Ballard Branch, The Seattle Public Library

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 7/05/2002
  • Essay 3878

Ballard's public library has evolved from a reading room established more than a century ago to an important resource expressing the heritage and diversity of the community today. Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) helped build Ballard's first real library when Ballard was its own town and not yet a Seattle neighborhood. This library served readers for 59 years before being replaced in 1963 by a new building. In 2005 that structure, in turn, was replaced by a state-of-the-art facility financed by the 1998 "Libraries for All" bond issue. The new Ballard Branch, located at 5614 22nd Avenue NW, opened in May 2005.

A Settlement of Readers

Ballard was barely a settlement on Salmon Bay in the 1860s when residents formed a shareholder's library (a collection of books shared communally among their owners, sometimes called a subscription library).  Homesteader Ira Wilcox Utter (1825-1875) was one of the founders. Forty years later, at the turn of the twentieth century, Ballard had grown into a city in its own right (not yet a Seattle neighborhood), but the closest public library was in Seattle at 4th Avenue and Madison Street.

In 1901, the members of the Dewey Woman's Christian Temperance Union raised money with fairs and basket socials for entertainment alternatives to alcoholic beverages. Members opened a free reading room upstairs in a building on Ballard Avenue and equipped it with tables, chairs, books, and newspapers. Soon they moved to larger space in the Maccabee Temple at 2nd Avenue and Leary Way (20th Avenue NW).

The Carnegie Free Library

In 1903, the Ballard City Council voted to establish a library board, which first met on May 14, 1903. The city applied to philanthropist Andrew Carnegie for funds to build a free public library. Carnegie provided $15,000 for a new structure on condition that Ballard provide the land and funds for its operation. A lot was purchased on Broadway (NW Market Street) with $2,100 raised from citizens and businesses in Ballard.

The Classic Revival Building was designed by architect Henderson Ryan and constructed by the firm of Causey and Carney. The library featured radiating stacks in the main room, a men's smoking room, a ladies' conversation room, and upstairs, an auditorium with 500 seats. Carnegie's name was carved into the frieze. The doors opened on June 24, 1904, with ceremonies organized by the Current Century Club. The first librarian was Ballard Register publisher George C. Hitchcock, who was paid $50 a month. Carnegie's gift did not provide for books, however.

Ballard school children had been selling 10-cent membership cards to fund a school library. Five hundred dollars of this money was given to the free public library and Ballard businesses also gave money. When the library opened, The Ballard News announced, "It is hoped each visitor will bring a book to start the collection." East Side School teacher Blanche Dunmore led a student drive and collected 500 books from residents.

Within two years, the branch was subscribing to eight newspapers and 40 periodicals. Librarian Hitchcock estimated that there were 12,000 visits to the library in a year. The library was open from 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. and from 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Children's books were distributed only on Wednesdays and Saturdays. In 1906, the library board instructed the librarian not to check out books on Sundays.

The Ballard Branch

 In 1907, Seattle annexed Ballard and the library became the Ballard Branch of The Seattle Public Library. George Hitchcock went into the real estate business and Dorothy Hurlbut came out from downtown as the librarian of the branch. At that time, there were just 2,600 volumes in circulation. When the Dearborn Street regrade (just southeast of Pioneer Square) resulted in the abandonment of the branch there, 2,069 more volumes were added to the Ballard collection. By 1910, the collection had doubled in size again.

Space very quickly became an issue in the Carnegie building, which measured just 64 feet by 57 feet. The men's smoking room became a reading room and the ladies' conversation room became a children's reading room. In 1914, 2,000 more books came in. The reading room fireplaces were converted to book storage, and the radiating stacks were replaced by more efficient shelving. The auditorium seats upstairs were removed and the auditorium became the clubroom.

During World War I (1917-1918), the branch became a center of community activities as part of the war effort. Staff and volunteers presented informational displays about the war, Red Cross classes, and English classes. All libraries closed during the influenza epidemic from October 1918 to January 1919.  Staffing was augmented with librarianship students from the University of Washington. Six-month Americanization classes became a regular offering every fall and foreign language titles were always popular. In 1924, the library hired a cook who prepared a 50-cent evening meal for the staff. The quality of the meals was uneven, but the staff endured.

Book circulation and library use climbed every year. In 1907, circulation was 20,278. By 1910, this figure more than doubled and the stock tripled. Already librarians considered the building too small for adequate library services. Patronage and circulation climbed through 1932, when Ballard was second only to the main library downtown. The biggest day for circulation was in January 1934 when 2,363 books were loaned. Then the numbers began to drop. The proximity to Ballard High School made the branch a popular location for study and research. The large round tables that allowed students to sit facing each other were partially to blame for generating disciplinary problems among the young patrons.

Hard Times

During the Great Depression, library services were cut drastically citywide. The purchase of new books virtually stopped, staff was laid off, salaries were reduced, and workweeks were lengthened. Several trends emerged during the hard times. Branches closed one day a week as an economy measure and on days that other branches were closed, those patrons used Ballard. Borrowers with overdue books kept them indefinitely because they were unable to pay the fines. Library staff periodically knocked on doors to retrieve items beyond their due dates.

The librarians noticed increased interest in new ways to make money. Unemployed and underemployed men and women pored over works on furniture making and repair, ski making, electroplating, mining, and gold prospecting. Rabbit and fur-bearing animal raising led in the animal husbandry category with chicken and turkey raising running second. Since there was little money for new books and worn items were withdrawn from circulation, the collection tended to shrink during the 1930s. Circulation dropped by a third between 1934 and 1940.

Still, in 1938, Ballard added a Young People's Collection to appeal to teen readers. Between 1933 and 1940, temporary employees funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) helped ease the pressure on the staff, but these workers were automatically laid off after six months or so, requiring staff to train replacements. The Civil Works Administration provided funds for maintenance.

Readers During the War Years

In 1940, the U.S began a massive defense program and Seattle swelled with tens of thousands of workers building planes and ships. The return of economic growth allowed the branch to restore its collection. Visitors indicated a strong interest in technical subjects such as engineering, mechanical drawing, machine shop work, ship fitting, small boats, ships, and shipbuilding. Special shelves were added to organize this collection in 1941.

When the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, the Ballard Branch pitched in. The front porch light was painted out and the staff staged blackout drills. The branch librarian completed Air Raid Warden training and the staff received first aid instruction. The building was equipped with a bucket of sand (to combat fires set by incendiary bombs), flashlights, hose, and first aid supplies. Gasoline rationing forced people to consolidate their banking and shopping trips. Branch hours were shifted to open and close earlier to accommodate patrons who were out running errands.

In April 1942, the shift in the ethnic makeup of Seattle wrought by the war was reflected in the branch. University of Washington librarianship student Lucille Smith, "[o]ne of the first colored students ever to do practice in Seattle," was assigned to the branch. The branch librarian reported that, "She is very capable in her work and was successful in the even harder task of making her place with the staff and public" (1942 Annual Report).

A Friend

In the late 1940s, staff and visitors got to know widower Victor Barth, a retired postal worker who was a branch regular. Barth died in 1951 and his will provided for $4,184.43 to benefit the Ballard Branch. The interest on this bequest was used to buy books. In 1983, the fund was still generating income.

As the Great Depression ended, The Seattle Public Library issued a Ten Year Plan to improve and expand services. The charming, but hopelessly outdated Carnegie building was deemed "Inadequate and impractical to enlarge" (BOLA Architecture). Voters rejected bond issues for a replacement in 1950 and 1952. Staff and patrons endured the cranky heating plant and the cramped quarters.

A New Building

In 1956, voters passed a bond issue to replace the 1906 Carnegie-funded main library at 4th Avenue and Madison Street.

The $5 million measure also provided for three new branches and Ballard finally got a new building. Gudmund Berge of Mandeville and Berge designed the replacement with 6,600 square feet of space for public use.

On June 8, 1963, the new branch opened at 5711 24th Avenue NW. Opening day patronage surpassed the prior record set in 1934. In addition to more room for books and reading, the new building featured works of art commissioned specifically for the branch.

By the 1990s, the Ballard Branch featured two important concentrations of books. One was a maritime collection, continuing the interest first expressed in the 1940s. The coverage expanded over the years to include commercial and sport fishing, and recreational boating. The proximity of the Daybreak Star Cultural Center at Discovery Park spurred specialization on Native American topics.

Libraries For All

In 1998, Seattle voters approved $196.4 million in "Libraries for All" bonds to replace the central library, to renovate or replace all 22 branches, and to build three new branches. Planners engaged the community in the process. A new Ballard branch, twice the size of the existing building was designed by Bohlen, Cywinski, Jackson. The new branch with room for 66,700 books was built at NW 56th Street and 22nd Avenue NW in conjunction with a neighborhood service center. Construction began in February 2004 and was completed in May 2005.

In 2003, the original Carnegie library building was remodeled for use as a restaurant named Carnegie's. 

Ballard Branch Librarians

  • George C. Hitchcock (City of Ballard) -- 1904-1907
  • Dorothy Hurlbut -- 1907-1910
  • Elizabeth Robinson -- 1910-1912
  • Agnes F. Greer -- 1912-1914
  • Edith R. Morse -- 1914-1923
  • Laura M. Ebelin -- 1923-1942
  • Eleanor Hedden -- 1942-1959
  • Margaret B. Anderson -- 1959-1966
  • Ching-yen "Anne" Hsiao -- 1966-1971
  • Margaret Smith -- 1971-1976
  • Regional Management -- 1977-1990
  • Sibyl de Haan -- 1990-2008
  • Dave Valencia (interim) -- 2008-present 


Margaret Smith, "Ballard Branch: Eighty Years of Service, 1904-1984," photocopied typescript, Ballard Branch, Seattle Public Library, Vertical File, Folder 1800.19; Jerry Sitser, "Ballard Library Can Now Expect Complete Rebuild," Ballard News Tribune, July 7, 1993, pp. 1-2; Jerry Sitser, "Seattle Libraries Face The Future," Ibid., April 7, 1993, p. 1; Elizabeth Wright Evans, "Old Library Replaced by the New in Ballard," Seattle Times Sunday Magazine, June 2, 1963, pp. 6-7; Annual Library Report, Carnegie Free Library, Ballard, June 30, 1906, Ballard Branch, Seattle Public Library, Vertical File, Folder 1800.03; "Library Dedicated," The Ballard News, June 25, 1904, p. 3; "Seattle/Annexed Cities, Ballard," Accession 9106-03, Box 5, Folder 13, Washington State Archives, Puget Sound Region, Bellevue; "Minutes of Ballard Public Library Board of Trustees," bound volume, Seattle Public Library archives, 13; Annual Reports, Ballard Branch, Seattle Public Library Archives; "Landmark Nomination of the Ballard Library, for The Seattle Public Library," BOLA Architecture + Planning, 320 Terry Avenue N, Seattle, WA 98109, November 2000; Kay F. Reinertz, ed. Passport to Ballard: The Centennial Story (Seattle: Ballard News Tribune, 1988), 69; Seattle Public Library uncataloged archival materials, Box 4, "Personnel Staff Day," folders "Staff Directory 1950," and "Staff Directory 1956," and "Staff Directory 1960-1969," and unmarked folder containing staff directories 1970-1977, Seattle, Washington; Library Board of Seattle, Minutes of Proceedings, Vols. 5 (1934-1944), 6 (1945-1951), 7(1952-1957), 8 (1958-1961), 9 (1962-1966), 10 (1967-1970), 11 (1971-1973), 12 (1974-1976), 13 ( 1977-1978), Seattle Room, Central Branch, Seattle Public Library, Seattle.
Note: This essay was updated and corrected on May 29, 2005, on September 10, 2008, and again on February 20, 2009.

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