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State Library’s past, future celebrated

by Brian Zylstra | October 16th, 2013

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Central Library Services Manager Steve Willis holds up the new booklet about the Washington Territorial Library during his talk at Tuesday’s celebration event.

Political turf battles. Unsavory characters. Nepotism.

You normally wouldn’t associate these terms with a library. But they help describe the turbulent, ever-changing  era of the Washington Territorial Library, which was established in 1853 in Olympia and remains Washington’s oldest cultural institution.

The Washington State Library hosted a public celebration of the Library’s 160th anniversary at its Tumwater headquarters Tuesday afternoon, drawing nearly 100 people.

State Librarian Rand Simmons emceed the event, which was attended by Secretary of State Kim Wyman, former Secretary of State Sam Reed, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander, Thurston County Auditor Gary Alexander and former State Librarian Jan Walsh, among others.

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Special Collections Librarian Sean Lanksbury discusses the Territorial Library collection with guests. (Photo courtesy of Laura Mott)

Sean Lanksbury, the Special Collections Librarian, gave a presentation covering Territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens’ initial purchase of books, maps, globes and other items, and how that shipment reached Olympia after a voyage around the southern tip of South America. The Territorial Library’s initial collection reached Olympia on Oct. 23, 1853, a month before Stevens did via overland route. Lanksbury also delved into the Territorial Library’s many homes in Olympia, explaining that it wasn’t always located in the Territorial Legislative Building despite the desire of legislators back then to house it there.

Central Library Services Manager Steve Willis covered the history of the Territorial Librarians, including the political challenges they faced from the Territorial Legislature, as well as family connections that helped a few of them score the top job. Willis also shared that an effort by territorial legislators to move the capital to Vancouver in 1861 was thwarted thanks in part to Territorial Librarian J.C. Head’s refusal to budge from Olympia. His action, Willis said, saved Olympia’s status as Washington’s capital.

While Lanksbury and Willis focused on the State Library’s early days, Secretary Wyman spoke about its future, noting the launch of Library 21, an initiative that will demonstrate to the Legislature and the state’s residents that “the State Library is a 21st century library empowering 21st century Washingtonians.”

As an upcoming example, Wyman cited November’s scheduled launch of a public-private partnership with Microsoft to implement a Washington State Library Microsoft IT Academy. About 400 public, community and technical college, and tribal libraries will provide access to 220 technology courses free of charge thanks to funding provided by the Legislature and to deep discounts by Microsoft.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Territorial Library, State Library staff created a booklet that looks back at the 36-year history of the Territorial Library. It includes many photos as well as profiles on all 21 Territorial Librarians. A limited number of copies of the handout are available for free at the State Library’s second-floor reference desk, located at 6880 Capitol Blvd. SE in Tumwater.

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