Every week the Town Crier blog will look back at Seattle’s near forgotten Town Crier magazine to see what was happening then and talk about what’s happening now. One of the largest sections of the original Town Crier was “What People Are Doing,” highlighting things like, “If conditions are favorable the Renton Hill Guild of the Orthopedics Association will give a card party next Tuesday ,” and, “the Monday Practice Club met Monday afternoon.” In this new series we’re revisiting the old column and tying it to our community’s current happenings, asking: “what are people doing?”
The February 8, 1919 editors of the Town Crier sang the praises of Seattle’s libraries in an article entitled “The Use of Books.” It reads, in part, “To thousands the Library is simply a place where one volume of fiction may be replaced by another. They have not yet learned how to use this great public utility. To other thousands it is a mine of knowledge from which they may draw that which they need at pleasure.” Other than the police station, the library is “the only public institution that is open to all in the evening: the only place where men, women and children alike are always welcome without money and without price.” The Crier took note that libraries were becoming community and neighborhood centers. “They are fulfilling their highest mission – public service.”
Seattle’s first public library opened in April 1869. Sarah Yesler (1822-1887) was its first librarian. Yesler was a reader, an advocate of women’s suffrage, and a very active community-member. With $60 in funds, books were purchased. Some of them included Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays and Percy Shelley’s Collected Poems.
By 1890, the Seattle Public Library had been adopted as a branch of Seattle city government. During the early decades, it operated in various places downtown, always needing more space. With some Andrew Carnegie funding, a new home for the library opened in 1906. Designed by architect P.J. Weber of Chicago, it was bounded by Fourth and Fifth avenues and Madison and Spring streets. When it opened it contained 81,035 books, had 22,444 borrowers, and 47 employees.
But by the 1930s, it too needed more space. It took some time to build a new structure. Dedicated on March 26, 1960, the new 206,000-square-foot Central Library took 21 months to build at a cost of $4.5 million. The five-story library featured escalators, air conditioning and a film department with 1,000 16-millimeter films. The new facility had 1 million books and 260,425 borrowers.
The 1990s brought about another round of library improvements. It included demolishing the existing Central Library and building a new one on-site. The new Central Library opened May 23, 2004. Designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, it is now prolifically sited as one of the most beautiful libraries in the world.
Town Crier’s writers would be pleased at how far the library has come in fulfilling its highest mission.