Seattle’s Central Library building, internationally acclaimed when it opened 10 years ago, still has the power to amaze. Just how much so became clear last week when a group of us from City Hall took a guided tour of the Seattle Room, led by Jodee Fenton, who manages the Library’s special collections.The Seattle Room on the 10th floor of the iconic building houses the library’s rare books and documents. In some ways, the collection is an anomaly in this internet age. When we want information today, we tend to rely on digital information. We might put a search word into our computers, contact a search engine and receive a prompt answer.
That’s a quick way to get answers. But there are other ways to search.
In the Seattle Room, visitors don’t get second-hand information – good as that might be. Instead they can go to actual original sources, those early-day books, maps, clippings and charts. There’s a special undeniable thrill to holding decades’ old documents in your hands. Here, for example, are the turn-of–the-century real estate maps that show our city, block by block. The maps catalog which property, owned by which owner, occupied which street address and whether it was a frame or masonry construction.
In the Seattle Room, one can find source materials for each of Seattle’s municipal departments. Here are first printings of books about the city and region. Here are early-day maps. And here are oversized albums filled with the famed Edward S. Curtis photos of native Americans, the sepia-toned prints made from his glass negatives that show forgotten and dying tribal customs and rites.
Fenton carefully displays the prints, one at a time, to the visitors. In a special cradle, designed to protect the rare volume, she places Curtis’ illustrated edition, numbered “38.” The edition sold in the early 20th Century for the seemingly costly price of $150, today is among the rarest and most valuable items in the Seattle Room.
Not only is the Seattle Room open during most library hours (11am to 6pm), but it is staffed with knowledgeable librarians who can help with research into the city and region’s past. In this digital age, these are topics that can be researched in person, but also online.
Fenton has stories to tell about some of the more unusual searches. She remembers the time that one of former Mayor Greg Nickels’ staffers asked for the library’s copy of Edmond Meany’s essay “On Education,” in an old book called ‘Random Reminiscences of 33 years of Washingtonians.’ The librarian, of course, refused, since it is a rare item that cannot be checked out.
The staffer responded angrily arguing that it was a request from the mayor who needed it for a staff retreat.
The librarian said, “Sorry, you can’t take it away, but what I can do is have Meany’s essay scanned and send it to you as a PDF.” The argument ended peaceably, since that was just what the staffer planned to do any way.
The Central Library, 10 years in, continues as one of the city’s greatest treasures. In the last year (2013) alone, there were 1.8 million visits to the building. And, although acclaimed for its iconic architecture, it is far more than a handsome building. It is an institution that never fails to surprise and inspire. And, in keeping with the library’s mission, its librarians subscribe to a four-point mantra: Welcome, Engage, Deliver and Exceed. What could be better than that?As part of the Library’s 10 year celebration, Friday May 23 the Library will host ‘Anniversary Day Fun,’ filled with building tours, music, cupcakes and souvenirs. I will dropping by at around 10:30 am to check out the festivities!