The Kent Library has been the cultural center of its King County suburban city ever since it checked out its first books in 1920. The library was first proposed in 1919 by a local doctor who wanted to encourage young people to read. The original Kent Library occupied a room in the downtown Red Cross Community Center and had 740 card holders in its first year. In 1922 the city of Kent opened a new city hall and the library moved into the ground floor. In 1959 the city proposed building a new 4,200-square-foot library and entered into a cooperative agreement with the King County Library System (KCLS), in which Kent would build the facility and KCLS would operate it. That library opened in 1960. In 1972 Kent voters approved a bond issue for a new 15,000-square-foot library, which opened in 1973. In 1987, Kent and KCLS officials decided to jointly build a $3.2 million library on a new downtown site. It opened in 1991. In 1993 Kent voters approved formal annexation into the the King County Library System. The Kent Library was renovated in 2010.
Lack of a Library
The city of Kent was named after the English county of Kent for one reason: hop vines. In the city's early days, it had aspirations to become a famous hop-growing center, like the English shire. In the 1880s, lucrative hop vines covered the fertile Green River valley south of Seattle. Aphids put a sticky end to the Kent hops industry in 1891, but farmers successfully converted to dairy pasturage and other, hardier crops. Railroads soon arrived, serving the area's agricultural and logging industries.
The town was incorporated in 1890, with a population of 853. It had doubled by 1910, and was approaching 2,000 in 1919 when Dr. George M. MacGregor, a local doctor, gave a speech decrying what he saw as a serious community lack: a public library:
"Let any thoughtful person take a 10 o'clock stroll through the street, they will see groups of people wandering aimlessly around and making such childish use of their time as you and I encourage them to do, by providing nothing better. We want them to be readers but we give them no library" (Cameron, 143).
MacGregor was particularly aware of the advantages of a library because his wife had been a professional librarian.
The thoughts of A. N. Berlin, a prominent Kent merchant, were "crystallized" by this speech, and he proposed the establishment of a "Library Memorial," or fund (Cameron, 143). Berlin and MacGregor, along with several other prominent citizens, including Dr. Owen Taylor, H. M. Shaffer, W. H. Overlock, and C. G. Chittenden, announced plans for a community center that would include a library, a gymnasium, and a swimming pool. They began a fund drive that collected $4,264 -- well short of the amount needed for a gymnasium and swimming pool, but enough to open a small community center and library. They purchased the town's old post office store on First Avenue and converted it into what they called the Red Cross Community Center. Part of it housed the first Kent Library, which opened on August 23, 1920.
A Rousing Success
A story in the local newspaper in the weeks before the opening explained how this new institution would work. It would be open to borrowers every Wednesday and Saturday from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.
"The loaning of books for home use will be confined to those days and hours; but the books and magazines will be available for use at the reading tables whenever the building is open. No charge will be made for the use of the main library, excepting a small fine for failure to return books in due time, and reasonable payment for loss and damage. Cards will be issued to persons wishing to borrow books for home use. To receive one of these cards, an adult is required merely to sign an application. Children must present also the signature of a parent or guardian" ("Community Center ...").
The paper did not specify how large the collection was, but it did say that arrangements were being made for a "book shower," in which "gifts of suitable books will be in order" ("Community Center ...").
A week after the opening, the paper reported that the center was "well-patronized and a general good time was had" ("Red Cross ..."). Many people "signed cards for books" and "the public in general [was] showing their appreciation of a public reading room and library" ("Red Cross ..."). The library proved to be a rousing success over the next year. On its first anniversary, the local paper reported that it had 740 "subscribers" (the equivalent of library-card holders) and 1,480 volumes ("Kent Library Anniversary"). Of those, 1,068 were books for adults and 412 were books for children. Circulation in that first year was 10,926. An all-woman library board was already in place, organized by the Women's Improvement Club. Members were identified (according to the custom of the times) as Mrs. H. B. Madison, Mrs. T. W. Bassett, Mrs. A. A. Leander, and Mrs. A. L. Truher. Mrs. G. M. MacGregor, the wife of the doctor who gave the speech, served as the city's first librarian on a voluntary basis.
In December 1922, Kent opened a new city hall at Second Avenue and West Gowe Street. This "handsome" new building had enough space for the the library, which was moved into City Hall ("Handsome New ..."). The library shared the ground floor with the mayor's office and the city clerk's office. A dedication ceremony on December 5, 1922, "brought out a large gathering of people from Kent and surrounding country" ("Handsome New ...").
Around 1924, Anna Fisher (1892-1970), a Kent resident from age 11, began working as a part-time librarian. Fisher was trained by Mrs. MacGregor and in 1926 she took over as the library's first salaried librarian. Fisher would remain as the head librarian -- and a well-known Kent institution in her own right -- until her retirement in January 1958. During her tenure of more than three decades, Fisher built up the Kent Library to nearly 7,000 volumes "on practically no budget," according to her successor, Mrs. N. E. Mattson ("Anna May Fisher ..."). Among that collection was "a fine collection of Northwest history books, some of them quite rare and valuable," which Fisher had collected ("Anna May Fisher ...").
Partnership with King County Library System
When Anna Fisher retired in 1958, the Kent Library was still in Kent City Hall. However, changes were coming fast. In the words of Kent historian Cecilia Cameron, "Kent citizens felt that that the city could do much better with a building that would be used exclusively as a library" (Cameron, 144). They formed an organization called "Operation Library" and contacted the King County Library System (KCLS) about the possibility of a partnership. KCLS had been established by voters in 1942 as the King County Rural Library District to provide library services to rural county residents. Small community libraries around the county joined the system and it began to grow.
By 1959, the King County Library System had dozens of libraries. That year, Kent's Operation Library contracted with KCLS in a cooperative agreement in which the city would build a new library and maintain it, while KCLS would operate it, provide the staff, and furnish the books and other materials. In exchange, Kent would pay the King County Library System a percentage of its tax revenue. The result would be a bigger and better library than Kent could afford on its own, to be co-owned by the city and KCLS.
As part of the plan, the city of Kent proposed a $100,000 bond issue in 1959 to build the new library. The bond issue passed and, with additional help from the group Friends of the Library, construction of a 4,200-square-foot library began that year on a downtown Kent site at Fourth and Titus streets. To clear the land, one house had to be removed. On April 22, 1959, the Kent Fire Department burned the house down as a training exercise. On January 17, 1960, the "new Kent/KCLS library opened for service" ("Kent Regional Library Community Study").
It was a significant upgrade for Kent's library patrons, according to Cameron. The old library had only 7,000 books, and "most were worn and dated" (Cameron, 144). The new library had many new books and multimedia materials provided by KCLS. By 1964 it had more than 20,000 volumes, and Kent patrons had access to another 450,000 items available through the larger KCLS system. In 1964, the library was open 36 hours a week, and was staffed by a professional librarian, a full-time assistant, three quarter-time assistants and three high-school-age pages.
New and Bigger Library
However, Kent was going through an unprecedented growth spurt. Its population jumped from 9,017 in 1960 to 16,596 in 1970. It had become a popular bedroom community for nearby Seattle, and was attracting its own industries, including The Boeing Co.'s sprawling Kent Space Center, which opened in 1964. After only a decade, it became evident that Kent needed a new and bigger library.
In February 1972 Kent voters approved another library bond issue. This bond issue, combined with funding from a previous KCLS bond issue, made it possible for construction to begin on a 15,000-square-foot library on the same lot at Fourth and Titus. During construction, the library's volumes were moved temporarily to the Kent West Mall. The new modern brick library opened on October 1, 1973, with a 60,000-volume capacity. In the dedication-ceremony program, Kent Library Board secretary Mrs. Norwood Cunningham wrote, "It has been a long procession of people who have cared for [the library] through the years. Their common denominator is their love of books -- the excitement, the knowledge, the fun, the melancholy, or the inspiration they impart" (Cunningham). With its meeting rooms and spacious public spaces, the newly opened building immediately became the new center of the city's cultural life.
The library's services continued to grow. In 1980, the library opened its doors on Sundays for the first time. In 1981, it made videos available for checkout. Meanwhile, the city continued to grow at a remarkable pace. By 1980 Kent's population had reached 22,961. It grew even more swiftly as the 1980s progressed. By 1986 the Kent Library "was one of the five busiest libraries in the System with over half a million items checked out" ("Kent Regional Library Community Study"). The Friends of the Library, the board members, and Kent city officials began to discuss a new library that could handle the increasing demand. In 1987, the city and KCLS made the decision "to jointly build a new library" ("Kent Regional Library Community Study").
Challenging Construction Site
They soon determined that the new library would have to be on a new site. Officials from the library and the city selected the site of the Sea-Kent Cold Storage Plant, which stood at the corners of First and Second Avenues and Smith Street. The cold-storage plant had to be demolished and the first sledgehammer blows were struck by Kent Mayor Dan Kelleher in a groundbreaking ceremony on October 20, 1988. Members of the public then joined in the festivities with shovels. The Valley Daily News, the newspaper that covered Kent, Renton, and Auburn, reported:
"City officials say the new library will be a star attraction in the downtown area. The new library is being built because the current library next to City Hall is too small for current demands. The size of the new library will be 22,500 square feet, with about 120 parking spaces. The actual demolition of the cold storage building will take place next month" ("New Library Ground-Breaking ...").
The new site presented some unusual construction problems. Because a cold-storage plant had been on the site for years, crews discovered that ground was frozen up to 24 feet deep in some places. Technology developed for permafrost was used to speed up the thawing process. "This involved drilling holes into the soil to allow ground water to seep into the holes," according to a 2003 history of the Kent Library prepared by the staff. "Fill dirt reinforced the land, and pilings were driven more than 30 feet into the ground to secure the foundation. Soil contamination (diesel fuel and fuel oil) further complicated the building schedule" ("Kent Regional Library Community Study"). It was not until July 1990 that general contractor Eberharter Construction began construction of the building itself. The 2003 history described the structure:
"The architect, Henry Klein Partnership, chose rounded exterior brick walls to absorb sounds and to muffle the rumblings of passing trains. Brick construction represented the tradition of the book, while the glass and metal of the skylights pointed to new technologies available within the library. The 'Sentinel Kent' sculpture by Valdis Zarins stands watch over passers-by" ("Kent Regional Library Community Study").
The new library, at the time called the Kent Regional Library (the word "regional" was later dropped) opened its doors on September 23, 1991. The formal dedication ceremony was held on October 12, 1991.
Annexation and Renovation
Around this time, a number of libraries around the county were in the same situation as the Kent Library: They were in incorporated cities, yet affiliated by contract with KCLS. By the early 1990s, many of these libraries had formally annexed themselves to KCLS. In 1993, Kent voters also chose to take that step. They approved the annexation of the Kent Library to the King County Library System with a yes vote of 71 percent. For the previous 34 years, the library had been operated by KCLS. Now, for the first time, it was integrated wholly into the county library system. For library patrons in Kent as in other communities that annexed, "this change was fairly invisible," but for the library and for KCLS as a whole, it was beneficial because it increased "operational standardization" (Becker).
In 2004 KCLS proposed a $172 million bond issue to build many new libraries throughout the county -- including a library on Kent's East Hill -- and to expand and renovate others. The Kent Library was one of the libraries slated for renovation. New technologies and design were necessary to keep pace with Kent's exploding population: 37,960 in 1990 and 79,454 in 2000. The 2004 bond issue passed with more than 63 percent approval. The projects were staggered over a number of years, and planning for the Kent Library's renovation began in 2009. The plan called for an automated materials-handling system -- to reduce the amount of time it took to get books and videos back onto the shelves. It also called for reconfiguration of the back room, a new entry plaza, and relocated meeting rooms and rest rooms.
The Kent Library closed in September 2009 for the interior remodeling work. A temporary location was provided at 406 W Meeker Street, which allowed holds for pickup. The renovated library reopened to the public on March 6, 2010. In 2015, the Kent Library held 114,103 items and checked out 121,103 items -- not including e-books. It also had one of the highest rates of computer usage in the county system. As of 2016, the new library on Kent's East Hill was still in the planning stages.
Over its long history, the Kent Library has been housed in five different buildings. Each one -- from the tiny room in a converted post office to the spacious, modern building of today -- served as a much-loved community center of its time. As the Kent Library approached its 100th anniversary, it remained one of Kent's most enduring -- and most visited -- civic institutions. More than 45,000 visitors walked through its doors in 2015.