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!