This week, and last the Library has been hosting a number of fun-filled events to celebrate its 10th year anniversary. It has been hosting everything from local bands and talks from authors, to architectural and design speakers with activities for kids and adults alike. I was able to stop by this morning to partake in some of the festivities and hand out cupcakes to excited library patrons!
Now for some history about the Library’s beginnings and how it became what it is today:
Seattle’s Central Library, the stunning window-paned monument on Fifth Avenue, is turning ten – a perfect 10 — this month. The building still draws many visitors from afar, intent on marveling at Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas’ iconic design, seen as Seattle’s “magnificent chandelier” or perhaps as a dream castle, refracting the indigenous marine mist.
But, even more than a splendid structure, Seattle’s Central Library is a metropolitan miracle, drawing millions of visitors each year to one of the best used libraries and one of the most beloved library systems in the nation. What a success story the Seattle Public Library has been. And what a distance it has come from its paltry beginnings.
A little history: The first attempt to establish a library in Seattle occurred in 1868 when Sarah Yesler, lumber baron Henry Yesler’s wife, was elected to The Office of Librarian. That infant enterprise ended ignominiously, with the library going broke in 1881 and not being replaced for seven long years. Finally, in the 1890s, book-deprived Seattleites stirred and made the move to build a publicly-financed library.
However, it would be December 1, 1891, before the first book was actually checked out. Appropriately, the first check-out was Mark Twain’s “The Innocents Abroad.” And yet, even with the library reestablished, there was no stand-alone library structure. The collection occupied floors in various office buildings until the library finally got a home of its own: the gingerbreaded Yesler mansion at Third and James. That structure, alas, burned Jan 1, 1901, not a good way to begin the New Year.
Next to rush to the rescue was Andrew Carnegie, who, upon hearing about the fire, donated $200,000 to build a library; and the city bought the site between Fourth and Fifth and Spring and Madison.
Hard times befell the handsome building during the Depression years, for structures are one thing, money to pay for staff and maintenance are another. The Carnegie library, never really large enough, lapsed into disrepair, a fate that was sealed when it was damaged in the 1949 earthquake.
The central library of the 50s and 60s was adequate, but never the structure the city and its book-loving citizens deserved. The decision to go ahead with a new structure on the site was a controversial one, pitting library enthusiasts (among them, the women’s majority on the City Council) against thrift-conscious planners who wanted to squeeze the library into space underneath an expanded Washington State Convention and Visitors Center.
The Library Believers won the day and the city’s mayor, Paul Schell, didn’t settle for an off-the-shelf design. Instead they picked the innovative Dutch architect who gave Seattle its unique building. And, beyond that, they reached out to citizens for the city’s largest bond issue and its promise of Libraries for All. The Central Library and its 26 branches, some refurbished, some new, give us this magnificent system that, today is celebrating a tenth birthday and thriving.