The Story of Olympia’s Public Libraries

olympia library history
Olympia’s Carnegie Library, as seen in this historic postcard, was the pride of the community when it opened in 1914. Courtesy Private Collection.


By Drew Crooks

chehalis sheet metalFrom pioneer days to the present, public libraries have been part of Olympia’s life. Community residents, for example, could use the Washington Territorial Library after it was established in Olympia by Governor Isaac Stevens in 1853. Over time this institution evolved into the current Washington State Library, an excellent source of information about our region.

olympia library history
Olympia’s Carnegie Library, as seen in this historic postcard, was the pride of the community when it opened in 1914. Courtesy Private Collection.

Another library came to Olympia in 1869. At that time, Captain D. B. Finch set up a free public reading room in the Good Templars Lodge at Fourth and Columbia in downtown Olympia. This library was maintained for years with books and magazines donated by citizens.

Then in 1896 the Woman’s Club of Olympia started a library at their club house (the old Jake Meyers home on the corner of Washington Street and 10th Avenue). As Janet Moore later recalled in a 1923 newspaper article, the library was established in honor of a leading club member, Abbie Howard Hunt Stuart:

“Over twenty years ago, to be exact twenty-six years ago last fall, Mrs. A. H. H. Stuart, a charter member of the Olympia Woman’s club was very ill in Tacoma. The anniversary of Mrs. Stuart’s birth was in October, and when that day came, the club members wished to recognize it by doing something that would show Mrs. Stuart she was remembered. So each one brought a book to the club room, and this way laid the foundations of a library that was destined to fill a large and important place in the reading life of Thurston county.”

A library committee of the Woman’s Club oversaw the collection which was funded by subscriptions and fines. Changes came in early 1908. The Woman’s Club had their library conveyed to the Chamber of Commerce rooms in Columbia Hall, located on 4th Street (now Avenue) between Washington and Franklin Streets. This action was done as the Woman’s Club sold their existing clubhouse. The old building was moved away and replaced by a new larger clubhouse on the Washington and 10th site. The newer structure still stands today, a historical landmark in Olympia.

olympia library history
Many programs, including the one depicted here by magician Jeff Evans, are held at the Olympia Timberland Library. Courtesy Olympia Timberland Library.

At  Columbia Hall, the library continued to be run by the Woman’s Club, but that would change too. In March 1909 the Club offered its 900 volume book library to the City of Olympia on condition that the government would maintain it as a free circulating library. The City accepted, but allocated sparse funding for the institution. Indeed, the public library only had a budget of $72 for its first year. Miss Flavel Van Eaton staffed the library when it was open on Saturday afternoons, earning $1 per afternoon. Though more funding came in future years, the library’s budget remained frugal.

In 1911 Olympia’s library, now numbering more than 1,000 volumes, was transferred to the Turpin House on the corner of Main Street and 6th Avenue (presently Capitol Way and Legion Way). Reopening on September 8, the renovated facility featured public rest rooms and additional space for the library collection. However, the stay at the Turpin House proved to be of short duration. The library moved in 1912 to the new Olympia City Hall on the corner of 3rd Avenue and Main Street (now State Avenue and Capitol Way). Here the institution soon outgrew the space provided by the City.

What Olympia needed was a real library building. Concerned citizens, led by Janet Moore, succeeded in getting a $25,000 Carnegie grant to construct such a structure. Steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie in the late 19th and early 20th centuries paid for the building of thousands of public libraries around the world. Carnegie’s generous gifts for libraries were contingent on promises by local governments to maintain the facilities. In the case of the Olympia library, both the city and Thurston County agreed to financially support the new building’s operations.

The Seattle architectural firm of Blackwell and Baker, with the help of local architect Joseph Wohleb, designed Olympia’s Carnegie library. This structure, located at 7th Avenue and Franklin Street, boasted yellow Chehalis brick, neo-classical details and a corner entrance with a wide flight of stairs to the elevated main floor. Dedicated on October 3, 1914, the new building was a source of pride for Olympia and the county.

olympia library history
The current Olympia Timberland Library, located at 8th between Franklin and Adams, serves as an educational center for the region. Courtesy Olympia Timberland Library.

Over the years the Carnegie Library in Olympia provided books and magazines for the education and enjoyment of the public. First working just with Thurston County, the library in 1948 joined the South Puget Regional Library which included Olympia, Thurston County, and Mason County. Then in 1968 the five-county Timberland Regional Library was created. Olympia’s library, part of the new system, became Olympia Timberland Library.

Growing services led to a 1960 addition to the Carnegie Library in Olympia and the transfer of the main public area to the building’s basement. Still, in time, space became inadequate for the expanding library collection. A larger structure was needed. Olympia’s voters in 1976 approved a Bicentennial bond issue of $1.5 million to construct a new library. This library, the current one in use, is located at 8th Avenue between Franklin and Adams Streets. It was dedicated on December 10, 1978.

What happened to the old Carnegie Library building in Olympia? Still standing on the corner of 7th Avenue and Franklin, the historic structure has seen many uses since 1978, including bookstore and restaurant. Presently it is the home of Reality Olympia Church. This October will be the 100th anniversary of the building that was created due to the support of local residents and the generosity of Andrew Carnegie. Olympia’s Carnegie Library is on the National Register of Historic Places, Washington Heritage Register, and Olympia Historic Register.

A 100th Anniversary event is being organized on October 4 at the Olympia Timberland Library to celebrate the historic building and the service provided to local residents.  Click here for full details.

The current Olympia Timberland Library is a busy place with many visitors. Indeed, in 2013 visits to the library numbered 470,894 and the circulation of items reached 866,186.  Olympia’s library strives, as described in the mission statement of the Timberland Regional Library, to invite “discovery and interaction with our vibrant collection, services and programs for learning, enrichment, and enjoyment for people of all ages in our diverse communities.”

Acknowledgments: My thanks go to Sara Peté (Librarian Senior – Adult Services), Pat Harper (Historian and Retired Librarian), and the late Winnifred Olsen (Historian) for the information that made this article possible.


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