San Juan Island Library (Friday Harbor)

  • By Lynn Weber/Roochvarg
  • Posted 1/06/2017
  • Essay 20247
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After decades of relying on the Washington state traveling libraries, the isolated residents of San Juan Island in Northwest Washington recognized the need for a local library to provide both leisure reading and information resources. The community's first library, a private/public institution sponsored by the local American Legion post and its auxiliary, opened in 1922. In 1936, having outgrown its space, the library moved into a new building (funded with WPA money) shared with the town of Friday Harbor, the county seat of San Juan County. As the population grew, so did the popularity and use of the library, but for many years the collection was funded largely through donations and the library was operated entirely by volunteers. Later, the first part-time librarians were eager to expand services as well as the collection, but space and finances were limited. Not until legislation allowed formation of island library taxing districts could the community in 1982 establish a publicly supported library and purchase a building (a restaurant was chosen and renovated) to meet its growing needs. In 2017 that building still housed the library, bursting at the seams with collections and services to a community of enthusiastic users of all ages.

The Early Years

San Juan Island, one of an archipelago composing San Juan County and situated in the Salish Sea between the Washington mainland and Vancouver Island, was truly an isolated community in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. All communication from off-island was by water and islanders had to be largely self-sufficient, relying on one another for both emergency and everyday assistance as well as social and cultural activities. Almost from the beginning of settlement, residents looked to reading and books as both a pleasure during long, dark evenings and as an important source of information for their daily lives.

The island community was among the first 11 eager recipients of Washington state's free traveling libraries, "a splendid selection of books available to any community -- town, village, school district, or country neighborhood" ("Choice Books ..."), and each delivery of books (the selection could be changed out at intervals) was heralded in the local newspaper. By 1902 the trustees of the San Juan Club had accepted responsibility for the shipments of about 40 books from the traveling library, housed them in the county clerk's office in the courthouse, and made them available to anyone willing to follow the simple rules required by the state. The only cost to the community was for the transport of the books to and from the state office.

By 1921 there were more than 650 residents on San Juan Island and far more demand for books than even the growing size and diversity of the shipments of the traveling library could meet. By that time the average shipment included 60 to 70 books on a wide variety of subjects including, for example, poultry raising, gardening, biographies, home nursing, music, art, electricity, and "antidotes for too much red literature reading" ("Washington State Traveling Library ..."). The community had long been supportive of the school library, raising funds each year at a special entertainment to help its collection grow; surely, it was thought, the community could also support a public library.

With the cooperation of the local Hackett-Larson Post of the American Legion and support from the women of its auxiliary, Leon (1886-?) and Minnie (1895-1965) Little and Margaret Nash (1897-1980) devised a plan to establish a library, initially stocked with book donations from the community, to be housed in the American Legion building. Minnie Little brought needed expertise to the project with degrees in education and library science. She would later move to Seattle and organize the King County Library System's first bookmobile service. All through January 1922, islanders were encouraged to donate books to the new library. An article in the local newspaper, right at the top center of the front page, urged the community to attend a showing of war films from the government on limited loan and only available through the American Legion; the modest admission fees were all to be donated to the new library.

The Legion Public Library

The Legion Public Library, with an initial 100 books (together with those from the traveling library), opened to an enthusiastic reception in February 1922, and 28 books were borrowed the first week. During the first month a larger number of books was borrowed each week, despite the fact that the library was only open on Saturday afternoons from 1:30 to 4 p.m. The Legion Post, which had committed a $100 annual budget to the library, was "anxious that everyone should use the library freely" and promised "to absorb the entire expense of operation of the library. New books will be added as fast as their purchase can be financed" ("The Legion Boys ...").

Within two years the collection had grown to 1,500 books, and the auxiliary began raising $100 annually to add new titles to the collection. Additional funds came from charging 10 cents for the loan of the latest popular fiction items. And town organizations contributed as well; even the Gospel Trumpet Society made a donation. The collection was reflective of community interests, and besides fiction there were, to highlight a just few, books on radio, etiquette, and travel; an automobile-and-gas-engine encyclopedia; and a field guide to birds. The collection was housed in the building next to the town's drugstore, and Albert Nash Sr. (1896-1964), the town pharmacist, served as the volunteer library attendant. If borrowers wanted to return their books during the week when the library was not open, they would simply drop them off at the drugstore.

In 1925 the library had to be moved upstairs as a grocery was moving into its ground-floor space; the move didn't last very long, however, and soon books and furniture were picked up and moved back downstairs. Throughout the 1920s a variety of fundraising events took place, such as the 1927 white-elephant sale at which "nearly $100 was raised ... , [and] which offered everything from spuds to a fur-trimmed ladies coat" ("Celebrating ...," 3-C). Not only was the facility becoming more crowded as the collection grew, and more borrowers and readers filled the limited space, but issues with the building were increasing, including a leaky roof that was making it difficult to keep the books dry. Recognizing that action needed to be taken, the determined Legion auxiliary financed roof repairs with the proceeds from a pie and hamburger booth at the county fair in the summer of 1935.

But a far better solution to the space and facility problems became available the next year when federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) funding was granted for the construction of a new building (85 feet by 30) to be divided into two sections, one a town council room for Friday Harbor and the other section for a new library. Construction was scheduled to begin in March 1936 and employ 26 men for four months. The one-story, white-painted, cement-block building at the corner of Second and West Streets (in 2017 used as town offices and fire department space) was built for $7,000. Fixtures for the new building were funded from the proceeds of two years of Legion dances and a hope-chest raffle. Because the room was bare except for shelving, everything else -- desk, reading tables, chairs, librarian's stool, book truck, circulating and shelving units, cupboards, and worktable for the book repair room -- was funded by contributions from individuals, families, and local organizations.

Moving the collection of 4,800 books north, and uphill, to the new library was a community undertaking. The books were transported in small batches, in shelf order, up the hill by a squadron of enthusiastic volunteers, eager to have their new library in operation. The editor of the local newspaper noted with satisfaction that "the collection has grown from a small one and has been added to through the splendid spirit of cooperation always met by the American Legion and the Auxiliary. Now, after fourteen years of service, with a new building, new furnishings, and modern library equipment, the Library has become a community institution of which everyone can be proud" ("Library Moved to New Building").

A few islanders were a bit confused for a time as to just exactly where the library had moved, and the residents of a home on Second Street around the corner from the old library were startled on several occasions to find uninvited strangers in their living room, perusing the many shelves of books there that could be seen from the street through the front window. Inquisitive readers, who had unwittingly taken undue advantage of the island custom of leaving doors unlocked, had mistaken the well-stocked personal library for the public library diagonally across the street and just wandered in to see what they might like to borrow.

Frequent articles in the newspaper highlighted donations to the new library, including the Ladies Study Club gift of $15, which was especially welcome as "the money ... made it possible ... to purchase a volume which many ... have wanted to read but which has hitherto been beyond the reach of the library funds, Mutiny on the Bounty" ("Legion Library Adds ..."). During the following decades the library, under the leadership of a committee from the Legion auxiliary, and still staffed entirely by volunteers, continued to expand. New services were instituted by interested community groups and hours were increased. Saturday afternoon story hours for youngsters were sponsored by the Women of the Moose beginning in 1940. Eventually a librarian was hired for a few hours a week to oversee the operation of the library and develop the book collection.

Growing Needs, Financial and Space Challenges

By the 1970s the population of the island had increased substantially. Gifts of books, along with funds donated by local groups that included preschool mothers, the Arts and Crafts Club, the Women's Republican Club, the Women of the Moose, the Grange, and the town of Friday Harbor (which was providing the building utilities as well as a financial gift of $350) all helped, as did book sales and other fundraising activities. Still, income had not kept pace with the increasing demand for books and library services. The need for children's books was especially acute, and the community was urged, "instead of building more shelves bring your extra books to the Legion public library ... . The library is open on Monday and Saturday from 1-4 in the afternoon and Wednesday evening from 7-9. If closed, you can put books through the door slot" ("Library Needs ..."). By 1974 the collection numbered 7,000 volumes and 10,000 items had been borrowed during the previous year.

Unfortunately, not everyone was conscientious about getting the books back to the library. Librarian Ethelwyn Dyer (1909-1990) appealed to the community's conscience. "The library is for everyone. There is nothing we like better than to have the books taken home for pleasure and use. But the life of the library depends upon sharing. This means checking out the books you take home and bringing them back ... so someone else can enjoy [them]. The library income is so small that we cannot replace books not returned or taken from the Legion public library [without being checked out]." ("No Library Fines ..."). To encourage the return of books, the library offered a week of amnesty in which the usual fines (two cents per day for adult books and one cent per day for children's books, amounts that did not change for more than 55 years) would not be charged. More library volunteers meant that the library could be open longer hours, although sometimes the volunteers could get overzealous. With income so restricted, every penny, even of those small fines, could make a difference, and Dyer had to dampen the enthusiasm of at least one volunteer who "threatened to accost cardholders with overdue fines on the street and tell them to pay up" (Smith).

A description of the library in 1977 offered a picture of a well-patronized, if aging, community resource:

"To a newcomer, Friday Harbor's Legion Public Library appears to be a quaint, very limited, small town library whose shelves stock mostly out-of-date fiction. It is not open often (eight hours a week), and the frequent patron may be misled in his or her assumption that there are few recent books, because the competition for the many books that are new to the library is, if not fierce, at least constant" (Wenger-DeVaux).

That year the first inventory of the library was taken since it had opened in 1922. It was more than time to weed out deadwood, update the catalog, and review the collection. The children's collection, in particular, was found to still be woefully lacking. Space was becoming inadequate, and funding was always unpredictable. In 1978 the first of many community surveys was taken to determine how the library was viewed, what was needed, and how the library could best serve the island. Nearly all those responding to the survey indicated that they were very dependent on the library for its services. Readers were well educated and reading not just for pleasure but for general information and research as well. Interlibrary loans from the state library were found to be particularly helpful since the local collection was so small.

An important milestone in the library's history was reached in 1979 with the organization of the Friends of the San Juan Island Library (FOL) whose objective was "to raise money to help the library keep up with the rapid growth on San Juan Island" ("Friends of Library Elect ..."). One of the founders stated the case clearly: "[Librarian] Ethelwyn [Dyer] needs an increase in salary and we need to increase the book budget and find a building. With the growth of the islands, the library is too much for one person to run and we need a steady income" ("Friends of Library Elect ..."). Throughout subsequent decades, FOL has continued to provide support for a variety of library services.

A new management structure for the library was needed, and instead of continuing Legion administration, a library board of directors was formed, consisting of nine members representing the Legion, the auxiliary, the town of Friday Harbor, and FOL. One of the first tasks was to have the library incorporated as a non-profit entity so that it could accept tax-free donations. At the same time, it was decided to change the name from Legion Public Library to San Juan Island Library (SJIL) to avoid any perception that the Legion was soliciting or accepting public money. Having the town be able to contribute funding was an important step. One of the town councilmembers, Max Montgomery, "lobbied ... for allocating $100 a month of town funds for support of the library ... . And, he said he would like to donate his councilman's salary, if possible, and make that available to the library ... . When Montgomery repeated his offer to donate his councilman's salary, Councilman John Burton said 'Take mine too -- I'll never miss it!'"("Montgomery ...").

The San Juan Island Library

Although discussions concerning a possible county-wide library system, funded by county taxes, had taken place over the years, not all of the island libraries were interested in participating. So it was with delight that the SJIL board of directors learned in early 1982 of passage of a new state law enabling single islands to form individual, junior taxing districts for purposes of library support. A petition campaign was immediately begun to put the question on the September ballot. The board of directors calculated that the tax monies received would be sufficient to purchase a much-needed, larger building and provide ongoing funding for operations. The measure was approved, five trustees (the number required by the new law) were appointed by the county council and, at their very first meeting in January 1983, the trustees began a search for a new location.

Three proposals offered by local property owners were reviewed and site visits made, and by January 27 the board had decided to purchase the former Shrimp Boat restaurant at 1010 Guard Street, a few blocks west of the downtown waterfront. The property owner promised to add some lighting and remove the bar and restaurant equipment; the total cost was $205,000, about $41 per square foot. Renovations undertaken were minimum. The Friends offered $9,000 to help furnish the new facility, and the trustees announced that they were "anxious to hear from prospective users of the island's library about how it should be organized, services that it could provide, or anything else of community interest in the library's operation" (Ristow).

The community was very pleased with the new facility. A local newspaper columnist noted approvingly:

"The long hard hours of work of many dedicated people have paid off -- the result is an attractive and very functional library of which the community can be especially proud. Besides its evident charm, there is an atmosphere that is relaxed, uncluttered, and quiet. There are tables and comfortable chairs near a pretty oriental garden [a leftover from the restaurant lobby] where one can rest one's eyes from book or periodical" (Rose).

By opening day the library had a staff of one full-time professional librarian and two half-time library assistants as well as a cadre of volunteers. Over the next few years the new trustees worked on projects large and small. The need for a long-range plan (the first of many that have guided library development through the years) was recognized and initial steps taken. Large organizational matters were addressed; the first manual for the library including bylaws, job descriptions, and operational policies was prepared. At the other end of the spectrum, small details were not forgotten. "Metal wastebaskets are to be purchased for bathrooms. Windows and cobwebs are to be cleaned upstairs" (Minutes, January 27, 1985).

Within just a few years it became evident that some further renovation was needed for better functionality, requiring, for example, the removal of the entrance garden, which featured a Japanese maple tree, other plants, and a pond with an ancient carp. Three families expressed interest in adopting the maple tree, so it went up for bid. While the library was undergoing renovation in 1988, the collection and staff were moved temporarily to the Moose Lodge, which offered a touch of nostalgia. "As you pass under a great spread of antlers [of the large moose head mounted on the wall], you enter a room reminiscent of the old downtown Legion library" (Prindle). The small amount of available space and the large number of items needing accommodation made for some interesting juxtapositions. The card catalog was on top of a handsome billiard table, the kitchen became the book-processing area with typewriters next to refrigerators, and the bar was turned into the checkout desk. Everyone was glad to return to the updated library building later in 1988.

The 1990s brought increased technology to the library and struggles with space issues. A full-time staff member was hired as the children's librarian and assistant director. In 1990 the library obtained a federal grant through the Washington State Library to automate many of the library's functions, and in June 1991 SJIL became "the smallest library in the nation with a computerized catalog and checkout system" (Arthur). Circulation passed 100,000 for the first time in 1992. In 1993 a building assessment was done prior to planning a much-needed addition. Construction began in August 1994, but the reopening of the expanded, transformed library would not take place until February 1995. When the reopening arrived it was "a major island gala event," with an attendee observing, "The expansion project more than doubled the space in the library [to approximately 10,000 square feet], and all [of it] was needed Saturday as the building was wall-to-wall with library patrons" (LaBoissiere). The library continued to reach out to the community; a newsletter was begun and the director was invited to write a column for the local newspaper; as of 2017 the successor to that popular column is published in a local online newspaper. New projects were begun, and the library added Sunday hours. Volunteers, as they had always done and would continue to do in the future, provided important support to the staff.

A New Millennium

The San Juan Island Library's long-range plan for 1993-2000 offers some insight into the continuing challenges for the library staff: "The demographics of San Juan residents -- well educated, independent -- speak[] strongly to their interest in having vibrant professional library services available to them" ("Imagining the Future," 2), but the library must accomplish its goals "within [a] very unique environment, rich in community involvement, citizen activism, and a genuine collective caring among citizens for each other and their community" ("Imagining the Future," 10). The opening years of the new millennium were filled with innovative library services and cooperative projects with other community organizations. Computer training classes were begun; residents in the nursing home and at the senior center were served; the first all-island reading project, co-sponsored with the local community college and community theater, had a broad spectrum of islanders reading and discussing To Kill a Mockingbird. Adult English-language-learning classes (with concurrent children's programming to alleviate potential childcare difficulties) were begun in cooperation with the community college, and the library joined the Early Learning Public Library Partnership with other libraries in the state focusing on services for preschoolers and parents. The library also joined with the local historical society, the town of Friday Harbor, and the local office of the National Park Service for the Washington Rural Heritage Project, preserving historic photos and documents for open access through the state library. The library booth at the county fair became a perennial favorite.

Every year has brought new opportunities to serve island residents and visitors. In 2013 the library staff and volunteers ably coped with an unexpected challenge when islanders woke up one November morning to find that the major underwater cable carrying internet, cell phone, and landline phone communication to the mainland had been severed. Fortunately, the library was one of the few places that still had Wi-Fi capability, and people flocked to the library for help and for communications access. For days library staff worked continuously to provide work spaces, personal help, technology assistance, and expanded broadband capacity for the community. Because of its dedication and ongoing commitment to serving its diverse island community through collections; programming; and professional, personal service, San Juan Island Library was chosen to receive the 2015 American Library Association EBSCO Award for Excellence in Small Public Library Service.

Although some further renovation and reorganization of the building was undertaken in 2005, within a decade staff were constantly rearranging and seeking new ways to accommodate the latest resources and services, whether a teen-friendly gathering space or a 3-d printer. The library building had reached capacity, and community input was being sought concerning the future of the library and its services, whether in the present building or perhaps a new, larger facility. In whatever location, the library will continue striving to fulfill its mission to provide "community access to diverse and relevant collections, information resources, and services in support of individual educational, occupational, and recreational interests. The Library offers a welcoming place for community connection and promotes exploration of the joys of reading and of learning, while encouraging the discovery of life's possibilities" ("Mission Statement"). Since its doors first opened in 1922, the San Juan Island Library has only grown in its commitment to provide the island community with the highest possible quality of innovative public library services for all its residents and visitors.


"Legion Library to Be Opened," Friday Harbor Journal, January 5, 1922, p. 1; "The Legion Boys Ask Everyone to See the War Films: Proceeds for Benefit of Public Library -- A Worthy Cause Deserving Your Support," Ibid., January 26, 1922, p. 1; "Legion Public Library Open Every Saturday," Ibid., March 9, 1922, p. 1; "Legion Public Library Grows in Popularity," Ibid., February 12, 1925, p. 1; "Legion Public Library Buys Number New Books," Ibid., March 5, 1925, p. 1; "Public Library Moved," Ibid., April 9, 1925, p. 1; "Work to Start on City Building," Ibid., February 13, 1936, p. 1; "Legion Library Adds New Books," Ibid., February 27, 1936, pp. 1, 6; "Library Moved to New Building," Ibid., November 26, 1936, p. 1; "San Juan County Libraries Boast Good Year, Expansion Plans Told," Ibid., January 26, 1977, p. 7; Jo Bailey, "A Little Library History," Ibid., June 6, 1979, p. 8; Jo Bailey, "Ethelwyn Dyer Retiring as Friday Harbor Librarian," Ibid., March 19, 1980, p. 7; Martin Kalman, "San Juan Library District Petition Campaign Begins," Ibid., May 19, 1982, p. 4; William Ristow, "San Juan Library Finds Its New Home," Ibid., February 2, 1983, p. 4; Nancy Larsen Prindle, "Moose Lodge is Temporary Home for San Juan Library," The Islands Sounder, April 20, 1988, p. 5; Ted Grossman, "Traffic Heavy at San Juan Library," Ibid., April 28, 1993, p. 8; "San Juan Library Finds Its New Home," Journal of the San Juan Islands, February 2, 1983, p. 4; "Who Will Bid Highest for Japanese Maple Tree?" Ibid., January 20, 1988, p. 13-A; Alison Arthur, "San Juan Library Moves Into the Computer Age," Ibid., June 16, 1991, p. 4-A; Paul Gottlieb, "Construction Begins Monday on New Library Addition," Ibid., August 10, 1994, p. 10-A; "Celebrating the Grand Re-opening of the San Juan Island Library," special section, Ibid., February 22, 1995; "San Juan Library Announces Their 3D Printer to Patrons," Ibid., November 16, 2016, p. 10; San Juan Islander, February 6, 1902, p. 2; Ibid., January 8, 1903, p. 1; "Choice Books Available to the Public," Washington Standard, July 14, 1905, p. 2; "Library Needs Kid's [sic] Books," Friday Harbor Journal, August 23, 1973, clipping, San Juan Island Library Scrapbook 1966-1983, San Juan Island Library, Friday Harbor; "Historians Hear Story of Library," Ibid., April 11, 1974, clipping, Scrapbook 1966-1983; "No Library Fines Charged During Week's Moratorium," Ibid., November 14, 1974, clipping, Scrapbook 1966-1983; "More Library Hours," Ibid., January 1, 1976, clipping, Scrapbook 1966-1983; Rebecca Smith, "Volunteers Help Rejuvenate San Juan Library Collection," Ibid., November 15, 1977, clipping, Scrapbook 1966-1983; "Friends of Library Elect Officers," Ibid., March 7, 1979, clipping, Scrapbook 1966-1983; "New Board to Operate Library After 50 Years by American Legion," unidentified clipping, ca. 1980, Scrapbook 1966-1983; "Montgomery Lobbies for Town Support of Library," unidentified clipping, ca. 1980, Scrapbook 1966-1983; Emma Rose, "Class Reunions -- & a Lovely New Library" ("San Juan Scene" newspaper column), unidentified clipping, ca. 1983, Scrapbook 1966-1983; Nancy Wenger-DeVaux, "Public's Use of Legion Library Keeps Growing," Island Record, November 9, 1977, clipping, Scrapbook 1966-1983; "Library Survey," Ibid., December 6, 1978, clipping, Scrapbook 1966-1983; Tom Jackson, "Friends Promise $9,000 to San Juan Library Interior," Ibid., March 29, 1983, clipping, Scrapbook 1966-1983; Pierre LaBoissiere, "San Juan Island Library Opening Draws Enthusiastic Reviews," The Islands Sounder, February 22, 1995, clipping, San Juan Island Library Scrapbook February 1995+, San Juan Island Library; Kathleen McHarg, "Off the Shelf," Journal of the San Juan Islands, February 17, 1999, clipping, Scrapbook February 1995+; Legion Library Annual Report, 1979, San Juan Island Library (SJIL) files; San Juan Island Library Annual Report, 2005, SJIL files; San Juan Island Library Annual Report, 2015, SJIL files; San Juan Island Library Board of Trustees Meeting Minutes for April 12, 1982, January 8, 1983, December 4, 1984, January 22, 1985, June 11, 1985, December 10, 1985, March 10, 1987, October 13, 1987, February 10, 1988, July 12, 1988, March 14, 1989, November 10, 1992, May 5, 1993, March 9, 1999, February 8, 2000, March 14, 2000, July 11, 2000, February 8, 2003, June 8, 2004, August 10, 2004, January 11, 2005, September 11, 2007, February 12, 2008, and December 9, 2008, SJIL files; The Title Page (San Juan Island Library newsletter), September 1998, SJIL files; "Read the Future with Us," Ibid., December 1998, SJIL files; "Imagining the Future: San Juan Island Library District Long Range Plan, 1993-2000," approved and adopted by the San Juan Island Library District Board of Trustees, February 9, 1993, SJIL files; "Mission Statement," San Juan Island Library Policy Manual, November 2016, p. 7; Laurie Orton, "From the Director," San Juan Island Library Community Newsletter, Fall 2013, p. 1; Laurie Orton, Ibid., Fall 2015, p. 1; Lynn Weber/Roochvarg telephone interview with Jane Stoddard, October 27, 2016; "Historic Sites of the Washington State and Territorial Library: 1853 to the present, 1901-1913: Old Capitol Building," Washington State Library website accessed October 14, 2016 (; "Washington State Traveling Library, Eighth Biennial Report 1921-1922," in Washington Public Documents, Vol. 4 (Olympia: Frank M. Lamborn Public Printer, 1922), 5-6. The author thanks Laurie Orton, Director of the San Juan Island Library, for gracious assistance and access to library resources.

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