The Downtown Library at age 10: a haven for researchers
As the Seattle Public Library celebrates the 10th anniversary of its downtown building, its real books and physical archives are a trove for researchers.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Seattle Public Library stats, 2013
Door-count patron visits: 1.8 million downtown; 6.7 million when 26 branches and mobile services are included
Virtual visits through the Web: 7.2 million
Number of books: 748,000 downtown; 1.46 million with branches included
Number of book checkouts: 650,000 downtown; 4.7 million with branches included
Number of DVDs, CDs and audiobooks: 190,000 downtown; 428,000 with branches included
Number of checkouts of DVDs, CDs and audiobooks: 613,000 downtown; 5.2 million with branches included
Source: Seattle Public Library
A library is an exciting place. It’s just a quiet kind of excitement.
One set of people you find feeling that excitement is the researchers who frequent Seattle’s Downtown Library.
It turns out that although we’re in the digital age, a considerable amount of information is still best gotten the old-fashioned way: in print that you can physically hold.
This week, the Central Library is celebrating the 10th anniversary of moving to its architecturally world-renowned digs of steel, glass and open spaces.
With a door count in 2013 of 1.8 million patrons at the Central Library, there is plenty to celebrate.
In 2004, Herbert Muschamp, The New York Times architectural critic, wrote, “If an American city can erect a civic project as brave as this one, the sun hasn’t set on the West. In more than 30 years of writing about architecture, this is the most exciting new building it has been my honor to review.”
One downtown event this week is teased as “Authors Gone Wild.”
Perhaps “wild” might be a tad overstated for a group that spends most of its time in front of a keyboard.
But ask frequent library users such as David Williams, a writer of nature books, and he’ll recount the kind of excitement he finds when doing research.
The library has 748,000 books in its central building and an additional 711,000 in its 26 branches.
There was the time Williams found the 1963 obituary for a man named Frank C. Brownfield.
Brownfield’s claim to fame was that he would have nothing to do with the Denny Regrade in the early 1900s. He refused to move his house or have it demolished, and so the regrade went around him, leaving his home high and dry 20 feet in the air.
After a decade of holding out, he sold the house in the early 1940s, and it was leveled.
Williams is working on a book called “Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography,” about how changes such as the regrade affected the city, and the people in the way.
The newspaper obituary Williams found, which then enabled him to track down Brownfield’s descendants, will help personalize the book.
The obituary had been scanned and is found in the paper’s historical archives.
But here is why it doesn’t show up in an online search.
In the first line of the obit, the man’s name goes “Brown-” and then continues to the second line, “field.”
That’s not picked up by the scanner as one word.
But Ann Ferguson, a librarian at the Seattle Room on the 10th floor, which is part of special collections, found the obituary in the Northwest card index.
It was something the librarians had put together over decades, she says, in the early years, using manual typewriters. Some of the cards are handwritten.
The library estimates the number of citations on the cards is “in the millions.”
Ferguson says she quite enjoys helping in this kind of detective work.
She helped a man working on an old building in Pioneer Square. He needed to know if some huge columns were structural and supporting a floor above. Or if the columns were placed there because something very heavy had been stored above, and the columns were no longer needed.
Using the Polk city directory, old Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps for the city, and newspapers ads from that era, they found that a wine company, and later a tire company had occupied the above floor. The tire company might have had equipment and weighed down the floor.
“I’m a fourth-generation Washingtonian, so Seattle history is my personal history,” says Ferguson. “Once you spend time doing the research, you see the city in a different way. I find out the stories of the buildings and the people who lived there.”
Williams says he also has found that although old city maps are found online, they sometimes don’t contain handwritten notes found in the archived paper copies. If the note is made by someone with specific knowledge about whatever the map is showing, that’s a clue.
A place for all
For some, the library is used not just for research, but because it’s a great place to get some work done.
“It’s just the experience of being in the library. It’s almost meditative,” says Christine Lindquist, executive director of a nonprofit called Washington Healthcare Access Alliance.
“You have all these varied people. Some trying to get jobs, some just reading, some fooling around on the computer, some taking naps,” she says.
She isn’t bothered by what appearances likely would indicate, with backpacks or bundled-up clothes, are homeless people.
“It’s free and it’s a safe place to be,” says Lindquist.
In 2013, security officers “excluded” 494 people from the Central Library, which translates to about 0.03 percent of the door count. The exclusions can last from one day to two years.
A long list of behaviors not allowed ranges from “having offensive body odor or personal hygiene so as to unreasonably interfere with other patrons’ ability to use the library and its facilities,” to being “verbally or physically harassing.”
Andra Addison, spokeswoman for the library, says that “folks generally considered homeless” are actually pretty good patrons: “They wait their turn for help and are patient.”
Lindquist says she uses databases at the library that list foundations and information such as who is on the groups’ boards and projects they have been funding.
“I spend a lot of time trying to bring money to my organization,” she says. “The databases are by subscription (one such database is $995 a year) and there is no way we could afford them.”
Proximity to history
It is on the ninth floor of the Central Library that one can often find Evelyn Roehl, who owns a Seattle business called Kin Hunters.
She does genealogy work for clients who want to find out about their ancestors and sometimes for heirs in an estate settlement.
Her enthusiasm for her work is obvious. Here she is, surrounded by hundreds of books that provide clues.
Perhaps you hadn’t realized that a man named Virgil D. White transcribed 399,096 entries to “Genealogical Abstracts of Revolutionary War Pension Files.”
You want to look up a Benjamin Scott? Here he is.
At the Seattle Room, you might run into Jodee Fenton, manager of special collections.
“I probably shouldn’t say this, but you shouldn’t get paid to have so much fun a day,” she says.
The other day, Fenton was showing a seventh-grade boy on a class trip how to hold a book published in 1880.
The kid had picked it out of a shelf. The book was called “Camp and Cabin, Sketches of Life and Travels in the West,” and it was about camping in the Cascades.
“He wanted to hold it like a paperback, bend back the pages,” says Fenton. “It was this tiny book about four inches tall.
“I told him it was published a long time ago. I asked him what was the age of the book. Then he did the math, and said, ‘Wow, this is a really old book.’ ”
Fenton showed the kid how the cradle the book.
As she left him, the seventh-grader was sitting on a stool, reading his new discovery.
It’s not in Surround sound or Imax, this excitement of discovery.
But let Fenton explain: “There is something very compelling about being that close to history. When you have the original in your hands, you just get some sort of visceral understanding of that time.”
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter @ErikLacitis