniversary Celebration," program, September 6, 1986, historical documents vertical file, White Center Library; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "King County Library System" (by Paula Becker), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed December 4, 2016); Rex Johnson, "White Center Library Undergoes Renovation," White Center Chronicle, August 28, 1991, p. 4; Richard Seven, "Hostage-Takers in White Center Give Up," The Seattle Times, August 17, 1990, p. B-1; Caitlin Cleary, "County Libraries Outgrow Buildings - $155 Million Ballot Measure Being Considered," Ibid., August 9, 2002, p. B-2; Keith Ervin, "Expansion Plans' Fate Still Up In Air -- King County Library Bonds," Ibid., September 15, 2004, p. A-7; Sonia Krishnan, "Burien Will Grow Larger, Voters Decide," Ibid., August 19, 2009, p. A-8; Eric Mathison, "Library Board Once Again Postpones Decision on Closing White Center, Boulevard Park Libraries," The Highline Times, December 1, 2011 (www.highlinetimes.com); Mathison, "Update: White Center Library Apparently Saved," Ibid., November 15, 2012; Rachel Levine, "An Overview of the White Center Library Debate," Ibid., January 30, 2013; Patrick Robinson, "Update: White Center Library to be in White Center, Not Burien," Ibid., February 28, 2013; Gwen Davis, "Public Feistily Expresses Questions, Comments, on White Center Library Construction," Ibid., July 20, 2013; Robinson, "New White Center Library Groundbreaking Offers Hopeful Voices," Ibid., March 19, 2015; "Big Crowd Attends New Library Opening in White Center," Ibid., May 21, 2016, p. 7.

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