Tukwila Library, King County Library System

  • By Glenn Drosendahl
  • Posted 5/24/2017
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20363

The first library in the south King County city of Tukwila, built in 1924, was known as the smallest in the state and lasted less than a decade before being destroyed by arson. But the community's libraries would rise and rise again, from their start in Old Tukwila, located along the Duwamish River and Interurban Highway, to the growing Foster area to the west. In the last half of the twentieth century, Tukwila was transformed by interstate highways, an ever-expanding shopping mall, and sprawling business parks. Tukwila and Foster each had various libraries of their own over the years, but were eventually combined. In April 2017, the last Foster Library was closed and replaced by a new, much larger, state-of-the-art Tukwila Library located just one block away.

Starting With a Gift

Located where the Duwamish and Green rivers come together just south of Seattle, Tukwila was a small cluster of homes and businesses surrounded by farms when it incorporated as a city in 1908. The impetus for its first library was a gift. Ramona Scott (1891-1961) moved to Tukwila in the early 1920s from Peoria, Illinois, where she had taught literature at Bradley University. She brought with her a collection of books that included the complete works of Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. She and her mother, high-school teacher Mae Scott, offered their combined collections to the Ladies Improvement Club to be used for a public library. The club took it from there, raising money to expand the collection -- adding books for children and young adults, Zane Grey westerns, some nonfiction books, and periodicals that included agricultural reports for the benefit of area farmers -- and erecting a small library building next to the Tukwila Community Hall.

That 1924 library was on Interurban Avenue and across the tracks from the town's Interurban Electric Railroad station. The structure was barely wider than the "Public Library" sign over its door and "became famous as the smallest library in the state" (Reinartz, 194). It was open two afternoons a week, staffed by Sarah Kassner. Less than 10 years after it opened, the library building was destroyed by fire. The blaze was one of a series set in the area and believed to be the work of an arsonist, although no suspect was ever identified. Some of the books were saved and moved into the Community Hall, keeping them available to the public.

Foster Gets a Library

After the fire, there was no Tukwila Library by that name for nearly 30 years. But in the interim, two libraries emerged in neighboring Foster, and in 1945 both joined the King County Library System (KCLS), which had been established as the King County Rural Library District a few years earlier. The first of those two libraries, Duwamish, was in the Duwamish School on 42nd Avenue S, about a mile west of Interurban Avenue. It closed in 1962 after several years of declining circulation and was replaced by a bookmobile stop. The other, the Foster Library, enjoyed a much longer history, albeit one with several changes in location.

The Foster Library opened on February 5, 1945, in a room provided by the Foster Community Club in the club's Community Hall, a structure dating back to 1907. It was sponsored by the Foster Parent-Teacher Association. Bernice Scoones (1910-2005) was Foster's first librarian and served in that capacity for 22 years. In 1952, members of various community groups came together to form the Foster Library Board. Soon after that, however, the library had to move because its home, the Community Hall, was in the planned path of Interstate 5. The highway's route was located between Foster and Tukwila, disrupting and eventually transforming those communities. The Foster Library reopened in April 1960 in an old house behind Foster High School, with a book collection expanded by KCLS. Rent was $1 a year, paid to the South Central School District. After the Community Hall was demolished, fundraising began for a library building that could also serve as Foster's new gathering place.

With a $16,000 contribution from the Community Club plus donations from others, enough money was raised by 1966 to begin construction of a new Foster Library on the high-school grounds. The new library was dedicated on September 17, 1967. Its 2,400 square feet included a desired community meeting room. The total cost was $46,000.

Tukwila Library Reborn -- Twice

While the Foster Library was relocating and rebuilding, the Tukwila Library made a comeback. As with the original library that burned in the early 1930s, the impetus was a gift. A Mr. Yoder donated his private collection of about 1,000 volumes, prompting the Tukwila Community Club to reopen its library on December 26, 1959. More than 1,000 adults and children used the library in its first 18 months, checking out more than 27,000 books, magazines, and records (Reinartz, 263).

That Tukwila Library apparently did not last long. Comments in City Council Minutes starting in 1969 suggest the City of Tukwila no longer had a library. (The community of Foster, with its own library, was not yet part of Tukwila.) Tukwila's need for its own library became a recurring theme. Finally, in the late 1970s, the City Council agreed to join the King County Library System, with KCLS supplying librarians and materials and the city providing a building.

By 1980, the Tukwila Library was occupying the 60-year-old Tukwila School building at 14475 59th Avenue S in an older residential neighborhood. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the building had served as Tukwila City Hall from 1947 to August 1978. In 1990, Friends of the Tukwila Library received a grant to restore and refurbish the structure. Its location was good for the neighbors, but not many others -- located east of Interstate 5, the building was not easily accessible from Foster or most of the rest of Tukwila on the west side of the freeway. A 1990 survey reported that 75 percent of the library's users arrived on foot, and annual circulation was a relatively meager 75,578 (Reinartz, 263). A 2008 KCLS community study said the Tukwila Library had one of the lowest circulation rates of any KCLS library "due to its isolated location" ("Engage: Foster Library & Tukwila Library ...") and that it was used mostly as a pick-up site for materials requested from other libraries. With plans to build a bigger Tukwila Library already underway, the old library closed in 2010. The building later became the Tukwila Heritage Center and the home of the Tukwila Historical Society.

New Building for Foster

The City of Tukwila annexed the Foster area in 1989. Two years later, the city's voters overwhelmingly approved annexing their libraries to the King County Library System. The city and KCLS agreed on a site for a new Foster Library: on the northwest corner of 42nd Avenue S and S 144th Street, next to Foster High School. KCLS bought the 1.15-acre property for $162,500, and budgeted up to $700,000 for construction costs and about $500,000 to furnish and equip the building. Groundbreaking took place in 1995 and a dedication ceremony officially opened the building on February 5, 1996.

At 5,250 square feet, the new Foster Library was more than double the size of the one it replaced. It had more books, a multipurpose room with a kitchen and a restroom, and distinctive stained-glass windows depicting Northwest nature scenes. The project cost $1.7 million. Despite the significant upgrade it represented, the Foster Library was identified for replacement little more than a decade later as KCLS began planning a bigger library that would better address the area's rapid growth.

City Growing Up

By the start of the twenty-first century, the city of Tukwila was a mix of old homes, rural land, and bustling commerce spurred by proximity to interstate highways. The city also boasted the region's biggest shopping center, Southcenter Mall, which had opened in 1968 and expanded over the years. A 2001 neighborhood profile in The Seattle Times described the scene:

"Tukwila may be the only city where an old barn, tractor, multi-story office building, traffic-clogged freeway and truck yard could be captured in a single picture frame. Just south of Seattle's industrial district, this residential city is best known for Southcenter Mall, a major shopping district. Boulevards here are lined with every retail, box store and chain restaurant imaginable, along with warehouses and nondescript business parks. Strip-mall-filled Highway 99 and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport lie to the west. Mammoth Boeing plants dominate to the north and east, and industrial businesses, semi yards and the stray strip-mall casino characterize busy thoroughfares. That said, Tukwila has somehow managed to hang onto its farmy feel and nearly century-old character. The city, crossed by major highways from every direction, is cut into distinct, pocket neighborhoods of dead-end streets. Most neighborhoods have a core of older box-style, Victorian, bungalow and small wood homes, supplemented by ramblers, split-levels and new home developments" (Stockton).

The 2008 KCLS community study reported that Tukwila's residential population of 18,000 ballooned to more than 100,000 in the daytime -- a measure of it being home to so many businesses.

Aiming to Please

That study reported that Tukwila was one of the county's most racially and ethnically diverse communities. That diversity was increasing, the study said, noting that in 2000 nearly a third of the city's population was foreign-born and that, by 2008, a reported 65 languages were spoken in the Tukwila School District. The city's population also was younger than that of the county as a whole, with a mean age of 17. Library programs and planning took those demographics into account.

Attracting families with young children was a primary focus. Services for them included weekly Story Times and other reading programs such as the Global Reading Challenge, which served children from the local school district's three elementary schools. The Foster Library also hosted family Early Literacy Parties in Spanish. Parent-child interactive computer use and children playing computer games together were promoted as ways to increase social and digital literacy.

Teens made up 15 percent of the Foster and Tukwila libraries' patrons. The study noted that the Foster Library, being located next to the high school and near Showalter Middle School "is a primary destination ... and regularly sees hundreds of teens between the hours of 2:30 to 9 p.m." ("Engage: Foster Library & Tukwila Library ..."). Foster was one of the first KCLS libraries to offer "Game On!," a program giving teens a place to meet and play video games together. It also offered free tutoring one night a week and courses preparing students for the Scholastic Aptitude Test and college. To attract new readers the libraries planned to create a teen-focused book display area, including materials in Spanish, graphic novels, and "fiction to appeal to reluctant readers" ("Engage: Foster Library & Tukwila Library ...").

Special programs for adults were not as popular, the study said, with monthly discussion groups at both libraries discontinued because of low attendance. Generally, adults tended to check out non-print materials such as videos, music CDs, and books on tape. But many also relied on the Foster Library as a place to use continuing-education and job-search materials, adding to demand for computer access. The Foster Library made laptops available for an hour at a time; the study reported most were checked out again as soon as they were returned, indicating a general need for more computers, more power outlets, and more work space. Adult services were identified as an area with growth potential, especially with a bigger library on the drawing board.

Tukwila Library in Tukwila Village

After King County voters approved a $172 million library capital bond measure in 2004, KCLS launched a major expansion program. By 2008, the plans included a new Tukwila Library to be built in Tukwila Village, a proposed six-acre, mixed-use development envisioned as a new community focal point. In November 2010, KCLS hired the architecture firm of Perkins + Will to design the new library, and on June 12, 2012, the Tukwila City Council approved its location -- on the corner of Tukwila International Boulevard and S 144th Street. It would replace the Foster Library, located just one block to the east.

The original plan called for an 8,000-square-foot building, but that was upped to 10,000 square feet in June 2012 after the KCLS Foundation promised to raise an additional $1 million for the project. The extra space was needed for a community that was growing rapidly. Discussing the plan in July 2012, KCLS director Bill Ptacek (b. 1951) said the area already had outgrown the existing Foster Library, and that he expected even more user traffic at the new site at Tukwila International Boulevard and South 144th Street -- "[t]he great thing is the location on a prominent corner" (Hunter). Ptacek also said the library would be designed to serve the area's influx of immigrants: "There will be computers and books, but for people who are new to the country and the area it will give them resources to become citizens. We want to accommodate that population" (Hunter).

The Tukwila Village groundbreaking took place on August 1, 2014, and construction of the library began a year later in August 2015.

A New Gathering Site

The new Tukwila Library officially opened on April 29, 2017, just four days after the Foster Library closed. The total cost of the project was a reported $9.6 million. The new building was a dramatic, angular structure with windows making up most of its south wall and a slanted roof that gained height from west to east. The outside walls were clad in light- and dark-gray terracotta tiles, with vertical fins of red, purple, and orange glass framing windows next to the entrance. Inside, the space looked bigger than its 10,000 square feet, owing to a natural-wood ceiling 16 to 22 feet high and abundant glass, including motorized skylights, that helped create a feeling of openness.

The old library's books and other items had been moved to the new building, and they were augmented by nearly 7,500 additional items, creating a total collection of 36,586 items. Importantly, considering how often the Foster Library had been crowded, especially with students arriving after school, the Tukwila Library had four times the seating and more than double the number of public-access computers (26).

The new library, some 10 years in the planning, was Tukwila Village's first completed building. Its entrance faced the community center, a similarly dramatic structure in the works just across a soon-to-be landscaped plaza. Together, the two buildings and their shared open space looked the part for which they were envisioned -- a handsome new gathering site and a source of pride for a growing and highly diverse community. Mayor Allan Eckberg, speaking at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, called the library's completion a milestone for the Tukwila Village project and "an amazing happening here in the city of Tukwila" (Eckberg speech).


Kay Frances Reinartz, Tukwila: Community at a Crossroads (Tukwila: City of Tukwila, 1991); "Tukwila School, National Register of Historic Places Inventory -- Nomination Form," National Park Service website accessed May 1, 2017 (https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/AssetDetail?assetID=f11abe78-e54b-48bf-992f-8ae0fa40beb1); "Engage: Foster Library & Tukwila Library 2008 Community Study," King County Library System (KCLS) website accessed May 1, 2017 (https://w3.kcls.org/community_studies/Foster%20&%20Tukwila%20Community%20Study.pdf); "About Tukwila Library," KCLS website accessed May 5, 2017  (https://kcls.org/about-tukwila-library/); "Delivering on a Promise to Voters: KCLS Capital Improvement Plan 12 Year Report, September 2016," p. 35, KCLS website accessed May 1, 2017 (w3.kcls.org/capital_bond/12%20Year%20Capital%20Bond%20Report.pdf); City of Tukwila Resolution No. 1724, "Preservation, Protection, and Use of Former City Hall/Tukwila School," September 20, 2010, copy available at City of Tukwila website accessed May 1, 2017 (http://records.tukwilawa.gov/WebLink8/DocView.aspx?id=15613&page=1&dbid=1); Tukwila City Council Minutes, December 13, 1976, copy available at City of Tukwila website accessed May 1, 2017 (http://records.tukwilawa.gov/Weblink8/1/doc/2134/Page1.aspx?searchid=cdc10df4-609a-4ff4-a90e-2aa5efcf1cd8); "Tukwila Village, Project Status," July 29, 2016, City of Tukwila website accessed May 4, 2017 (http://www.tukwilawa.gov/departments/community-development/development-projects/tukwila-village/); "Foster Library to Be Dedicated," The Seattle Times, September 14, 1967, p. 8; "Tukwila, County Agree on Site for New Library," Ibid., June 22, 1992, p. E-3; "Foster Library to Open Monday," Ibid., February 1, 1996, p. B-2; Paysha Stockton, "Pastoral Settings Blend With Shopping Centers in Tukwila," Ibid., November 18, 2001, p. E-2; Steve Hunter, "New Library Could Be Coming to Tukwila," Tukwila Reporter, July 20, 2012, (http://www.tukwilareporter.com); Dean Radford, "A New Neighborhood Center, Place to Live for Tukwila," Ibid., July 17, 2014; "School District to Buy Foster Library Site for Two Departments," Ibid., June 10, 2016; Heidi Sanders, "New Library Opens April 29 in Tukwila Village," Ibid., April 26, 2017; Sanders, "Community Celebrates Opening of Tukwila Library," Ibid., May 1, 2017; Angelina Benedetti, email to Glenn Drosendahl, May 1, 2017, in possession of Glenn Drosendahl, Seattle, Washington; Allan Eckberg speech, Tukwila Library Opening Ceremony, April 29, 2017, notes by Glenn Drosendahl.

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