Central Library, 2002-present, The Seattle Public Library

  • By Alyssa Burrows
  • Posted 5/26/2004
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 4303
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The new Central Library of The Seattle Public Library opened in May 2004 in a startlingly unique and widely praised steel-and-glass building designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. It boasts the most advanced library technology in the nation, and is being called the "first library of the twenty-first century" (The New Yorker, May 24, 2004). The new library was built after Seattle voters approved the “Libraries For All” bond issue on November 3, 1998.

Humble Beginnings

The 11-story Rem Koolhaas building at 1000 4th Avenue is the third public library building to rise on the downtown Seattle site at 4th Avenue and Spring Street. The doors of new building opened 97 years after those of the site's first public library opened.

Some of Seattle’s most influential citizens organized the first Library Association in 1868, and a small library collection was housed in Yesler's Hall, a community gathering place, on 1st Avenue and Cherry Street the following year. In October 1890, Seattle adopted the library as a branch of City government. Seattle pioneer Henry Yesler (1810-1892) and owner/editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer Leigh S. J. Hunt donated seed money for its book collection and operation. The library collection moved into new buildings in the Pioneer Square area three times between 1891 and 1898, finally finding a permanent home in the Yesler Mansion on 3rd Avenue and James Street in December 1898.

A campaign to persuade library philanthropist and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie to donate money for a new library building failed in 1899. Carnegie considered Seattle to be a “hot-air boom town,” and declined to offer assistance. A fire destroyed the Yesler Mansion on January 1, 1901, and four days later Carnegie telegrammed a promise of $200,000 for a new library, after receiving a promise from the City of a building site and $50,000 annually in operating costs. That year lawyer James McNaught sold the block bounded by 4th and 5th avenues and Madison and Spring streets to the City for $100,000.

Buildings Number One and Two

Construction began in 1905 for a building designed by architects Somervell and Coté, and the library opened in 1907 with 93,784 volumes and 29,118 borrowers. The library quickly outgrew its building, but Seattle voters turned down new library construction bonds in 1950 and in 1952 before finally passing a $5 million bond for a new central library and three other branches in 1956. The Carnegie library, which had sustained serious structural damage in the April 13, 1949, earthquake, was torn down in October 1957, and a new library designed by Architects Leonard Bindon and John L. Wright opened in 1960.

On November 3, 1998, Seattle voters approved a $196.4 million bond issue for a new central library and for new library facilities, technologies, and building renovations throughout the city. “Libraries For All” passed with a 70 percent majority. It included money for a temporary central library while a new one was being built. Located on 8th Avenue and Pike Street across from the State Trade and Convention Center, The Temporary Central Library opened on July 7, 2001. The 1960 Library fell to the wrecking ball in November 2001. The temporary library closed its doors on April 30, 2004, so that staff could preparefor the move into the new building.

The New New Library

Award-winning Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) designed the building in conjunction with Seattle-based LMN architects. The new library building has 11 floors and 363,000 square feet of space plus 49,000 square feet in an underground parking garage with room for about 143 cars. In comparison, the 1960 library had only 206,000 square feet and no parking. The 1960 library could display only about 35 percent of its collection, or about 900,000 volumes, whereas the new library has a capacity to display approximately 65 percent of the collection, or 1.4 million books and materials.

The total cost of the new building was $165.5 million, $8 million over-budget because of excavation problems and a steel-structure re-design, but this price included $10 million that went to the design and operation of the Temporary Central Library. (The total cost of the 1960 building came to $4.5 million.)

The new library is expanding its collection and technology services, using part of the $196.4 million bond issue (part of which went to build and renovate other branches), and part of $82 million being raised by the Seattle Public Library Foundation through its "Campaign for Seattle's Public Libraries." Approximately $14 million of private money helped to build the new Central Library.

The new library boasts performance workspaces, music practice rooms, a writers' room, classrooms, conference rooms, a teen center, and a children’s center with a story-hour room that holds up to 100 people. There is also a 425-seat auditorium. A “Friends of the Library” shop and a coffee cart are located on level three, which is called the “Living Room.” The 4th Avenue entrance level has an ESL/world languages section and computers with automated language-learning programs.

Technology Abounds

The new Seattle Central Library is one of the most technologically advanced libraries in the nation. Seattle City Librarian Deborah Jacobs worked with the architects and designers throughout the design process to make sure the design and functionality of the space would suit both librarians' and patrons’ needs. There is a cnveyor-belt book return system that reads radio chips in the books to automatically sort them into their various category bins for re-shelving. It can handle up to 1,100 books per hour. Librarians can check out stacks of books at a time instead of scanning each one, and patrons can do the same with a self-service check out.

In a real-life rendition of Star Trek technology, librarians wear communications badges that allow them to communicate with any other librarian in the building through a wireless network. The teen center has special “sound domes” that allow patrons to listen to music that is barely audible only a step away.

The new library has approximately 400 computers for public use and Internet surfing, as well as free wireless Internet service throughout the building for people who bring in their own laptop computers. A few special computers will read Web pages aloud or translate them into Braille for blind patrons.

Architecturally Speaking

The Rem Koolhaas design has attracted national attention. It has been described as “odd-shaped legos,” a “crystal frog,” and a “lumpy Christmas package” (Dietrich).  Time Magazine opined: “If Picasso ever painted a library, it would look like this” (April 26, 2004). The building’s floors look like blocks stacked out of alignment. A steel truss criss-crosses the glass exterior in a diamond pattern, and there are many angles, corners, overhangs, and shiny slopes. This outer skin was engineered to give the building added strength in case of an earthquake or strong winds, as well as allowing in natural light and giving the building an open-air feel.

An atrium runs from the 11th floor through to the 5th, and the ground floor auditorium is open through to the third floor. The "book spiral" allows the library’s collection of non-fiction books to be stored in Dewey Decimal System order through four floors in a gradually spiraling ramp, with no floor interrupting or separating the expandable collection.

On top of the bright color scheme -- bright yellows and greens, magenta, chartreuse, and brilliant red -- much of the interior design of the building is functional art. Floor mats denote the call numbers of the stacks in the book spiral, and the ESL center floor consists of raised letters in 12 languages -- backwards -- designed by Ohio artist Ann Hamilton. Other floors are made of a kind of steel mesh, and the aluminum floors of the reference and main technology area, the “mixing room,” are designed to be scratched over time.

Opening Day

Pre-opening festivities were under way at 10:30 a.m. Senegalese, Brazilian, Japanese, Bulgarian/Macedonian, and Native American drum and percussion ensembles played at the 4th Avenue entrance along with the Steel Drum Band of Seattle’s Summit School. Mayor Greg Nickels (b. 1955), City Librarian Deborah L. Jacobs, Library Board President Greg Maffei, City Council President Jan Drago, and (premier inaugural-year sponsor) Senior Vice President of Community and External Affairs for Washington Mutual, J. Benson Porter, dedicated the library at 10:45.

Library staff guided patrons though the new library until 7 p.m., when it closed. Library artists Ann Hamilton, Gary Hill, and Tony Oursler held a panel discussion at the nearby Seattle Art Museum.

Branch Librarians

  • A. J. Snoke, 1891-1892
  • ["Mrs."] L. K. Harnet, 1892-1893 
  • J. D. Atkinson, 1893-1895
  • Charles Wesley Smith, 1895-1907
  • Judson T. Jennings, 1907-1942
  • John S. Richards, 1942-1957
  • Willard O. Youngs, 1957-1974
  • Verda R. Hansberry (Acting) January-May 1975
  • Ronald A. Dubberly, 1975 -1988
  • Liz Stroup, 1988-1996
  • Deborah L. Jacobs, 1997-2008
  • Susan Hildreth, 2009-2011
  • Marcellus Turner, 2011-present



Judy Anderson, The Library Book: A Century of the Seattle Public Library (Seattle: Seattle Arts Commission, 1991), 6, 14; HistoryLink.Org Online Encycopedia Of Washington State History, “Central Library, 1960-2001, The Seattle Public Library” (by David Wilma) and “Seattle Public Library housed in Yesler mansion burns down on January 1, 1901,” (by Priscilla Long) http://www.historylink.org/, accessed January 15, 2009;Seattle Public Library Annual Report 1906-1907 16th ed. (UN28), available at Central Library, The Seattle Public Library; Seattle Public Library Annual Report 1910-1911 20th ed. (UN30), available at Central Library, The Seattle Public Library; “A Special Report: Seattle’s New Library,” The Seattle Times, May 16, 2004, p. AA-1; Rebekah Denn, “New Central Library Is On The Cutting Edge of Technological Advances,” The Seattle Times, February 24, 2004; William Dietrich, “Meet Your New Central Library,” The Seattle Times, Pacific Northwest Magazine, April 25, 2004; “One For the Books; a New Public Library by Rem Koolhaas Is Surprising and Bold,” Time Magazine, April 26, 2004; Paul Goldberger, “High-tech Bibliophila,” The New Yorker Magazine, May 24, 2004; The Seattle Public Library Website, accessed on May 18, 2004 (http://www.spl.org/); John Douglas Marshall, Place of Learning, Place of Dreams: A History of The Seattle Public Library (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004; "The Golden Jubilee of the Seattle Public Library, Miscellaneous Papers Collected by Elizabeth Gillette Henry, 1941" (Seattle Public Library Northwest History Collection, Seattle, Washington); "The Seattle Public Library: A Chronology" (compiled by Verda A. Hansberry) (Seattle: Seattle Public Library, 1983), p. 28.

Note: This essay was updated on March 13, 2013.

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