The Seattle Public Library Has a Long, Illustrious History

(Practically) everything you’ve ever wanted to know about our bookish institution—including the levy on your ballot.

By Jaime Archer July 23, 2019 Published in the August 2019 issue of Seattle Met

The Central Library in all its angular glory.

The origins of Seattle’s library system stretch back to 1868, when 50 residents formed the city’s first library association. Since then, it’s survived a fire, the Spanish flu pandemic, three redesigns of the Central Library, and, yes, budget cuts. But the 151-year-old institution with a hub and 26 branches endures, thanks to both wealthy benefactors (ahem, Andrew Carnegie) and Seattle residents: A $123 million seven-year levy passed in 2012 to bolster the library during recession years. Now, on August 6, Seattle voters will be asked to renew the levy to support essential needs.

Where Would That Levy Money Go? 

► $219.1 million: Cost of August’s seven-year library levy renewal.

► $87.23: The levy’s estimated annual cost to the median Seattle household. 

► To fund: Extended hours, building maintenance, better library tech, a bigger collection, early learning programs, and the elimination of overdue fees.

"It’s not just a place to get a book…. There’s much more to it, because this is the only free, nonjudgmental, fair, safe place for everyone to come.” —Wei Cai, regional manager, SPL

The charitable Andrew Carnegie.

Library Plot Twists

Memorable chapters in our bookish institution’s long history.

1890: The library becomes an official city department; a reading room opens in Pioneer Square the following year.

1901: A fire destroys most of the collection. Luckily, steel titan Andrew Carnegie pledges $200,000 to rebuild.

1906: The Central Library opens in its current downtown location, featuring a Beaux Arts design.

1942: Staff send 500 books to Japanese American incarceration camps during World War II.

1960: A revamped Central Library, of the International Style, is the first American library with an escalator. 

1970: A half-century after Congress granted women suffrage, the library finally allows married women to have memberships in their name (yes, really).

1984: An anti-pornography group challenges SPL over its Playboy collection—and loses.

1995: The first library website launches. Welcome to the internet era!

1998: Voters pass a $196.4 million bond to build a new Central Library (again) and more branches. At the time, it is the largest library measure ever submitted in the country.

2003: Novelty shop Archie McPhee creates an action figure of then–SPL librarian Nancy Pearl, known for her program, If All of Seattle Read the Same Book.

Editor's Note: We received an email pointing out many members of the communities affected by the forced removal of the 1940s prefer the term ‘incarceration’ due to the nature of these camps. After some research and consideration, Seattle Met has decided to adopt this term as well.

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