Lady Librarians of Seattle

2016 marks the 125th anniversary of The Seattle Public Library. After it was adopted as a department of the city in 1890, the Library opened its first reading room in Pioneer Square on April 8, 1891. To honor this milestone, we will be posting a series of articles here about the Library’s history and life in the 1890s. We also encourage our patrons to share their favorite memories of SPL on social media using the hashtag #SPL125. Be sure to follow us on FacebookTwitterInstagram and Pinterest. – editor

How have you been celebrating Women’s History Month? Before March draws to a close, we wanted to take a moment to highlight a few of the amazing women who played an important role in the library’s history.

Sarah Yesler, Seattle Historical Photograph Collection, 1868
Sarah Yesler, Seattle Historical Photograph Collection, 1868

Sarah Yesler: Sarah Yesler came to Seattle with her husband Henry in 1858. Both were important pioneers, intrinsic to the development of both the library and Seattle as a whole. Sarah Yesler took on many leadership roles in the community, including but not limited to serving as the first librarian for the Seattle Library Association, a predecessor to the Seattle Public Library founded in 1868. Though the association did not last, it helped lay the groundwork for the library’s true beginning in 1891. In 1899 (after the death of both Sarah and Henry) the Yesler Mansion served as a home for the library until its unfortunate destruction by fire in 1901. The fire set the stage for Seattle to acquire funding from Andrew Carnegie to build the first Central Library which opened on December 19, 1906 on the same site as today’s library.

Harriet Leitch helping Seattle General Hospital patient select books, Seattle Star, date unknown
Harriet Leitch helping Seattle General Hospital patient select books, Seattle Star, date unknown

Harriet Leitch: Harriet Leitch was a librarian of many talents. She started out her SPL career as a librarian at the Yesler (now Douglass-Truth) Branch. When World War I started, she temporarily left her position to enter war library service (during which she served at a hospital library in Virginia.) Returning to Seattle after the war, Leitch served as the head of the SPL Stations Division and managed small library outreach posts in easily accessible locations such as drug stores, hospitals, radio stations, fire houses and department stores. She even started the library’s first bookmobile to deliver books to families in remote rural areas. Leitch also played an important role as a member of Washington State Historical Society, corresponding with famed Seattle photographer Edward S. Curtis about his career in a series of letters now available in our digital collections.

Audrey Wright, Seattle Times, 1968
Audrey Wright, Seattle Times, 1968

Audrey Wright: Starting as a library assistant at the Yesler Branch in the 1960s, Audrey Wright played an important role in helping to develop the library’s African American collection. The sixties were a turbulent time for civil rights issues in Seattle and the Central Area in particular. The branch was struggling and there were thoughts that it might be closed permanently. A 1965 donation of books by the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority started what was initially called the Negro Life and History Collection and initiated renewed community interest in the library. In 1972, Wright was promoted to the head of the branch where she stayed for two years before leaving in 1974. Thanks in part to Wright and the librarians that followed her, the Douglass-Truth Library now holds one of the largest African American History collections on the West Coast.

Want to learn more about important women in local history? Check out these books available at the library.

Want to learn more about Harriet Leitch and her correspondence with Edward S. Curtis? Take a look at our digital collection.

~posted by Jade D.

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