150 Years Ago Today

February 3, 2008

It’s Super Bowl Sunday so no one outside of Glendale, Arizona scheduled any events today. But there’s a quiet anniversary I’m happy to celebrate before and after the game. One hundred fifty years ago today, the Territorial Legislature granted a charter to a small group of community-minded folks in Steilacoom, WA. That document started the first public library in what became the state of Washington.

It’s a respectable milestone. Institutions back east might look upon Feb. 3, 1858, as downright recent, but it was still early pioneer days in the Pacific Northwest. The village of Seattle was less than ten years old and Washington statehood was still thirty years off. The library tradition up here started in the bustling Puget Sound town of Steilacoom.

The original library is long gone, but I have two connections to its successors. I work for the county library that serves Steilacoom today. I also remember a single-room library on the west side of the Town Hall when I was a kid. It was where I dabbled in research for the first time. I was nine years old, in the oldest town in the state, and curious to know the stories behind the events on the sign pictured above. I remember being trusted with a big folder of clippings and taking notes in my “detective notepad” with a little golf pencil. The librarian didn’t even flinch when I asked her if she had known Judge Thomas Chambers — an early settler who surely died more than 60 years before she was born! (The best librarians are wonderfully understanding when it comes to bad questions.)

Happy 150th birthday, Steilacoom Library. You started a library tradition in the state … and in me.

P.S. I could elaborate on local history (it has always interested me) but I’ll share just one feature about that first library that seems quite remarkable now. The 1858 charter called for the establishment of three things: a library of books, a reading room, and public interaction. They wanted a participatory library even then! It was written into the charter: “Procuring public lectures, essays and establishing debates.” Way to go, pioneers!

Perspective and Context

January 2, 2008

As much as I enjoy new technologies, I still appreciate the older stuff. If not for the creative energy of the people who came before us, we wouldn’t be as well off today. It’s like the old adage attributed to Isaac Newton: We see farther because we stand on the shoulders of giants.

Joseph Janes’ column in the new issue of American Libraries (January/February, 2008) prompted me along these lines today. He used the old National Union Catalog as an example. For twenty years, it was an invaluable resource. Does anyone use it now? I barely remember seeing it in the basement stacks when I was in college. It’s been replaced by WorldCat, a vast improvement. But each new tool builds on the concepts, if not the technology, of its predecessors.

In my online database classes I hold up an old green copy of the 1990 Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature before delving into the much more interactive sources available online today. It illustrates how far we’ve come in a very short time.

Janes offers two reasons to keep the old works in mind. I’d call them Perspective and Context.

  • Perspective is the humbling reminder that “everything ends.” The latest tool always looks great, but don’t expect it to last forever. Even the Next Great Thing will end someday, too.
  • Context. Here’s Janes speaking of the Union Catalog:

“Even though this behemoth had a comparatively brief run, it was useful and we learned from it and moved on. It represents a milestone on our path of innovation and development, which, in the end, is what matters.”

It’s context that motivates me to read history as often as I do. (I even enjoy the history of science – a discipline whose current theories almost always obliterate their predecessors.)

We have no idea where our current tools will lead us, but we may be certain that they  — like the behemoths of Library 1.0 — will become obsolete one day. “All tools end,” Janes says. “The path remains.” I think it’s the context that lets us know where to post the “You Are Here” signs on that path as we move forward with the Library 2.0 world.