Throwback Thursday: What Washington libraries looked like in 1904

Throwback Thursday: What Washington libraries looked like in 1904

J.A. Gabel, appointed Washington State Librarian in 1902 at just 29 years old, penned an insightful report on the condition of the state library system as “an active and aggressive force” for state education and governance. We found the document well worth sharing, both as an interesting historic record and as an explanation of how the State Library came to grow to its current form. Enjoy!

Above is a map of the state’s library system as it existed then: the X’s represent public libraries, and dots denote traveling library stations. 

Excerpts from the Eighth Biennial Report of the State Librarian to the State Library Commission for the period ending November 1, 1904

former Capitol
Washington’s former Capitol, which also housed the State Library during the early 20th century.

Since the time when Isaac I. Stevens, first governor, brought with him to the new territory the 1,800 volumes which constituted the beginning of the Washington State Library, the ideas of the people of the world have radically changed as to the purposes, functions and the importance of public libraries. And as the public library has developed and become of importance in the land, a new field has opened for the state library.

At the last session of the legislature, a library law was passed embodying most of the improvements which seemed desirable at that time. The new law abolished the two library commissions previously in existence and created a new Commission having all of the powers and duties of both the old ones.

The new law, in addition to broadening the opportunities for improvements in the library proper, placed all of the public library work and all of the traveling library work at the State Library, created a Division of Public Documents with the State Librarian as custodian, and provided for the beginning of a section of Northwest History. Thus the law centered practically all of the book interests of the state at the State Library under the control of a single commission, and thus has the State Library, in the course of its evolution, come to mean more than a mere collection of books — it has become an active and aggressive force in the educational life of the state and in the administration of certain business affairs of its government.

The Session Laws of 1901 provide text of this legislation pertaining to the establishment and maintenance of public libraries.

… the Division of Public Libraries, covering the work under the Advisory Board, of encouraging the establishment of free public libraries throughout the state, and of assisting those already established, and the work of managing a system of traveling libraries for the benefit of the people of the smaller and more remote settlements of the state, where public libraries can not be supported.


The new law provides that the State Library Commission shall give attention and encouragement to the establishment of public libraries throughout the state and provides that an Advisory Board shall be appointed whose especial care this work shall be. This work, educational as it is in character, is, in importance to the people of the state, second only to the public school system.

The Washington State Library in 1904 occupied a small portion of the 2nd and 3rd floors and of the basement of the State Capitol.

The Traveling Library Section of this Division consists of 57 book cases, each case fitted with some 40 well selected books. These cases are sent out over the state to the more remote and smaller towns where there are no library advantages of any kind.

Upon the organization of a committee of three responsible persons and the appointment of a librarian and the filing of a printed form containing a pledge to properly care for and circulate the books, any community may become a station on the traveling library circuit and upon the payment of transportation charges be entitled to receive a case of the books. As soon as the books of a case have been read by the people the case may be returned and another received.

The state of Washington, with its great area and its difficulties of travel in certain sections and its many small and more or less remote settlements, is a particularly fine field for the traveling library as a permanent institution, and owing to the newness of the towns of the state and the lack of local free libraries the traveling library is an especially valuable means to an end in encouraging the establishment of free public libraries.

During the two years that the cases have been in the hands of this department, there has been over 8,000 registered circulation, which means at least two times that amount of actual circulation and several thousand people have had the entertainment and enjoyment to be found in good books. In the front of this report is shown a map giving the location of the traveling library stations. When one takes into consideration the class of people the traveling libraries reach, the great educational value of the work and its effect in raising the average of education and the standard of citizenship is apparent.

Miss Grace E. Switzer is doing special cataloguing work and special historical work and is assisting with the Traveling Library work.

I take pleasure in warmly thanking the members of the Commission for their kindly treatment, uniform courtesy, and apparent confidence; I congratulate the members of the staff upon their accomplishments during the past two years and I thank them for their conscientious work. I believe that, under the new conditions, we are to make of the Washington State Library a strong, useful department which will soon be recognized by the people as one of the important factors in the upbuilding of the state.

State Librarian.

Mr. Gabel served as Washington’s seventh State Librarian from 1902 to 1904, at which point he stepped down to return to the presidency of a Chehalis door manufacturing company. He died in 1943 in Tacoma at age 70.

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