Walla Walla Public Library

  • By Michael Paulus
  • Posted 8/28/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8727

The Walla Walla Public Library opened in November 1897. Earlier efforts to establish a library for the public in the city of Walla Walla date back to the mid-1860s and the early 1870s, but neither of these subscription libraries proved to be sustainable. After Washington became a state, Walla Wallans lobbied the state legislature to pass a law that would authorize municipalities to start and finance free public libraries. After such a law was passed in 1895, Walla Walla citizens raised money to establish a public library. In 1905, with funding from Andrew Carnegie, the library moved into its first building. The library's collection, staff, and services quickly grew and by 1950 the library had outgrown its building. After it moved into a new building in 1970, the library began to expand its non-print collections and services. As computing technologies and library consortia became increasingly significant in the 1980s and 1990s, the library continued to expand its collections and services to include access to computers and electronic resources.

Early Libraries

The city of Walla Walla, one of the oldest cities in Washington state, began as a small settlement around the U.S. military Fort Walla Walla in the late 1850s. The town was named and platted in 1859 and incorporated and named the seat of Walla Walla County in 1862. A gold rush in the early 1860s caused the city of Walla Walla to become one of the most populous areas in the territory. When the gold rush was over, Walla Walla successfully transitioned into a productive agricultural center and by 1880 it was the largest city in Washington Territory.

By the 1860s, the area surrounding Walla Walla already had a rich history -- a history that included native North Americans, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, fur traders, missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, soldiers, pioneers, and others. As the town developed, it was not without its rough edges. In 1865, a Vigilance Committee was formed to deal with horse-stealing and other crimes. After a number of outlaws had been shot or hanged, "it became safe for honest men to walk the streets of Walla Walla in daylight, which had not been the case for some time previous" (Eells, 187).

But most of those who settled in and around Walla Walla desired to establish in the West the institutions of American culture that existed in the East. The first churches, Roman Catholic and Methodist, were established in 1859; the region's first newspaper, the Washington Statesman, appeared in 1861; the first public school also began in 1861 and the first private school began in 1864; and Whitman Seminary (later Whitman College), which was charted in 1859 to memorialize the Whitmans, opened its doors in 1866.

In 1864, a group of professionals in Walla Walla came together to form a literary society. Through subscriptions they created a collection of some 150 books, which were kept in the office of the county engineer, and on January 20, 1865, they incorporated as the Walla Walla Library Association. The cost of membership was an induction fee of $5 and quarterly dues of $1; nonmembers could pay $1 per month to use the library. The association met regularly for educational discussions and debates. The library's books and periodicals were kept in various locations downtown, where they could be accessed during weekdays. But interest in the association waned and it soon dissolved.

The idea of a subscription library was revived by a group of Fort Walla Walla officers in the early 1870s. They formed the Walla Walla Library and Lyceum Association, which, like its predecessor, was interested in a library in connection with a range of educational activities. In 1877, the Walla Walla Library and Lyceum Association merged with the Walla Walla Association for the Advancement of Science and the next year built a small, one-story building downtown that provided facilities for a reading room and the library's collection. Margaret Welch served as the librarian. But interest in this library waned, too, and the building closed in 1887. The library was given use of a room on the second floor of the Reynolds-Day Building on Main Street, but by 1890 the library's books were simply being stored. Local businesses paid a small fee to maintain the reading room for young men.

The Walla Walla Public Library

A few years after Washington became a state in 1889, Walla Wallans Henry P. Isaacs (1822-1900) and Thompson Coit Elliott (1862-1943) prepared a bill for the state legislature for municipal support of public libraries. The bill failed to pass but a second attempt, championed by the newly established Walla Walla Woman's Reading Club, became a law in March 1895. This law cleared the way for citizens, after they had raised $1,000 in money or books, to petition municipal governments to start and finance public libraries.

The Walla Walla Woman's Reading Club organized in 1894 "to promote literacy, artistic and social progress." The club quickly raised the required money and in April 1897 it petitioned the city council to establish a public library. The upper floor of the McLean Building in downtown Walla Walla was rented; Margaret (Welch) Center was selected librarian; and, with $903.24 in cash and $300 in books, the Walla Walla Public Library opened its doors to the public in November.

The library soon moved to the second floor of the Paine Building downtown, but this space was also inadequate and planning soon began for a suitable permanent home for the public library. In 1903, the Woman's Reading Club's Library Committee found a location for a library building, on a small triangular piece of land between Alder and Palouse streets, and the City Council accepted a grant of $25,000 from industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), who at that time was giving away millions of dollars to fund the development of libraries throughout the English-speaking world. The next year, in 1904, Elliott -- who would serve on the library's new board of trustees from 1904 until his death -- offered the city the desired property, the city paid to clear the land, and construction began. Carnegie's gifts came with the condition that local governments would support their libraries, and so the City of Walla Walla agreed to appropriate annually one-tenth of the amount granted for the library.

The Walla Walla Carnegie library building was designed by Henry Osterman (b. 1862), the architect of many Walla Walla public buildings, who based his design on the recently constructed Herrick Library in Wellington, Ohio. The building was made of red pressed brick, the interior finish was mostly oak, and it was equipped with electric lights and a hot water heater. The Woman's Reading Club, which had been honored with a meeting room in the library, hosted the dedication reception on Wednesday evening, December 13, 1905. Addresses were given by John L. Sharpstein, president of the library board, and Miles C. Moore (1845-1919), the last territorial governor of Washington, and an orchestra played as Walla Wallans toured the facility.

Like many public libraries at this time, the Walla Walla Public Library had a better building than collection. The new building was built to accommodate perhaps 25,000 volumes, but the library's collection in 1905 numbered about 15 percent of that. So soon after the Carnegie building opened, a circular letter was sent out to solicit donations of books and money. The Woman's Reading Club helped again by raising money for children's books.

Building a Modern Library

The year 1876, the year in which the American Library Association was established, is often marked as the beginning of the movement to professionalize libraries and librarianship. Like thousands of other libraries across the country, the Walla Walla Public Library obtained a firm foundation through local advocacy, municipal support, and the largesse of Carnegie. With a strong board and an attractive facility, the library was ready to professionalize its operations.

In 1906, the library board hired its first professionally trained librarian, Florence S. Smith. Previously, Smith had been the librarian of the Free Public Library in Beatrice, Nebraska. Under her leadership, the Walla Walla Public Library began ordering catalog cards from the Library of Congress and marketed its services, but before she completed her first year Smith resigned her position to care for an ailing mother. The board hired as her replacement Ellen Garfield Smith (d. 1938), who had been employed at the John Crerar Library in Chicago. According the latter Smith, at the time of her arrival "the greatest growth and the greatest need" was in the children's department." For its benefit, a regular story hour was offered, "first to attract the children to the library and second to arouse in them a desire for real literature thus counteracting the development of a taste for worthless fiction" (Smith, 357). In addition, at this time a cataloger and assistant librarian were added to the library staff and Smith was able to become active in professional library associations.

According the librarian's report from 1917, the library was open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and, for reading and reference only, on Sundays and holidays from 2 to 6 p.m. The library boasted 4,962 "active" readers -- about one-quarter of the city's population -- and a circulation figure of 59,580 books, periodicals, and pamphlets for the previous year. Smith was happy to report that 55 percent of these books "were of an instructive and informing character" (i.e., not fiction); 18,345 were children's books. The size of the library's collection was more than 12,600 volumes, which included more than 2,000 children's books, and was now growing at a rate of 10 percent a year.

In addition, the library subscribed to 106 periodicals and five newspapers. Reference questions answered the previous year included: the number of grain bags used in the U.S.; the design of the Christian flag for Sunday schools; directions for glazing of pottery; statistics of water-power plants; the location of Matzos; the high jump record of a horse; and directions for pickling olives (Lyman, History of Old Walla Walla County, 303).

The prosperity of the library, which had to add a balcony to accommodate its collection in 1925 and expand its children's room in the building's basement in 1931, slowed during the Great Depression. But library staff continued to advocate for resources and experiment with improved services, such as operating library stations in the city's schools. In an article that appeared in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin on March 13, 1938, the library received high praise for its modern facilities, collection management, and professional staff.

The library continued to adapt to local changes, such as a temporary influx of military families connected with a World War II air base and hospital, but as it approached its semicentennial the library became increasingly constrained by its Carnegie facility. Old newspapers were given away to other libraries; "out of date" records were burned; and heavy weeding of the collection began -- some 8,700 books were weeded between 1947 and 1950, leaving a collection of 34,396 volumes. According to one contemporary analysis, this collection was "inadequate for the people of the city of Walla Walla" (Orr, 49).

New Directions

Thomas D. Howells (1912-1991), a Walla Walla Public Library trustee and English professor at Whitman College, described Walla Walla's old Carnegie library building as "hard to heat, impossible to clean, and rather desperately overcrowded with books and readers." Howells explained that Sarah Corcoran (1900-1980), head librarian from 1948 to 1965, held board meetings in such a way that "literally as well as physically our backs were against the wall" -- an appropriate arrangement, Howells added, for a library in need of a new building (Howells, 2).

The library did not have a new building until 1970, by which time many of the library's 50,000 books were "packed -- almost inaccessibly -- in the [Carnegie] building's basement and even stacked in boxes in the men's room" ("City's New Library ..."). The new building, a single-story brick structure not far down Alder Street from the Carnegie building, was dedicated on Saturday, June 13, 1970, with an address by Senator Henry M. Jackson (1912-1972). Donald and Virginia Kelly Sherwood paid for furnishings and equipment as a memorial to honor Walla Walla Union-Bulletin publisher John G. Kelly (1872-1962).

The new building tripled the amount of space available to the library and enabled it to expand its collections and programs. The library now had space for 80,000 books, large reading rooms for adults and children, rooms for public programs and events, an audio-visual room, and appropriate staff facilities. The audio-visual room, which provided space for the library's record collection and listening facilities, represented the library's expanding effort to provide access to media beyond the products of print culture. The record collection, which had been established in 1953, began to grow and the library began to make films available. The library also circulated art prints.

As computing technologies and library consortia became more significant in the 1980s, in addition to providing access to more than 75,000 volumes and traditional library services the Walla Walla Public Library began providing access to new bibliographic databases and interlibrary loan services. By the end of the decade, the library was providing access to computers. Automated library systems and internet access followed in the 1990s, and in the early 2000s the library began offering access to thousands of reference works and periodicals through its electronic resources.

Today, serving a population of more than 30,000 patrons, the Walla Walla Public Library boasts that it is one of the most visited institutions in the city: in 2006, there were more than 150,000 visits to the library. Other numbers from that year include: 51,843 reference questions answered; 246,255 items circulated; 118,463 items owned; 13,524 cardholders; 9,637 children's programs; and an adult program attendance of 1,052. Also in 2006, as part of plan to expand and renovate its current facilities, a new children's wing was added to the library's building.

Sources: HistoryLink.org The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Walla Walla Public Library building is dedicated on December 13, 1905," (by Paula Becker), http://www.HistoryLink.org (accessed July 4, 2008); Robert A. Bennett, Walla Walla: Portrait of a Western Town, 1804-1899 (Walla Walla, Wash.: Pioneer Press, Inc., 1980) and Walla Walla: A Town Built to Be a City, 1900-1919 (Walla Walla, Wash.: Pioneer Press, Inc., 1982); Myron Eells, Father Eells, or, the Results of Fifty-Five Years of Missionary Labors in Washington and Oregon: A Biography of Cushing Eells (Boston and Chicago: Congregational Sunday-School and Publishing Society, 1894); Frank T. Gilbert, Historic Sketches: Walla Walla, Whitman, Columbia, and Garfield Counties, Washington Territory (Portland, Oregon: A. G. Walling, 1882); Thomas D. Howells, "Sarah Corcoran," Thomas D. Howells Papers, Whitman College and Northwest Archives; W. D. Lyman, An Illustrated History of Walla Walla County, State of Washington (W. H. Lever, Publisher, 1901) and Lyman's History of Old Walla Walla County: Embracing Walla Walla, Columbia, Garfield, and Asotin Counties Vols. 1 and 2  (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1918); Maryde Fahey Orr, "Development of the Walla Walla Public Library" (M.L. Thesis, University of Washington, 1953); Ellen Garfield Smith, "Children at the Public Library," Up-to-the-Times Magazine, July 1908, pp. 357-358; "The Walla Walla Urban Area Comprehensive Plan: 2007 Review and Update," January 2008, City of Walla Walla website accessed July 30, 2008 (http://www.ci.walla-walla.wa.us); Richard Zahler, "City's New Library Will Offer Increased Capacity and Many Unique Features," Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, August 10, 1969.

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