Seattle Public Library, Down But Not Out

Seattle Public Library, Down But Not Out

SPL 3From the desk of Steve Willis, Central Library Services Program Manager of the Washington State Library:

This week’s random article comes from the Jan. 5, 1901 issue of The Ballard News, published at a time when Ballard was an independent incorporated city. But the news itself is actually about Seattle, and the almost total destruction of the Seattle Public Library by fire on the evening where 1900 turned into 1901.

According to John Douglas Marshall’s book, Place of Learning, Place of Dreams (2004), SPL had struggled in the early years to find funding and a permanent home. On Jan. 12, 1899 the Library opened in the posh quarters of the Yesler mansion, and patron usage soared. But City Librarian Charles Wesley Smith expressed concern the enormous Victorian wooden structure was a fire hazard. The memories of Seattle’s great 1889 inferno were still fresh.

Smith’s fears were well founded. Practically the whole collection went up in smoke on the cusp of 1900/1901. Andrew Carnegie came to the rescue and in short order a fine new library was constructed. The cause of the fire was never fully explained. There was some feeling it was sparked by someone who wanted to force the issue of finding a secure home for SPL. One prominent Seattle educator even declared, “All glory to the man who applied the torch.”

This article was apparently originally published in the Seattle Mail and Herald. It is interesting how many of the points made in promoting the local library in 1901 remain valid over a century later:



 That Was Seattle’s Loss in Tuesday Night’s Fire

 “Ever since Seattle’s great fire the city has been learning to turn apparent evil into good and to make the most of her calamities. The same spirit which prompted her to rise up in the ashes of 1889 and build on new foundations the basis of a greater city than could ever have sprung from the old, will not desert her now, as she stands and looks in the ashes of what was, a few days since, the pride of every man, woman and child on Puget Sound,– the Seattle Public Library.”

“All are by this time acquainted with the fact that on New Year’s night the library, consisting of $35,000 worth of books and  paraphernalia, was destroyed by fire.”

“Until this calamity few people had known in just what an exalted position they held this institution; but the calamity has appealed more directly to the people than would the destruction of any other institution, public or private, in the city, with the possible exception of the University.”

“A public library such as this, is of incalculable value to any city in which it is located. A public library operated in such a satisfactory way as was this one is, we believe, of as much value to the city as the churches combined.”

“The Seattle Library had 8,200 patrons, and it may be safely calculated on the basis of five readers for every card– more than 40,000 readers.”

“It had an average of 2,500 visitors daily. The number going in and out of the library building on last Thanksgiving day, aggregated 3,000.”

“There is another fact– and it is important– that hundreds and even thousands of men and girls, who had not decent rooms or apartments, spent all their leisure time in the library. Now that the establishment is destroyed and temporarily inaccessible, they are seen walking listlessly about the streets or lounging in clubs or saloons– for they are out of a home. These, and the further fact that education and high ideals are the acknowledged solution to the problem of crime, are some of the reasons urged why the Seattle Public Library was of such vital importance to the city. Outside of all other argument there is the fact that no other city of Seattle’s size could afford to be without a well equipped complete library.”

“We desire to commend the Library committee of the city council upon their prompt and decisive action. It seems that they have no other thought in mind than that the city must at once proceed, not only to place the library back in even a better state than before, but more important than all else, to purchase a site, forthwith, and construct a fireproof library building that will answer for all time.”

“This is as it should be. Seattle is not a city of ephemeral hopes and iridescent booms. She is building for all time. Mr. Smith, the man who has conducted to such perfect satisfaction, the affairs of the City Library for so many years, has been working for two years past to this one end– a permanent library building for Seattle. The city can afford to take up the matter at once,– rather, it can not afford not to, and we are glad to be able to inform our readers that the committee will report to this effect to the city council.”

“The locations being considered as most desirable are, we are informed, the present site and the old University grounds. It is not known that either of these is available at reasonable figures, but they, together with others, are under contemplation of the committee.”

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