The Covington branch of the King County Library System is located at 27100 164th Avenue SE in Covington. The library opened in 1993, and quickly became one of the busiest branches in the system, outgrowing its 15,000-square-foot space in less than a decade. A large expansion in 2008 added more space by half, and the library continues to play an integral part in the lives of Covington citizens.
Born of a Need
In 1988, King County voters approved a $67 million bond to fund the creation of 13 new libraries around the county, and expansions for five others. Five of the new libraries were in south King County, which had experienced tremendous growth since the last library construction bond was approved in 1966. Two new branches were planned east of Kent, two in Federal Way, and one in Algona-Pacific.
Because Covington was one of the fastest growing neighborhoods east of Kent, the unincorporated community was chosen as one of the recipients. A site was selected near the intersection of Highway 18 and Kent-Kangley Road -- an optimal location for many Covington residents. But eager Covington readers had to wait a bit until work could begin.
Developers were hindered by a moratorium on growth in the area, as the King County Library System (KCLS) discovered when it began to obtain permits to build on the property. Groundbreaking for the new 15,000-square-foot library did not take place until May 1, 1992, by which time the new Federal Way Library was already up and running.
Work on the Covington branch took less than a year. The $3.1 million building was designed by Eskilsson Architecture of Seattle in association with Gregov Architects. An additional $1.9 million from the 1988 bond went toward the new collection of more than 65,000 books, magazines, newspapers, video and audio cassettes, compact discs, and more, needed to fill its shelves.
The library opened on April 1, 1993, with a festive celebration. The Kent Brass Ensemble provided rousing music and children of all ages were entertained by a magician who performed tricks while wandering through the aisles. Covington residents were thrilled with the new structure and its collections, even more so because they no longer needed to travel to branches in Kent, Maple Valley or Black Diamond, which were all a considerable distance away.
One feature that was new for many library users was the library's computer capabilities. Using terminals set up for the public, patrons could search for books online, look up information about businesses, and even access nationwide phone listings.
A Gathering Place
The library soon became one of the busiest KCLS branches. In late 1993, managing librarian Georgia Lomax and her staff held their first meeting with the newly formed Friends of the Covington Library to brainstorm ideas on how to promote use of the library and plan activities and programs for its patrons. One event they later decided on was a used book sale, which has continued semi-annually ever since, and helps pay for other programs.
The first book sale was held in April to coincide with the library's one year-anniversary. Other events that were held as part of the library's "birthday bash" included tours of the building, a trivia contest, a presentation on how to use the internet, and the first of many bookmark contests, in which library visitors chose the best bookmarks designed by local children.
Also in April, the library hosted a presentation and book signing by children's author Martin Waddell (b. 1941). Over the years, Covington booklovers have had opportunities to meet many noted authors such as Robin McKinley (b.1957), Elizabeth George (b. 1949), Will Hobbs (b. 1947), Jez Alborough (b. 1959), and T. A. Barron (b. 1959)
At the end of the year, another long-standing tradition began with a visit from Santa Claus. Each December, Covington kids got a chance to meet the roly-poly man in the red suit and tell him their Christmas wishes. In return, parents made small donations to the Friends of the Covington Library, which helped fund other fun events throughout the year.
One of the Best
Patronage at the Covington Library was booming, so much so that in 1997, it was named one of the best libraries in the United States by Cheapskate Monthly, a national newsletter dedicated to identifying the best sources of free information, education, entertainment, and more. The newsletter highlighted the library's summer reading program, video checkout service, internet availability, and free classes. Special attention was given to Storytime Librarian Carol Van Baalen, who often dressed in character for book readings, and was described as a master at teaching and at crowd-control.
The library's first Poetry Month celebration was held in April 1997, the same month that the Friends of the Covington Library published their first cookbook, filled with recipes sent in by patrons. During the summer, the library's new Talk Time classes were in full swing, helping immigrants to learn conversational English.
But the big news in Covington that year was incorporation. In November 1996, a large majority of residents voted to make Covington a city, but had to wait until a city council was elected and an incorporation date was chosen. The city officially incorporated on August 31, 1997, and a few months later local residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of annexing their new city to the King County Library District, so that KCLS could continue to administer the Covington branch.
Growing and Outgrowing
As the new city continued to grow, so did use of the library. In 1999, a teen book discussion group was formed, giving kids a chance to meet during the summer and talk about their favorite books. Other programs on topics like gardening and hiking proved popular with adults. And the library's popular author series continued to draw crowds, especially to meet and hear talks from Northwest authors like Terry Brooks (b. 1944), Patricia Veryan (b. 1923), Erik Larson (b. 1954), J. A. Jance (b. 1944), Helen Thayer (b. 1937), Jim Lynch (b. 1961), and Harvey Manning (1925-2006).
When Covington began celebrating its annual summer Covington Days festivities, the library took part. Staff members, volunteers, and members of the Friends of Covington Library marched in the first Covington Days parade while performing a spoof of River Dance, accompanied by head librarian Georgia Lomax on the bagpipes. The following years, they returned as the Dancing Librarians -- although they hiked instead of dancing -- and in later years the team would march in costumes designed to promote one of their programs.
The Covington Library was popular indeed, to the point that it was quickly outgrowing the 15,000 square-foot building constructed less than a decade earlier. In 2001, KCLS released designs for a $1.75 million expansion of the Covington Library, but the plans were shelved later that year after voters approved Initiative 747, a tax-limiting measure that gutted the budgets of local governments, as well as of library and fire districts.
I-747 was later found by the courts to be unconstitutional, but that wasn't until 2007. In the meantime, property-tax increases of more than 1 percent had to go before the electorate.
In 2004, King County voters gladly approved a $172 million bond to repair and enlarge libraries throughout the county. Of that money, $6.45 million was used to expand the Covington branch.
In 2005, community meetings were held in Covington to gather input from the public on how best improve the library. Many liked the "great room" -- the entry to the library -- and wanted the space to be more open for gatherings. Others worried that if the great hall was opened up, it would mean less space for books. One aspect that most people liked were the trees that ringed the building, and many expressed hopes that the natural backdrop seen through library windows would be maintained.
With plenty of ideas to work with, both from KCLS and library patrons, Integrus Architecture went to work on planning the new expansion. Meanwhile, the library was busier than ever. In 2006, usage went up by 12 percent from the previous year. Construction began in Fall 2007, not a moment too soon.
Work was completed in just over 6 months, during which time Covington residents had to use other KCLS branches in Maple Valley, Black Diamond, and Kent. But when they returned to the Covington Library for its grand reopening, they were quite happy with what awaited them.
Bigger and Better
Ribbon-cutting ceremonies were held on March 8, 2008, less than a month before the library's 15th anniversary. Hundreds of people streamed through the front door during the first hour alone, and many more dropped by throughout the day. Even though the expansion and renovation included more on-site parking, a shuttle service was needed that day for those who had to park at a nearby Fred Meyer store.
Changes to the building were noticeable even before the patrons entered. An L-shaped addition to the front and left of the entrance added 7,700-square feet of space to the existing structure. Once inside, visitors entered the great room, filled with study tables, cozy seats, and even a fireplace. Plenty of new shelves were added, filled with lots of new books. A new wall of windows looked out on the woods that surrounded the building.
The expanded building also hosted a lot of new high-tech amenities. The Covington Library was already one of the first KCLS branches to offer self-checkout, and now there was an automated check-in system, which moved returned items along a conveyor belt past a barcode reader, and then funneled the items into designated bins. A cyber bar was available for people to place laptops they brought in, or ones that were available for checkout. Free wireless connections were available throughout the structure.
Because the library had always been so busy, new meetings rooms were available for group discussions or for quiet study. The Children's section was greatly enhanced, as was the Teen Zone, where some of the improvements were made based on comments given by local students.
Throughout the day, visitors enjoyed refreshments, music, and entertainment, but when they left, most of them carried home books and other materials they had checked out, because that's what libraries are for. As Bill Ptacek, Director of KCLS, stated during the ribbon-cutting ceremony, "This is the community's living room." (King County Library System website: http://www.kcls.org/covington)