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A Source of Pride

History of the Port Townsend Carnegie Library

by Pam McCollum Clise
Peninsula Daily News, April 24, 2008

As with many projects, the Port Townsend Public Library began as an idea discussed among a small group of local women in the spring of 1898. By June 28th of that year they had generated an official agreement for the incorporation of the Port Townsend Library Association. Article II included the following:

"The dissemination of useful knowledge by the establishment of a library of circulation and reference and the encouragement and fostering of any literary purpose whatever: the acquirement by lease, purchase or donation of real and personal property and the erection of such buildings and improvement as may be necessary or convenient for the use of the corporation."

… Signed: Ida Hitt, Lizzie Hill, Lida Trumbull, Cherry Colman, Mary Fletcher, Nanette Tibbals, Eliz McBeth, Katharine Strong, Ann Starrett, Florence Butler, Miss Minta Morgan, Ida O'Neill, Clara Wylie, and Cassie Pugh.

In their wisdom the women included language for considering the possibility of a future building dedicated to the Library Association, as well as improvements that would be needed. It would be another fifteen years before such a building became a reality.

After the hard work of fundraising with the generosity of community members, a second floor room in the Central School (Current site of the Port Townsend Community Center) was outfitted with shelves, furnishings, and books. The Library held its grand opening on July 26, 1898. Initially operations had volunteers opening each Wednesday evening and Saturday afternoon. A year later the Library had almost 700 books and circulation was near 2,000 with just over one hundred members each providing a small membership fee.

Business had increased to the point that it became time to hire the first paid librarian. Miss Laura Plummer, was employed at a rate of three dollars per month according to Jeanette Rutledge's article in With Pride in Heritage.

Fundraising and community support has been a continuing theme in the life of the Library. Benefit performances were given in the form of musicals, dances, and lectures. Over the years festivals were held, as were annual white elephant and three-day rummage sales. There were annual dances to celebrate Easter, Labor Day, and even a midnight dinner. A Rose Festival and a Doll Fair were among the many efforts to support the Library over time.

By 1902 the Library Association began negotiations for a lot on Lawrence Street and by January 20 1903 a Port Townsend Leader article announced that the sale was complete and the lot purchased for $400. Soon after this transaction was completed, the Association also purchased an adjoining lot. In 1904, long before a building was constructed at the site, a wooden sidewalk along the front of the lot was completed with the help of volunteer labor and donations of material.

Library usage continued to increase to a point that the Association began looking at possible funds from outside the community to help realize their goal of a library building. They had the land, the sidewalk, the community support, and the general plans when they turned to the Andrew Carnegie Foundation for assistance. Communications began being exchanged between the Carnegie Foundation in New York and Port Townsend City Clerk James Anderson in January 1907.

Andrew Carnegie was a self made man who, in the later part of his life, created a foundation to give his money away to what he deemed as worthwhile causes. A primary focus of his philanthropy was the building of libraries. He looked for communities that were already helping themselves and willing to maintain continued support for a library building. Between 1886-1896 Carnegie gave away money for fourteen building in six communities in the United States. Carnegie's personal secretary, James Bertram sent out questionnaires to the communities that wished to apply. Detailed communications began between the Foundation and selected communities. The Foundation provided funds for the construction of the building, while it was up to the individual community to provide books, services, and a pledge to commit to ongoing maintenance.

In September 1910 the City Council was petitioned by citizens to assist the Library Association in its effort to make the library truly free by providing financial support for its operation. Previous to this time the library was still charging a minimal fee of one dollar per year per user to help with costs and at the same time providing free access to reference materials to the public and schools. As work with the council proceeded the Library sponsored a Valentine Card Party at the Rose Theater with a short talk about making the library a free one. In April 1911 the City Council passed a resolution to officially create a free library with city support.

As communications with the Carnegie Foundation progressed and local fundraising efforts continued, the Library found that it needed to move from the Central School location in 1911. The school needed to utilize the space that had previously been set-aside for the Library, and a small but adequate location on the second floor of the Dennis-Halteman building on Lawrence Street was secured for the Library.

In August 1912 a special library meeting was called to vote on the plans for the the new library building which were to be submitted to the Carnegie Foundation. Three months later the Carnegie Corporation agreed to furnish $12,500 to the City of Port Townsend to erect a free Public Library building on the condition that the City continue the pledge for maintenance and salaries.

A flurry of activities transpired after the official announcement by the Carnegie Foundation. Final floor plans were submitted, lists of suggested furniture and equipment were drawn up, and fixtures were planned. Once construction was underway, orders began to be received for covered tables, chairs and umbrella stands from the Standard Furniture Company of Seattle. New book purchases increased and were arranged on shelves. The glowing wood floors were finished and polished to a high shine. The brick fireplaces at each end of the room were finished, a world globe, book carts and finishing touches were applied in time for the grand opening held October 14, 1913.

The dedication program included music from an orchestra and speeches in front of an enthusiastic audience. The long awaited official home of the Port Townsend Public Library was finally here.

By the 1930s the building maintenance and basic budget was already showing signs of strain. Even with maintenance and staff provided for through the City, discussions on ways to cut expenses became a recurring topic. The roof was leaky, fuel and electricity costs had gone up, and circulation continued to increase. In 1934 the library was able to raise the necessary amounts to remain open after budget cuts with a 387 FOR and 108 AGAINST vote being counted in a special levy. The Library cooperated with school officials to increase time for students at the library for homework and new collections for small children were made possible through the Ladies Auxiliary of the American Legion. The Parent-Teachers Association donated books to be used as reference material.

Throughout the 1940s discussions continued on library hours, maintenance (the roof was leaking again), staffing, open hours and the book budget. Story hours were provided for small children, while continued encouragement to school aged children for homework space was given and the circulation continued to rise.

Year after year the library budget needed to be approved by the City with some years of slight increases and others of reductions. Many times the Library stayed open by the skin of their teeth. In the 1970s Library Board acting Chairman, Frank Kilham requested that City consider increasing the budget so that the library could stay open more hours, and that adequate paid vacations could be provided for staff. The current rate provided for building maintenance was only adequate as long as no emergency arose. The cost of books had gone up twenty percent in the previous four years and the budget was very tight once again.

The ongoing problems of providing the best service for the most number of people, a deteriorating building, and rising costs each year continued. In 1987 another small group of people got together to discuss new ways to look at the problems and the possibility of renovating the aging building.

This group led to a Diamond Jubilee Campaign to renovate and expand the Port Townsend Library. The electrical system was outdated, the heating system was referred to as a 'dinosaur', the roof was leaking (again), and space for books had become exceedingly cramped. A survey was distributed to local citizens and ninety-five percent of respondents were in favor of an expanded library. The project took on a life of its own when people from all aspects of the community came forward with donations and support. Volunteers came out of the woodwork to help. Board members helped paint walls. Local service clubs helped with final projects. Support was also obtained from grants and business sponsorship wherever possible. In June 1990, the dream of an upgraded, expanded library was celebrated with great joy.

Eighteen years have already passed and the Public Library is once again looking at ways to provide improvements, ongoing service, and additional expansion. While the 1990 expanded facility has not increased in size, there has been a tremendous increase in the collections, circulation, public programs, and the number of users has exploded. The Port Townsend Public Library circulation has increased one hundred and sixty five percent over the last eighteen years. In addition to increased computer usage, the collection has increased by one hundred and forty four percent since 1990. Almost 8,000 Port Townsend residents now hold library cards. Some of the open space gained in 1990 was eliminated in 1998 to provide for the huge increases in collections and services. Port Townsend has the highest circulation per capita of all the libraries in Washington State.

Small neighborhood gatherings have been taking place all throughout Port Townsend in the last few months to discuss the possibilities, pros and cons, and the 'what ifs' concerning ongoing maintenance, programs, circulation and space at the library. A recent library publication says, " The Port Townsend Public Library is fortunate to have the benefit of three major volunteer support organizations; the Advisory Board of Trustees, the Library Foundation and the Friends of the Library. The library, city government and the community will work in collaboration with these groups to develop a financial plan to support the library needs"

It also has the support of a vast number of individuals in our community. It is 'community' that has supported the library with its ups and downs throughout its history.