New Walla Walla Public Library building is dedicated on June 13, 1970.

  • By Michael J. Paulus Jr.
  • Posted 8/24/2008
  • Essay 8728

On June 13, 1970, Senator Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983) dedicates a new building for the Walla Walla Public Library. Established in 1897, the library moved into its first building, built with funds from Andrew Carnegie, in 1905. The library prospered and quickly grew in its ornate facility, but by 1950 its collection, services, and staff had become extremely constrained by its space. After many years, support for a new library was secured and construction began in 1969. The new facility will enable the library to expand its collections and services and adapt to changes in communication media, computing technologies, and community needs.

50,000 Books in a Space for 20,000

Beginning in the 1860s, attempts were made in Walla Walla to establish a circulating library for the public through subscriptions. By 1890, this model had proven unsustainable and Walla Wallans petitioned their new state government to legislate the municipal support of free public libraries. After the state legislature passed such a law, the Walla Walla Woman's Reading Club, which had championed the law, raised the funds needed to start a public library for the city and one opened in November 1897. In 1903, the club found a location for a building for the library and the city accepted a $25,000 grant from Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) to build it.

The Carnegie building opened in 1905 and the public library, with a collection of some 5,000 volumes, quickly began to grow. New professional staff were added, activities such as collection development, cataloging, and outreach were professionalized, and even through the Great Depression the library continued to develop. Despite weeding thousands of books, giving away old newspapers, and burning old records, by 1950 the library had outgrown its Carnegie building. By 1970, many of the library's 50,000 books were packed away in the basement and boxed up in the men's room and library staff had to work in public areas. The lighting was poor, there was no air conditioning, and the heating plant was ailing. There was also no parking and the busy streets surrounding the building made access dangerous.

New Space, Stuff, and Services

By 1967, there was sufficient public interest in building a new building for the Walla Walla Public Library. Local businessman Donald Sherwood offered to build a building for the library and lease it to the city for 25 years, after which time it would belong to the city. The city determined that it could save money if it purchased the building outright, so the $600,000 needed for the project was raised through a local bond issue and with some help from the state.

The new building, a single-story brick structure not far down Alder Street from the old Carnegie building, was designed by Thomas R. Adkinson and Gerald M. Mosman. It was dedicated on Saturday, June 13, 1970, with an address by Senator Henry M. Jackson. Donald and Virginia Kelly Sherwood paid for furnishings and equipment as a memorial to honor Walla Walla Union-Bulletin publisher John G. Kelly (1872-1962).

The new building tripled the amount of space available to the library and enabled it to expand its collections and programs. The library now had space for 80,000 books, large reading rooms for adults and children, rooms for public programs and events, appropriate staff facilities, and an audio-visual room for new media collections, such as records and films. In 2006, as part of plan to expand and renovate its current facilities, a new children's wing was added to the library's building.

In 1971, the Carnegie building became a community art center, the Carnegie Center of the Arts. Later renamed the Carnegie Art Center, it closed in 2014.

Sources: "Library Has Psychological Advantage," Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, June 13, 1970, p. 2;  John G. Kelly: His Life and Legacy ed. by Alfred McVay (Walla Walla: Inland Printing Company, 1981); The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Walla Walla Public Library," (by Michael J. Paulus, Jr.), (accessed August 24, 2008); Richard Zahler, "City's New Library Will Offer Increased Capacity and Many Unique Features," Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, August 10, 1969; Carolyn Henderson, "Artist Scrutinizes Natural World," Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, December 11, 2014 (
Note: This essay was updated on December 16, 2015.

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