Des Moines Library, King County Library System

  • By Glenn Drosendahl
  • Posted 11/30/2016
  • Essay 20216

The first library in Des Moines was established in 1924 by the local Parent Teacher Association and the Ladies Auxiliary of the Des Moines-Zenith Improvement Club. It was stocked with books discarded by other libraries and located briefly in the Des Moines School before moving to the Improvement Club's clubhouse. A chronic problem of finding volunteer staffers and enough books to meet demand was alleviated in 1944 when Des Moines joined the King County Library System (KCLS). KCLS paid for a librarian and greatly increased the number of volumes available. But space remained an issue. In 1946 the library moved into a small room at the Des Moines Fieldhouse, a recreational center. It was noisy, cramped, and unable to adequately serve the area's growing population. A community-wide campaign and passage of a crucial bond measure in 1964 led to construction of the first Des Moines Library building, which opened in December 1965. By the 1980s the community had again outgrown its library, and a new building of more than twice the size opened in 1988. In that building the Des Moines Library continues to serve the cities of Des Moines and Normandy Park and surrounding areas.

Getting Started

Prior to 1924, the closest thing that the community of Des Moines, located in southern King County on the shores of Puget Sound between Seattle and Tacoma, had to a library was a small collection of used books in a general store. That year the local Parent Teacher Association proposed creating a library at the Des Moines School, and the Ladies Auxiliary of the Improvement Club, formerly the Enterprise Club, joined in the effort. Mrs. Victor Thompson, who made the original proposal to the PTA, headed a committee that collected several hundred books from the Seattle Public Library. Other books came from the Tacoma and Olympia public libraries, as well as from local donors. Volunteers mended damaged volumes and built shelves. The library had a short life in the school, because the building burned on January 9, 1925. The library then moved to Improvement Club's clubhouse at 226th Street and 6th Avenue. On January 22, 1925, five people, including Mrs. Thompson, were appointed to the first Des Moines library board.

The little library, dependent on volunteers, managed to stay open at least one day a week. In an effort to encourage more staffing, the board voted in 1932 to pay librarians $1 a month (more of a token than an actual living wage even at that time). "It was a continuous struggle to get librarians and enough books for the people to read," librarian Melanie Draper (1912-1996) wrote in her book Timber, Ties, and Tales: A History of the Des Moines Area (Draper, 67). The library hit another snag in 1943 when a dispute with a neighbor over property ownership forced the Improvement Club to find a new home. It moved to a site on Marine View Drive, taking the library with it.

In 1944, the Des Moines library joined the King County Rural Library District, which had been created the previous year, becoming the ninth library in the fledgling network that would become the King County Library System. Doing so meant that, while the local community would continue to be responsible for the library's maintenance and utilities, KCLS would pay for a librarian and provide books for the library. In addition, with the Des Moines Library part of the county-wide system, patrons could also request items held by all the other KCLS libraries, greatly increasing materials available to Des Moines area readers. Draper, who had been a volunteer staffer from the library's early days, became its first salaried librarian. She was soon followed by Madelyne Mott. Agnes Marshall served as head librarian from 1947 to 1963.

Building a Home

With circulation rising and the space at the clubhouse needed for other uses, the library board began looking for new quarters. In 1946, King County officials agreed to let the library occupy a small annex of the Des Moines Fieldhouse, a recreational center built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1939. It was less than ideal, with poor heating and lighting, as well as noise from the adjacent basketball court. The 283-square-foot annex was crammed with 9,594 books and had no public seating. "Soon it was bulging at the seams and something drastic had to be done" (Draper, 67).

The small community of Normandy Park, located just north of Des Moines along the Puget Sound shoreline, which began as a planned residential development in the late 1920s, was slowed by the Great Depression of the 1930s, but was then "discovered" ("Des Moines Library 2009 Community Study," 2) beginning in the late 1940s, incorporated as a city in 1953. Six years later, in 1953, the larger community of Des Moines also incorporated, and two years later the City of Des Moines, rather than taking over operation of the library located within its boundaries, contracted with KCLS to continue providing library services. The city paid for those services by taxing property owners. Meanwhile, the search for adequate space continued.

Finding the library a better, hopefully longer-lasting home was the primary mission of the Des Moines Library League. The league had been formed in 1960, with Marian Duffy as president, as an outgrowth of the library board and the Improvement Club Auxiliary's library trustees. However, aside from some fund-raising events there was little movement toward the goal of a new library until 1964. In that year the league selected a site at 22815 24th Avenue S and raised $9,500 to buy it. Donors included 18 civic organizations, 15 businesses, and many individuals. With the donated money and voter approval of a $35,000 bond issue on November 3, 1964, the city was able to get $40,000 in matching funds under the Federal Library Services and Construction Act.

The result was Des Moines's first library building, an $84,500 project designed by John P. (Jack) Kniskern and built by the J. D. Stewart Company. The structure was dedicated on December 12, 1965. At 4,854 square feet, it represented a huge leap from the fieldhouse annex, and boasted more than 23,000 books. With a modern look and lush landscaping, the new building provided an immediate boost to library usage. Circulation for the busiest week in November 1965 had been 700; that figure was topped in a single day, January 4, 1966, when it reached 719. Circulation for the building's first post-holidays week was 1,931 -- nearly three quarters of the total for the entire month of November.

Keeping Up with Growth

The 1965 building was designed to serve a community of 8,000. By 1980 population in the library's service area was nearly triple that figure at 23,000, and the library had run out of room. A needs study conducted by the library board and presented to the city council and city planning commission in May 1981 reported that the library's 30,000-volume collection was nearly 5,000 more than the building was designed to hold, that there was a shortage of study spaces, that the relatively open (two-room) interior made quiet study almost impossible, that a conference room and storage areas were needed, and that wiring and single-paned windows were outdated. The study said that any possible expansion would be inadequate and concluded that a new, larger library was needed.

Progress toward that goal was slow. A 1982 site survey indicated that land owned by the city at 11th Avenue S and S 216th Street seemed the best fit. A task force considered and rejected the idea of adding a senior center to the anticipated library. In 1984, the city designated $15,000 for another study, this time a preliminary plan for a 10,000-square-foot library to be located next to city hall. A committee was formed to gain support for a city bond issue to finance some of the costs, using the theme "Let's Float a New Library."

Meanwhile, circulation had increased by 30 percent since 1983 and the library had more books than it could house. In June 1986, head librarian Esther Rickelton told a reporter:

"Our shelves are full. In order to place new books, we have to pull old ones. And it gets very noisy in here. Just listen. The copy machine runs, the computers beep, the telephone rings -- it's impossible to keep it quiet. We don't even try anymore'' ("Voters Hold Key ...").

A New Building

The big breakthrough came on September 16, 1986, when 72 percent of voters approved a $450,000 city bond issue. Additional money came from the sale of the existing library building and matching funds from KCLS. Finally, the project could move ahead. The architecture firm of McAdoo, Malcolm, and Youel designed the new library building with a distinctive varied-level roof and extra sound-proofing measures: Triple-paned windows and multi-layered walls and ceilings would dampen noise made by planes from nearby Sea-Tac International Airport. The cost was $1.3 million, including furnishings.

Ground-breaking ceremonies were held on August 20, 1987. The new library opened the following September at 21620 11th Avenue S, and was formally dedicated on October 15, 1988. At 10,230 square feet, it was more than twice as big as its predecessor. It had more computer equipment and an expanded collection of about 56,000 titles, including video cassettes, compact discs, and records, as well as books. It also had a children's story-telling alcove and a 50-seat meeting room and kitchenette available at no charge to community groups.

Continuing to Serve the Community

In 1994 voters approved annexing the Des Moines Library to the King County Library System, with 87 percent in favor. The decision meant that the portion of property taxes that residents were paying for library services would go directly to the county system, rather than through the city budget, and that KCLS would have full responsibility for operating and maintaining the library. Both the Des Moines Library Advisory Board and the Friends of the Library had recommended the change, saying it would result in a more stable form of funding and allow for better long-term planning.

Given the city's history of outgrowing its libraries, the design of the 1988 building allowed for a future expansion that would add 5,000 square feet. A remodel in 2002 added a mural and redid computer wiring. A more extensive renovation began in late 2007, replacing the building's original metal roof panels, windows, masonry, and stucco, and adding new metal siding and a more protective entry canopy. The $1.7 project was completed, and the library reopened, in early 2008.

The renovated Des Moines Library served an area of about 10 square miles encompassing the cities of Des Moines and Normandy Park and adjoining areas, extending from the Puget Sound shore east to Interstate 5 and the city of Kent, and from the city of Sea-Tac on the north to Federal Way on the south. The area was home to nearly 50,000 people, some 30,000 of them in Des Moines and more than 6,000 in Normandy Park. Most children in the service area attended schools in the Highline School District, although two private schools and an elementary school in the Federal Way School District were also included. During after-school hours, children and teens were heavy users of the library, and a teen zone and other programs responded to their needs. Eight decades after the PTA and Improvement Club's Ladies Auxiliary opened the area's first library, the Des Moines Library continues working to meet the needs of the community.


Melanie Draper, Timber, Tides, and Tales: A History of the Des Moines Area (Des Moines: Melanie Draper, 1975), 65-68, 73, 90, 91; "Library Has Long History," Des Moines Tribune, August 14, 1963; One Hundred Years of the "Waterland" Community: A History of Des Moines, Washington ed. by Richard T. Kennedy (Des Moines: City of Des Moines, 1989), 71-74; Margaret A. Farrell, "Library Now Too Small" (letter to the editor), Des Moines Tribune, September 4, 1963; "Library League Needed," Ibid., August 28, 1963; "Des Moines Library is Big First Step," King County Library System News & Notes, January 1966, p. 1; "Booming Business Recorded at Library," Sea-Tac Guide-Tribune, January 19, 1966, p. 12; Bruce Blizard, "Des Moines Library: More Than Books," Des Moines News, January 5, 1977, p. 1; "Needs Study Des Moines Library," Des Moines Library Board, May 4, 1981, historical documents vertical file, Des Moines Library, Des Moines, Washington; Julie Schuster, "Voters Hold Key to Noisy Library's Future," The Seattle Times, June 25, 1986, p. H-1; Schuster, "Readers Can Hear a Book Drop in New Library," Ibid., September 16, 1988, p. B-3; Jennifer Steiner, "Des Moines Ponders a Library Annexation," The Highline Times, March 19, 1994, p. A-3; "Des Moines Library 2009 Community Study," King County Library System (KCLS) website accessed November 11, 2016 (; "Delivering on a Promise to Voters: KCLS Capital Improvement Plan 11-Year Report, September 2015," KCLS website accessed November 1, 2016 (; "History," KCLS website accessed November 1, 2016 (

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