As a young teen, I definitely fit the description of a bookworm — skinny, thick eye glasses and happiest with a book in my hands.
Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed sports and hunting and fishing, too. But a perfect Saturday afternoon for me was spent at the state Library, on the state Capitol Campus, researching term papers, browsing through the periodicals, admiring the historic books in the Washington Room in the library basement and checking out a book or two before hoofing it down Capitol Way to The Brown Derby for a piece of wild blackberry pie smothered in ice cream.
I’ve been a patron of the library for more than 50 years, but for all that time I knew next to nothing about the library’s history. That changed Tuesday.
I attended a little birthday party Tuesday in the public reading room on the second floor of the state Library, which was ousted from the Capitol Campus in 2002, and moved to Tumwater.
This year marks the 160th anniversary of the state Library. It’s been around since the origin of the Washington Territory in 1853, making it the oldest cultural institution in the state. How cool is that?
The original collection of 2,850 books and documents were hand-picked by territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens, who had a budget of $5,000 to procure the collection. That may not sound like much, but it’s the equivalent of $350,000 in 2012 dollars, and as much as was set aside for construction of the Washington Territory’s first legislative building in Olympia.
The bulk of the collection was shipped from New York City around the tip of South America to San Francisco aboard the ship, “Invincible.” They were transferred to a second ship, the brig “Tarquinia,” and arrived at the Olympia docks on Oct. 23, 1853, a full month before Stevens reached the territorial capital via an overland route.
Roughly one-third of the startup collection, including a celestial and terrestrial globe, remain in safe-keeping at the library. Others have yet to be catalogued. The globes, encased in glass, greet visitors on the second floor.
In addition, about 1,200 law books from the original collection were transferred in 1921 to the state Law Library in the state Supreme Court Temple of Justice. Currently the state Law Library holds 600 volumes verified from the territorial collection.
The original books and documents reside in a vault on the library’s third floor, along with other rare books that were added to the library collection in the later years of territory times and the early years of statehood.
Along with a few others, I toured the vault Tuesday with special collections librarian Sean Lanksbury. The smell of old leather and ancient paper wafted through the climate-controlled air. Among the treasures from the original collection is the first Latin edition of the second letter written in 1520 by Hernan Cortes to Spanish Emperor Charles V, following the Spanish conquistador’s overthrow of the Aztec Empire in Mexico.
It was published in 1524.
The first written account of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, as told by the expedition’s Sgt. Patrick Gass, resides in the vault, along with the original account of Lt. Charles Wilkes’ Pacific Northwest Exploring Expedition of 1841.
Over in the rare book section was a 1909 book entitled “Birds of Washington.” Nearby sat a book by South Sound pioneer Ezra Meeker entitled “Hop Culture,” a reminder that hop-growing in Puget Sound used to be a major agricultural endeavor. It’s making a bit of a comeback these days.
I also learned that the state Library used to be housed with the state Legislature in the early days, and has moved around the Olympia area a number of times, on and off the Capitol Campus.
As an institution, it probably reached its nadir 10 years ago when then Gov. Gary Locke tried unsuccessfully to eliminate the state library from his state budget. The budget battle resulted in the library being placed under the umbrella of the Secretary of State Office, where it remains today.
Secretary of State Kim Wyman and her predecessor, Sam Reed, both remarked Tuesday that there’s still a political lobbying effort afoot to return the library to the Capitol Campus, but it’s an uphill battle.
“In the 2013 state Legislature we were fighting the same old battle with some lawmakers asking: “Is the state Library a core function of state government?’” Wyman said.
If given a chance, the 50 or more attending the library birthday party would have answered with a resounding “yes.”
John Dodge: 360-754-5444