Centennial celebration set for Olympia Timberland Library

Books, reading rooms and research materials have been around since Olympia’s earliest days.

But the capital city’s first permanent, community-owned library, the 21/2-story Carnegie-built facility, opened its doors Oct. 3, 1914.

“Everyone was really happy about it,” said historian and author Drew Crooks of Olympia. “It was kind of like the pride of the town.”

Even though the Carnegie building hasn’t housed the Olympia Timberland Library since 1978, the historic landmark’s centennial is still an occasion to celebrate, according to library manager Donna Feddern. Staff members have organized several events to mark the occasion, including a public lecture on Oct. 2 about the history of libraries in Thurston County by historian and author Shanna Stevenson and a birthday party celebration on Oct. 4.

“It’s not just our library, it’s the community library,” Feddern said. “We’re just looking forward to celebrating with the community.”

Before the Olympia Public Library opened, South Sound residents had an array of sources for books and research materials. The Washington State Territorial Library, authorized in 1853, later became the Washington State Library. It was heavily used by politicians and residents for research, according to Stevenson, the former historic preservation officer for Olympia, Thurston County and Tumwater.

In 1869, Capt. D.B. Finch, owner and operator of mail steamer that delivered mail between Olympia and Victoria, set up a reading room in the Good Templars Lodge in Olympia.

“It was a small library that people could enjoy,” Crooks said.

The State Library helped to establish the first traveling library (aka “Bookmobile”) service that served Washingtonians from 1899 to 1929, according to the Secretary of State’s website. Its law collection was separated and formed the Washington State Law Library in 1907.

In 1896, the Women’s Club of Olympia began collecting books for a library. By 1909, the group turned its collection of 900 books over to the city of Olympia, according to records submitted to the United States Department of Interior for the Carnegie building’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places. At that point, city and county officials had already joined to apply for a grant from Andrew Carnegie, the New York steel tycoon and philanthropist who provided grants to construct thousands of libraries across the country, including ones in Hoquiam, Chehalis, Centralia and Tacoma.

To secure the money, South Sound residents had to demonstrate that there would be continued funding for the library, according to Thurston County historian Patricia C. Harper, who also is a retired Timberland Regional Library reference associate.

“They actually ran a bond,” she said.

“They had to prove that the city and county had the finances to operate it,” Stevenson added.

The community was awarded $25,000 from Carnegie to build its library at Franklin Street Southeast and Seventh Avenue Southeast in Olympia. The building’s official name? Well, that depended on who you asked.

Harper said the city’s directory referred to it as “Olympia Public Library,” although a flier from the county fair referred to it as “Thurston County Public Library.”

She’s even found references to it as “the Olympia and Thurston County Carnegie Library.”

“I am actually not sure about the official name,” Harper said. “In the newspapers it was most often called ‘Public Library.’ The county and city were contributing an equal amount of money in the beginning, $1,250 each.”

The buff-colored brick building was designed by Olympia architect Joseph Wohleb and the architect firm Blackwell & Baker of Seattle.

“Every (Carnegie) library was different,” Crooks said. “The one (thing) that was unique about the Olympia one is that it has a corner entrance.”

Wohleb designed more than 150 buildings in the state, including the 1930 Thurston County Courthouse in Olympia, the National Guard Armory in Olympia, Shelton City Hall, and the Highway Building and the Public Lands-Social Security Building on the Capitol Campus, according to the state Department of Archeology & Historic Preservation.

“He was known as ‘Olympia’s architect,’ ” Crooks said.

Getting the funding for the library was a lengthy process, but the building’s construction took only seven months, Harper said.

In the summer of 1914, when construction was underway, the library board hired Mabel Smith as the new librarian. Her salary was $90 a month, and she was authorized by the library board to buy furniture and 400 new books to add to the hundreds of titles that had already been collected by local civic groups, Harper said.

Smith, who had been a librarian in Watertown, Wisconsin, also insisted that Olympia’s library keep up with the times.

“There was new technology,” Harper said. “You had an electric clock, a telephone and a typewriter. ... They rented the clock.”

During its first three weeks in operation, 800 people applied for library cards, and 1,500 volumes had been called for and loaned, according to a newspaper account.

“The library is fast becoming the leading civic and education center of the county, a great number of out of town people taking advantage of the comfortable rest rooms and the well-equipped library,” the story stated.

Within the library’s first month, Smith also opened substations in Rochester and Union Mills so residents in other parts of the county would have easier access to books.

“It wasn’t just the Olympia Library those days,” Harper said. “It was countywide. They would eventually have about four branches. ... All of those were kind of storefronts.”

For decades, the city’s Carnegie library was treasured by the community.

“It was a building with style,” said Barbara Smith, 68, of Olympia. “It was a place where you could enjoy your book in a cozy atmosphere.”

Jim Slosson, 67, of Olympia, recalled writing “many a term paper in the musty basement of the old library building.”

“It was a shushy place, but fun,” he said. “I would spend a whole afternoon doing work and just browsing.”

In 1948, Olympia, Thurston County and Mason County’s library districts joined to form the South Puget Regional Library, Crooks said. In 1968, it grew even larger to become the five-county Timberland Regional Library system, he said.

The Carnegie building was expanded, but by the early 1970s, it had become too small for its brisk business. It was beginning to show signs of its age, too.

“It needed a lot of repairs,” recalled Pam Rood, an Olympia Library circulation assistant who began working for Timberland in 1974. “That building was basically falling down for us. The ceiling was coming off the wall. There was hardly any space.”

Library district voters approved a $1.5 million bond in 1976 to build a new library, about a block away, at Eighth Avenue Southeast and Franklin Street Southeast.

“They were originally going to build a two-story building, but it was more expensive, so the bond failed on that,” Harper said. “So they redesigned the building for just one story.”

Over the years, the Carnegie library building went on to house a cafe, a bookstore and a furniture shop. Today it’s home of the Olympia Reality Church.

The Olympia library’s current location underwent extensive remodeling in 2000 and 2008. Its collection featured 158,413 items at the end of 2013. Last year, it circulated 866,186 items, and had 470,894 visits.

“We are the busiest (Timberland branch) in terms of foot traffic — an average of 1,600 people a day,” said librarian Sara Peté.

Stevenson said the mission of the Thurston County’s libraries has always been education, but over the years, its buildings have also served as centers for its communities.

“In World War I, it was the libraries that were the center for food preservation and education,” she said. “They also raised money for soldiers at Fort Lewis.”

Library branches also serve as Red Cross emergency shelters and meeting places, Stevenson said.

A librarian’s job has evolved greatly over the past century. The library uses a computerized system for checking out materials, but it also has computers available as a resource for patrons.

“Information is coming in so many different formats now,” Feddern said. “We teach technology. ... Now we’re actually teaching people how to use computers search for information. We’re a safety net for the digital divide.”

Books are still a big part of the library, but Olympia’s collection also features DVDs, audio books, large print books, newspapers, magazines and online databases. Staff members organize activities, including story times and craft activities, author events and reading contests.

When the economy crashed a few years ago, the library saw an uptick in patrons who were visiting the library to search for jobs and check out materials to learn new skills, Feddern said.

“I like to think of the library as a place for lifelong learning,” she said.