Southcenter Library, King County Library System

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 2/01/2017
  • Essay 20285

The Southcenter Library is a storefront library at the Westfield Southcenter Mall in Tukwila, the largest shopping mall in the state. The idea for a Southcenter location arose in 2002, in the wake of the successful opening of the Library Connection @ Crossroads at a Bellevue mall in 2001. The King County Library System (KCLS) sought to replicate that success at the even-busier Southcenter mall. The King County Library System Foundation began raising money to fund construction of the Southcenter location entirely from donations. It reached its goal in early 2004. The 3,168-square-foot library opened on May 8, 2004, and had a formal opening celebration on June 5, 2004. Known as the Library Connection @ Southcenter, the facility was an immediate success. The space was later renovated and expanded in late 2011 and early 2012. By 2017, KCLS was planning another expansion, which would nearly double the size of the library by taking over a neighboring store space.

From Small Town to Largest Shopping Mall

The land that later became the city of Tukwila, just south of Seattle, was for centuries inhabited by the people of the Duwamish Tribe. They lived along the banks of the Duwamish River, which flowed north into Elliott Bay. The first non-Native settlers arrived in 1851 and began farming the fertile bottomlands. A small town sprang up.

The town was incorporated in 1908 and named Tukwila, a name long used by the Duwamish to describe the area, although the exact meaning is unclear. Tukwila remained rural for several decades, but during World War II it began to grow because of its proximity to the booming Boeing Company, just a few miles downstream on the Duwamish. Tukwila's residents resisted over-industrialization for several decades. "Rather rely on industry to sustain growth, they turned to commercial businesses" ("Tukwila -- Thumbnail History").

In fact, Tukwila would rapidly evolve into one of the prime commercial centers of the state. In the 1950s, planning began on the Seattle area's two big interstate highways, Interstate 5 and Interstate 405. These freeways would intersect at Tukwila, a fact that did not escape the owners of Seattle's Northgate Shopping Center, who were looking for a site south of Seattle in which to repeat Northgate's success. Their newly formed Southcenter Corporation purchased a large plot near the planned freeway junction -- land that had been annexed in 1957 by the city of Tukwila.

Once freeway traffic began rolling in the mid-1960s, construction of the $30 million shopping center began in earnest. The Southcenter Mall opened on July 31, 1968, and became the largest shopping mall in the region. From the start it was a popular shopping magnet for Seattle and south King County. After several expansions it eventually became the largest shopping mall in the state, at 1.7 million square feet. In April 2002, the Australian-based firm Westfield America Trust purchased the mall and changed the name to Westfield Shoppingtown Southcenter, later shortened to Westfield Southcenter -- although it remained widely known simply as Southcenter.

A Library for Southcenter

The idea of putting a library in Southcenter first surfaced in 2002, in the wake of a similar experiment at the Crossroads Mall in Bellevue. When KCLS was offered space at Crossroads in 2001, it came up with the idea of a non-traditional library that had a retail feel: streamlined and easy-browsing. The library system designed a space that was described as "a kind of marketplace for diverse world cultures" with lots of material for browsing and a heavy emphasis on media and world languages ("Crossroads Library"). It was called the Library Connection @ Crossroads and it was an immediate hit.

KCLS began looking for additional mall sites. Southcenter was particularly inviting because of its size and because surveys showed that south King County was ripe for more library services. "We've always known that we needed something additional in south King County," said Jeanne Thorsen, then the director of the King County Library System Foundation, the fundraising arm of the library system (Wong). The Foundation was so enthusiastic about the idea that it began a campaign to raise $850,000 to fund construction of the library entirely from donations. Thorsen noted that it would be less expensive than building a freestanding library. As of January 2004, the campaign had raised $550,000, including a $25,000 grant from the Seattle Foundation. It needed to raise a total of at least $720,000 in order to secure a $130,000 matching grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

A fund-raising brochure laid out the case for the new library:

"The Library Connection @ Southcenter is an innovative digital age 'portal' providing access to the entire collection of the King County Library System in a popular community gathering place and shopping destination. In a recent survey, South King County residents said they need a library with longer open hours and more resources for finding jobs, advancing careers, honing computer skills, and accessing materials in world languages. The large population of unemployed and underemployed adults, immigrant families, and youth with low reading skills in South King County reflect the need for a new approach. ... By bringing the library to a popular retail destination and community gathering place the Library Connection provides a convenient and fun way to 'shop' for library services"(Foundation brochure).

The Foundation raised enough money by its March 2004 deadline to receive the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation matching grant, which put the $850,000 campaign over the top. Work began on the library's 3,168-square-foot space in the mall, which included bookshelves, a large area for browsing magazines and periodicals, a children's area, and numerous computer work stations. It was intended to serve the ethnically diverse populations of Tukwila and nearby Skyway, Foster, and South Seattle. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that the Southcenter library "will have a multilingual staff and multilingual literature to serve the area's growing immigrant population" and that "tutoring, English help and wireless Internet access also will be available" (Wong).

An Immediate Hit

The library opened its doors on May 8, 2004. A brochure distributed to patrons noted one of the new library's biggest selling points: "We make it easy to visit the library -- we're open whenever the mall is open" ("Welcome to ..."). That meant it was open seven days a week and in the evenings -- longer hours than most traditional libraries. A formal opening celebration was held on June 5, 2004, featuring refreshments and Story Time readings by local police and firefighters.

The new library was an immediate hit, just like the Crossroads location. It became a busy place to check out books and access the internet, as well as a popular place to simply relax amid the bustle of the mall. A 2007 article in The Seattle Times noted the Crossroads and Southcenter libraries "look more like bookstores than libraries" and were designed as places for patrons "to just hang out -- complete with neon-light signs, comfortable seats and computers" (Valdes).

KCLS director Bill Ptacek called these two libraries "good examples of the direction we are going in," and said "I guess it is all about understanding what people need and want, and responding to it -- having a library that is relevant to the lives of the people it serves, next to retail or other public institutions that also address people's lifestyles" (Valdes).

Expanding to Accommodate More Users

In 2011 KCLS began work on a $313,000 expansion and renovation project at the Southcenter Library, funded by a $172 million capital bond issue, which voters had approved in 2004. The project increased the interior space by 164 square feet to a total of 3,332 square feet. The project also included improvements to the exterior storefront. The library received new furniture, carpet, and paint. The architects were SHKS Architects and the contractor was JB Construction. Comfortable padded chairs invited visitors to linger and read magazines and periodicals. The library's computer "Cyber Bars" were expanded by 25 percent to provide more space for laptop users. A KCLS report noted that "Sustainable features were a focus, from PVC-free Platinum LEED certified carpet to energy efficient lighting," adding that "Green principles also were utilized" in the artwork displayed above the children's area and a decommissioned glass sculpture was "restored and re-imaged" into a suspended mobile assembly ("12-Year Capital Bond Report"). The renovations were completed in January 2012.

After the renovation, the total number of checkouts jumped by more than 5,000, to 183,731 in 2012, which was more than some nearby traditional libraries twice its size. By 2016, it was clear that the Southcenter Library had the potential for even more checkouts and visitors. BuildingWork, a Seattle architecture and design firm hired by KCLS, concluded that the branch was simply too small, and that it lacked "a strong visual connection to the mall promenade and it does not have adequate seating and study areas for patrons" ("Southcenter Library Expansion").

As of early 2017, KCLS was embarking on a major renovation and expansion of the Southcenter Library. Plans called for taking over an adjacent jewelry-store space in the mall and nearly doubling the library's square footage to about 5,000 square feet. BuildingWork said the project will provide "a larger collection, more seating, study and lounge space and [a] revitalized children's area" ("Southcenter Library Expansion"). The library would also have a have a new glass fa├žade, to allow passersby to see into the interior. The project was originally scheduled to commence in late 2016, but the initial bids came in higher than expected, so it was scheduled for re-bid in February 2017. With the prospect of more space, materials, and computer stations, the Southcenter Library was poised to make an even larger connection with its community.


"Year in Review, 2012," King County Library System (KCLS) Annual Report, KCLS website accessed January 15, 2017 (; "KCLS Stories 2015," KCLS Annual Report, KCLS website accessed January 15, 2017 (; "Delivering on a Promise to Voters: KCLS Capital Improvement Plan, 11-Year Report, September 2015," KLCS website accessed November 30, 2016 (; "Delivering on a Promise to Voters: KCLS Capital Improvement Plan, 12-Year Report, September 2016," KLCS website accessed November 30, 2016 (; "About Southcenter Library," KLCS website accessed November 30, 2016 (; "Southcenter Library Expansion," BuildingWork website accessed January 15, 2017 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Tukwila -- Thumbnail History" (by Alan Stein), "Southcenter Mall Opens in Tukwila on July 31, 1968" (by Alan Stein), "Crossroads Library, King County Library System" (by Michael Schein), (accessed January 16, 2017); "Southcenter Mall," Project Gutenberg website accessed January 16, 2017 (; Amy Martinez, "Southcenter Mall Expands, Regroups With New Retailers," The Seattle Times, July 23, 2008; Manuel Valdes, "Quiet Libraries Morphing Into Busy Community Hubs," The Seattle Times, January 4, 2007, p. B-1; Brad Wong, "Check It Out: Libraries Inside Malls," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 18, 2004; "Library at Southcenter Mall Is $25,000 Closer to Its Goal," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 24, 2003; "King County Library System," SHKS Architects website accessed January 18, 2017 (; King County Library System Foundation brochure, ca. 2004, King County Library System files, copy in possession of Jim Kershner, Spokane, Washington; "Welcome to the Library Connection @ Southcenter," brochure, ca. 2004, King County Library System files, copy in possession of Jim Kershner.

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