Columbia Branch, The Seattle Public Library

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 12/17/2002
  • Essay 4057

The Columbia Branch, The Seattle Public Library, is located at 4721 Rainier Avenue S adjacent to Columbia Park at the north end of the Columbia City business district in southeast Seattle.  The branch's landmark 1915 building is the smallest of the libraries built for Seattle with gifts from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919).  The branch itself dates to 1909, two years after Columbia City was annexed into Seattle, when a small branch was opened in Spartan surroundings in the old Columbia City town hall.  Since the branch's inception in 1909, it has seen dramatic changes in a neighborhood that has always attracted immigrant groups from Italians to Asians to Pacific Islanders. Under the "Libraries for All" improvement program, a $196.4 million bond issue passed by Seattle voters in 1998, the building was expanded to double its size. It closed for a year for renovation, reopening in August 2004. The expanded and renovated library preserves the building's distinctive character as a landmark.  

The Rainier Valley community of Columbia City was incorporated in 1893 and was annexed into Seattle in 1907. Residents at first resisted being absorbed into the big city, but ultimately decided that they could obtain better city services, such as a library, with a larger tax base. On June 5, 1909, the Seattle Public Library opened a small branch in the main room of the old Columbia City town hall on Rainier Boulevard (later Rainier Avenue South) at Hudson Street, which was provided rent-free. The space was so Spartan that the lavatory was in the furniture store across the unpaved street and over the double tracks of the interurban railroad. The collection started with 1,200 volumes. Within a year, librarian Fannie L. Dudgeon, doubled the size of the collection and was circulating 2,000 volumes a month. In 1911, the Rainier Valley Commercial Club began to lobby the library board for a real branch library.

Andrew Carnegie

That same year, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) gave $70,000 to Seattle to build two free libraries. Half went to build the branch on Queen Anne Hill and half went to Columbia City. Architects W. Marbury Somervell (1872-1939) and Harlan Thomas prepared a Georgian design out of brick for a site at 4721 Rainier Avenue S, north of the main business district and the interurban street railway station. The community collected $2,500 toward purchase of the site and the city came up with the balance of $2,000. Construction and furniture was paid for with $35,000 in Carnegie funds.

The building went up next to Columbia Park, overlooking the rail line. The one-room floor plan departed from other Carnegie branches in Seattle. Adult works were in the north half and children's materials took over the rest of the library. In the basement were a story-hour room and the auditorium, which could seat 200.

Door to Door

The Columbia Branch opened on December 30, 1915, and librarian Laurentine Meissner moved with her books from the town hall branch to run the new branch. She reported that "books on science, useful arts and literature are circulating best." As many as 125 children attended story hour on Saturdays, but crossing the interurban tracks that ran down the middle of Rainier Boulevard was something of a hazard for them. Safety improved somewhat when Rainier and the rail line were regraded and raised nine feet in front of the library. The Rainier Valley Commercial Club, a Boy Scout troop, and other groups used the meeting room.

Meissner worked hard to publicize the new library. She went door to door handing out book lists and encouraging residents to visit, but she did not meet with great success. She was "surprised and interested by the indifference of the majority of the people toward the library ... the people of the valley are in general not good readers. Most of them are mechanics, carpenters and laborers and they work too hard to care to spend their evenings reading. And if we can start to give them help along their line of business we will be doing some good." One third of the male borrowers listed their occupation as carpenter. Meissner complained that there was "a great deal more fiction being read than any true librarian approves of" (Quarterly Reports).

The U.S. entry into World War I was reflected at the library with a high demand for books about wheatless breads, substitute flour recipes, and shipbuilding. Meissner asked the community for "all idle books, magazines, books on war, popular travel, history, biography, short stories, [and] detective stories," to be distributed to military personnel. By February 1918, "with every man and boy and most of the women at work," circulation dropped off. On February 6, 1919, the Seattle General Strike began and the first six borrowers in the front door of the library that morning were strikers looking for books in their occupations. The strike was a "boon" to library use, but Meissner was troubled at the interest in fiction "because people were too restless to settle down to anything more useful" (Quarterly Reports).

Librarian Meissner continued her outreach. She sent crochet books and fiction to the Crittendon Home for unwed mothers and she established a display table with "Books Men Like." Automotive repair manuals were particularly popular. In the library, the issue of desk pencils stolen by children "had to be dealt with accordingly."


In the 1920s, the library and its meeting room became a center for youth activities such as Scouts and Camp Fire, but it also attracted other more restless youngsters. The librarian had to ask police to counsel some of the discipline problems. Matters only grew worse with the opening of the Columbia Playground field house nearby. Teens congregated in front of the library. In 1930, librarian Millicent Spencer, reflecting prejudice typical of her day, solemnly noted, "We have a gang from a district three blocks away, which was reported by one of the school principals to the children's librarian, as being one of the worst in the valley. In it are several Italians, a race whose young people are considered in cities where there are many foreign children as the most restless and disturbing element" (Quarterly Report). The assignment of a new Sergeant at the Columbia City police station in 1931 apparently resolved the gang problems.

The Columbia branch got a major facelift in 1931, just before budget cuts caused by the Great Depression closed it one day a week and librarians' salaries were slashed. After several lean years, the branch benefited from additional staff and improvements to the building funded by New Deal recovery programs.

In 1941, as the U.S. prepared for World War II, the library saw many workers from Boeing borrowing books. In 1942, the Rainier Vista housing project opened for war workers, bringing in more new visitors. Adult circulation tended to drop during the war years, however, because of morning cuts in building heat, evening "dim-outs" (Annual Report), and gasoline rationing. Popular books during the war were home repair manuals, remodeling guides, and any make-it-yourself books. The basement auditorium became an air-raid shelter.

Librarian Desiah Lockerby marked the closing months of the war in 1945 with two visitors -- in January the first Japanese-American child to return from an internment camp, and in February the first discharged veteran. The veteran enjoyed mysteries because the trauma of combat left him with insomnia and the books helped him sleep. Lockerby served as Branch Librarian for 21 years.


The post-war housing boom saw an increase in borrower registrations out of the Columbia Branch and a continued interest in books for homeowners. A major change overtook the library in 1952 when the Rainier Vista housing project was converted from defense workers to low-income tenants, many of whom were unemployed. The number of lost items and bad addresses on registrations increased. Circulation continued to drop until 1958, when a Tradewell supermarket opened nearby and people began to include a library visit with their shopping.

Do-It-Yourself titles remained popular through the 1960s. In 1971, so many auto repair manuals and high school equivalency tests were lost that the library required identification before allowing them to be checked out.

A Better Branch

On May 31, 1986, the branch reopened after a major remodel funded by the 1984, $3.9 million bond issue to restore the old Carnegie libraries. The landmark building received new seating, new shelving, and a new circulation desk. Seating was increased by 30 percent and shelving was increased by 15 percent. Fire department regulations reduced the capacity of the auditorium to 99, and then to 50.

In 1998, Seattle voters approved $196.4 million in "Libraries for All" bonds to replace the central library, renovate all 22 existing branches, and build three new branches. Cardwell Architects developed a design to expand the landmark structure by almost double and still retain the flavor of the original building. The $3.2 million project was completed in 2004.

Branch Librarians

  • Fannie L. Dudgeon 1909-1912
  • Stella R. Hoyt 1912-1914
  • Laurentine Meissner 1914-1920
  • Helen W. Stow 1920-1921
  • Anna M. Anderson 1921-1928
  • Millicent Spencer 1928-1931
  • Eloise Ruth Johnson 1931-1934
  • Anna Q. Tuell 1934-1938
  • Ruth Norris 1938-1942
  • Desiah Lockerby 1942-1963
  • Edith Ann McElrath 1963-1967
  • Margaret L. Moyer 1968-1971
  • Mary Lou Soule 1971-1975
  • Regional management 1975-1991
  • Carlene Burnette 1991-1999
  • Mary Jo Torgerson 1999-2002
  • Valerie Garrett-Turner (2004-2005)
  • Steve DelVecchio (acting branch manager)


"Columbia Branch Library Opened," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 7, 1909, Sec. 2, p. 1; "Columbia Library Reopens," newsclipping, May 31, 1986, in "Columbia Library -- Miscellaneous Papers," folder, Seattle Public Library Archives; "Columbia Community Study," report, Seattle Community Services Division, 1981, Ibid.; "Columbia Branch History," typescript, September 15, 1932, in folder "Columbia Library History," Ibid.; "Columbia Library -- Quarterly Reports, April 1915-July 1934," folder, Ibid.; "Columbia Library -- Annual Reports, 1934-1974," folder, Ibid.; "Columbia Branch," Seattle Public Library Website (; Polk's City Directory - Seattle, 1910-1914; "Librarian Wants Aid In Good Work," Rainier Valley Citizen, October 27, 1917, newsclipping, Columbia Branch Library Archives; "Seattle Public Library Directory of Staff, 1967-1970," bound toether, Northwest History Collection, The Seattle Public Library.
Note: This essay was updated on May 29, 2005, on September 10, 2008, and again on February 15, 2009, and was revised slightly on October 26, 2011.

Related Topics:   Buildings | Education | Landmarks | Southeast Seattle | The Seattle Public Library

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