University Branch, The Seattle Public Library

  • By Alyssa Burrows
  • Posted 12/19/2002
  • Essay 4051

The University Branch, The Seattle Public Library, located at 5009 Roosevelt Way NE, is one of Seattle’s oldest branch libraries. Surrounded by unpaved roads in its early years, the library was so remote that a librarian asked the city to post a direction sign to help people find it. Despite problems with gangs of schoolboys in the 1920s, and a random drive-by shooting in 1943, the library has continued operation through the Depression, two world wars, and into the twenty-first century. It began as a small lending library in 1906, and opened at its current location in 1910 with building construction money from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919). Because of its still-in-use auditorium, the University Branch Library has been an important community meeting place since its opening. It is now a registered city landmark, and was renovated in 2007 under the 1998 "Libraries For All" bond measure.

District History

What is now called the University District was primarily used for logging prior to 1885, and was settled by a few farmers in the late 1800s. Transportation from the settled downtown region before 1890 required a horsecart to south Lake Union, a boat ride across, then another trek up the hill by horsecart or foot. In 1887, the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad offered an alternate route, and in 1890, the first streetcar line over Latona Bridge (parallel to the present University Bridge and no longer extant) made travel easier. The University of Washington moved from its downtown location to its present campus in 1893, spurring further development.

Most early residents were concentrated along Brooklyn Avenue and University Way (then called 14th Avenue). Considering early transportation difficulties, it was largely a self-sufficient community, and area businesses mainly serviced people with ties to the University. Construction of churches and family homes increased in the early 1900s, as did theaters, stores, and a YMCA. The district's first bank opened at 42nd Street and 14th Avenue in 1906.

Merchants Support Culture

On March 1, 1906, the community's first public library opened in several small rooms in a drugstore next to the Brooklyn Methodist Episcopal Church (later renamed University Methodist Temple), located on the corner of NE 42nd Street and Brooklyn Avenue NE. Although several "deposit stations" (buildings where books were held and distributed), opened in 1905, most of these were located in schools and fire stations.

This tiny branch was organized by 12 University District merchants who each donated $15 to help start a book-lending library. They were: Mr. E. B. Holmes (who recounted the story for Mrs. W. E. Henry, who in turn told the University District Herald in 1941); J. W. Boales (a barber, later a custodian for the University Chemistry Dept.); W. H. Rodgers (a campus candy seller); Charles McCrum, E. L. Mann, and G. S. Aschermann (all grocers); the firm of Biles and Sutton; Chistopher Hoar, C. B. Kittridge, F. W. Brigham, M .E. Berridge, and Dr. J. D. Sherrick.

Carnegie Comes Through

After a renovation of the Brooklyn Methodist Episcopal Church (later renamed University Methodist Church) next door in 1907, the library books moved into a room in the church. In 1908, Seattle received an Andrew Carnegie grant of $105,000 for construction of three branch library buildings. Eight years before, Carnegie had refused Seattle’s request for a library building, calling the city a “hot-air boom-town.” But by 1901 his opinion may have changed because he then funded construction of the central library.

With the Carnegie funds to work with, The Seattle Public Library decided that Green Lake, West Seattle, and the University District were the areas that most needed the buildings. The University District was chosen for the potential housing and population growth that would follow the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (1909) and because of the presence of the University of Washington.

Land and Building

Although the city had the Carnegie money for the construction of libraries, there was no money in the coffers for the purchase of land on which to build them. In 1908, the city asked the public to donate land for the site of a new branch library for the University District. Watson and Cornelia Allen donated a 160 by 200 foot lot on the corner of 10th Avenue NE and E 50th Street (currently NE 50th St. and Roosevelt Way NE), contingent on the inclusion of an auditorium in the new building. The area around the donated land was largely devoid of other buildings -- there were a few pioneer farms and some newer single-family homes. Its remote location, surrounded by unpaved roads, sparked some criticism from the public.

The city held an architectural design competition for the Carnegie grant libraries. Thirty-three entries were received, and the Architecture firm Somervell and Coté was chosen. Somervell and Coté also designed the West Seattle and Green Lake library buildings, making them very similar in style. The University library building is constructed in a Neo-classical style, with formal symmetry and a grand, round-arched entrance. Columns stand on either side of the wooden entry doors, with a half-circle transom above them. Its original Spanish green-tiled roof, exposed rafter ends, and stucco cladding show a Mediterranean influence. Construction costs came to $38,935, of which $35,000 was covered by the Carnegie grant.

The University Library was dedicated and opened on August 5, 1910. Mayor Hiram G. Gill (1866-1919) spoke at the ceremony. The library services included a young people's collection, adult and children's reading rooms, delivery service, and the auditorium. The auditorium became an important community center, as few nearby spaces existed for public use. Groups such as the Boy Scouts, bird clubs, stamp clubs, and the Red Cross made use of the library as a meeting place. The library was open from 2 to 9 p.m. weekdays, and closed on Sundays and holidays. A weekly Children's Story Hour came into being that September. University Library's first year recorded 7,631 volumes and 2,555 library cards issued. Forty-four-thousand books were circulated.

Trouble with Gangs

In 1914 a cluster light was installed in the parking strip, "most obvious to the borrowers who visit us at night," wrote Mary Dennis, the branch's first librarian. Library use slowed during World War I, but war agencies such as the Air Raid Wardens, the Red Cross, and the Well-Baby Clinic used the building as a meeting place. The library closed for six weeks in 1918 because of the influenza epidemic, but 360 people got inoculations there at a clinic provided by the city.

Because of the library’s remote location, Mary N. Baker, the assistant librarian, asked the city to install a sign at the corner of 50th Street and University Way with an arrow pointing to the library. It was installed in 1921 -- the first sign of its time directing people toward a Seattle public library facility. Mary Dennis complained the same year of the University Branch's remoteness, saying it is "too far off the beaten track." A 1920s building boom in University District began to develop the area northward toward NE 45th Street and University Way NE, but the librarians' top complaint at this branch through the 1920s were problems with gangs of boys and young men. A 1921 article in the University District Herald described the issues:

"Miss Mary Baker asks for police protection from gangs of boys. 'The boys seem to think the library is a place to hold meetings and contests,' she said. 'They throw books, talk loudly and wrestle inside the building. When asked to be quiet, they become insolent and defiant. They shout and scuffle on the front steps ... some boys hurled roots and cabbages into the main entrance a week ago. They stained the side of the building with berries, making it necessary to scrub off the paint to remove the stain. Several chairs were smeared with tar last Thursday. Some boys also clogged the drinking fountain.' The police promised to station a man at the library if necessary."

A branch librarian, Clara Van Sant, wrote in the 1923 quarterlies, "Men hang outside the door to smoke, gossip, and pass comments to ladies coming into the library.” A number of library break-ins occurred during these years as well, although they appeared to be the acts of boys as opposed to men. Home visits to the troublemaker's houses stopped some rowdyism, and a trip to the Juvenile Court for five troublesome offenders helped in 1923.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression brought necessary city budget cutbacks, and library staff was trimmed citywide in 1932. The remaining staff had their salaries and benefits reduced significantly. In addition, lack of funding caused the city to restrict library hours, cancel the mobile book service, eliminate extension services, and close all the deposit stations. At the University Branch, one librarian was let go because she was married (the first to lose their jobs were those not deemed "bread-winners"), and one because she lived outside city limits. These cutbacks caused the University Library to close on Wednesdays in August 1932, and on Fridays in September 1934.

During this time, nevertheless, massive unemployment caused a dramatic increase in readers and in use of libraries. University Library records note that at one point a 63-foot-long line of borrowers was waiting at the checkout desk. The year 1933 registered the largest circulation total: 355,234 books (a figure that has never been matched at the University Branch, possibly because the opening of several other branches over the years took many patrons away). Seattle Public Library employees received retirement benefits when voters approved Charter Amendment 32 on March 9, 1937.

War Years

During World War II, book requests about European history increased with mounting international tensions. Groups such as the Women's Air Raid Wardens and the War Defense Chest met at the library. Five hundred and fifteen groups used the auditorium in 1940, with more than 8,160 people in attendance. Naturalization and drama classes were the most heavily attended by far. Although wartime employment dropped library patronage and book circulation, the librarians reported in 1941 that patrons still had to wait several minutes to check out books. Nonfiction reading was up during the war, especially on general world history and on places where G.I.'s were stationed.

The library raised fines on overdue books from the original one penny to two cents in 1942, increasing the library's budget and helping it to acquire new books. Theft of library books had been a problem since the library's opening. Back in 1932, librarians requested gates or stiles to help alleviate the problem, but these were never acquired. A dramatic shooting occurred on January 22, 1943, when for no known reason, a passing car sprayed the library with bullets at night. Luckily, no one was hurt. After the war, the upswing in University of Washington enrollment spurred retail, housing, and student-housing development in the area, increasing patronage that had been lost during the war.

Improvements and Renovations

By the 1950s, the library badly needed some repairs and improvements. In 1951, the Recordak charging system was installed, and it meant the end of handwritten checkouts. In 1952, a slot was put in the front door for return of books after hours. In September 1955, the present parking lot was built and new lighting was installed inside. In October 1957, a new natural gas heating plant was installed in the library, and Librarian Roberta Meredith found it “incredible not to come in to a freezing building in the morning that swelters at the afternoon (if we were lucky).” She wrote in her last report before retiring: "Much productive work could have been accomplished in the time spent listening to complaints and trying to remedy the situation."

Robert E. Iams began as the new librarian in 1961. He tried to address building deficiencies and noted when leaving in January 1972 that there was a least one new roof leak for every year he worked there. A parking-lot bookdrop was installed in 1968, but often became jammed. In 1971, blackout curtains installed in the auditorium allowed for movies to be shown there, and in 1972, audiocassettes were introduced to the library's collection. The Friends of the Library Association funded an auditorium renovation in 1979. Bond-vote money allowed for a major renovation of the library in 1985-1986, headed by architect Fred Bassetti (1917-2013). This renovation included structural renovation to meet earthquake standards, adding handicapped access, and making plumbing, electrical, and energy conservation improvements.

The Computer Age

The library installed a few computers in the late 1980s, and a grant from Bill Gates in 2001 purchased seven computers and Internet access. As of 2002, the most popular services at the University Library are book lending and the Internet. The auditorium is still used by a variety of groups. The December 2002 schedule shows a foster parents’ support group, a poetry reading, Chinese language learning, and Washington Housing Education classes. The rules governing the use of the auditorium specify that meetings held there be free, open to all, not-for-profit, and with no fund solicitation.

In 2007 the University branch was renovated under the "Libraries for All" bond measure. The renovation cost $996,210 and took 11 months, and was the 24th project completed under the $196.4 million bond issue passed by Seattle voters in 1998.

Hoshide Williams Architects designed the 2007 renovation, which included improved ventilation, upgraded technology services and equipment, more electrical, communication, and computer connections, new seating, and more efficient circulation desk and work areas. The exterior was repainted, and access to the branch was improved by opening the north and south wings and expanding the back door entry area. 

Seattle artist Dennis Evans created two mixed-media painted works for the University Branch.  The art pieces, part of a series for five of The Seattle Public Library’s Carnegie-funded branches (Fremont, Greenlake, University, Queen Anne, and West Seattle), were planned to reflect classic liberal arts themes.


Branch Librarians

    • Mary Dennis, 1910-1922
    • Clara Van Sant, 1922-1923
    • Florence H. Severs, 1923-1927
    • Roberta Meredith, 1927-1958
    • Enid (Miller) Slivka, 1958-1961
    • Robert E. Iams, 1961-1971
    • Edith Anne McElrath, 1972-1977
    • Regional Management, 1977-1990
    • Anne Hsiao (Ching Yen Hsiao), 1990-1994
    • Don Miller, 1995-1998
    • Michael Delury 1998- 2003
    • (Unavailable), 2003-2005
    • Andy Bates (interim assignment), 2006
    • Dave Valencia, 2007-2008
    • Marion Scichilone, (interim assignment)2008
    • Rekha Kuver, (interim assignment) 2008-present     

* Although there were no specific “Head Librarians” for a period, these women took over the duties as necessary.


"Report on Designation” for Landmark Status of the University Library, issued by Karen Gordon, January 2002. The following newsclippings, numbered in the scrapbooks as given, are from the Seattle Public Library Archives: University District Herald , April 18, 1941, p. 1 (UN7); Ibid., April 11, 1941 (UN8); Ibid., August 14, 1934 (UN9); Press Release from Nancy L. Wright, Community Relations, Seattle Public Library to Mary Bratton at the University District Herald, Submitted June 16, 1980 (UN13); Photocopied original program from the opening ceremony August 5, 1910 (UN15);Robert E. Iams, “History of University Branch As Part of Community Analysis,” November 15, 1979 (UN16); University District Herald August 1, 1946 (UN20); Robert E. Iams, “University Branch Library History” Flash Vol. 23, No. 2 (October 1964)(UN27); Seattle Public Library Annual Report 1906-1907 16th ed. (UN28); Seattle Public Library Annual Report 1910-1911 20th ed. (UN30); Photocopied clipping of unknown publication, (probably University District Herald), October 28, 1921 (UN32); Editorial, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 7, 1937; University Library Quarterly Reports, December 1918, October-December 1920, April-June 1921, July-September 1923, October-December 1925, April-June 1932, July-September 1932, and April-December 1933, Seattle Public Library Archives; University Library Yearly Reports, 1938, 1942, 1944, 1951, 1955, 1957, 1968, 1971, 1972 Seattle Public Library Archives; Press Release June 25, 1980 from Barbara Erling in the University Branch Library History file, at the University Branch Library; Alyssa Burrows interview with Michael Delury, University Branch Librarian 1998-Present on December 4, 2002; Carrie Tuckwood, University Librarian to Alyssa Burrows, December 2002; 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; Rekha Kuver email to Paula Becker, February 18, 2008, in possession of Paula Becker, Seattle, Washington; Dave Valencia email to Paula Becker, March 3, 2009, in possession of Paula Becker, Seattle, Washington.
Note: This essay was corrected on July 10, 2006, and was updated on September 10, 2008, on April 13, 2009, and on December 8, 2013.

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