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 Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. – editor
Over 50 years ago, University Branch (UNI) was the largest branch of Seattle Public Library, with the highest circulation, number of registrations and visitors. Roberta Meredith – one of SPL’s longest-standing Head Librarians – presided. Through 30 years of community growth, the Depression, wartime and modernization, Meredith witnessed many changes. For example in 1944, nineteen new staff were hired at University Branch and 22 left! Building and technology improvements of this time included flashy items like a new typewriter, a cash register (1951), the book drop (1952), and natural gas heating (1957).
During the Depression, Meredith witnessed extensive layoffs across the system (62 full time employees), reduced salaries (of up to 21%) and benefits, with a reduced book budget of 47%. Work weeks increased to 44 hours, and WPA workers were hired to do Page and Maintenance work. At the same time, massive unemployment brought in more patrons, with a University Branch 1933 peak circulation of 355,234 books. Meredith reported a 63-foot long line of borrowers waiting at the Circulation desk. To give you a comparison, in 2015 UNI’s circulation was 194,669 books.
Entering wartime, Adult Education was reinstated and the Young Adult Collection was created, while the use of the meeting room by community groups flourished. In 1941, 397 meetings were held with 6,972 in attendance (an average of 19 people per day using the meeting room). This particular statistic is no longer tracked, however by comparison, in 2015 UNI had 9,095 patron visits (not necessarily using the meeting room). From 1937-41, UNI hosted a Tuesday night lecture series presented by UW faculty. Topics included religion, philosophy and social ideas. The attendance at the first lecture was 250 people! This program was a pride and joy of University Branch, as Meredith reported in her Quarterly Report:
“Since 1937, the fortnightly series of lectures, by University of Washington faculty members under the direction of Professor Thomas I. Cook, has become one of our most worthwhile contributions to the community.” –Librarian Quarterly Report, 1941
Meredith had a strong relationship with the University Herald, who published book lists, event listings and articles for the branch. For example in 1936, University Herald published 11 articles about children’s books. The branch also advertised with posters and book displays in the front window of University National Bank. In turn, UNI regularly hosted displays created by children of area schools: soap animals, German toys, book posters, shells, planets made to scale, book reviews, and puppets representing characters in history, just to name a few.
Yet community trends would shift. The opening of new library branches and temporary stations reduced patronage and circulation at University, particularly among families. At the same time population growth spurred land development, and the construction of Interstate 5 in 1957. Meredith reported how construction reduced the number of families with children who formerly crossed over from Latona, with “a noticeable decrease in the number of children coming in after school”. Modernization was shaping the University District to be “less and less residential, with houses torn down for University buildings, private businesses and used car lots”, with “parking and traffic continuing to be problems.”
Nonetheless Roberta Meredith left the branch ready to assist an increasingly modernizing public. Throughout her career Meredith helped increase the volume of books at University Branch by 123%. In the last few years of her time at UNI she helped bring in a new lighting system, the parking lot and Recordak photostatic checkout stations – making patron experiences easier on many levels. In a Feb 27, 1958 University Herald article, Meredith stated she hoped University Branch would someday become a regional library, “a focal point for all the other branches around it”. UNI hasn’t fulfilled her dream yet, but the recent news that University Branch will be open seven days a week may be a step in this direction.
Curious to find out more? Roberta Meredith’s quarterly “Report to the Superintendent” can be found on display today at University Branch, as a part of a collection of Librarian Reports from 1912-1965.
~ posted by Nicole S.