Washington State Library

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 2/22/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5271

The Washington State Library was established by the organic act, which created Washington Territory in 1853, and it has served as the official library for state government since Washington gained statehood in 1889. The library’s collection began with fewer than 2,000 volumes collected by first Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) and shipped around the Horn of South America. It would grow to number more than 547,000 books, periodicals, and documents at its peak in the late 1990s. An executive agency located in Olympia for most of its existence, the Washington State Library was transferred to the office of the Secretary of State in 2002 and physically relocated to an office park in Tumwater, Washington, in 2001 as a result of drastic budget cuts.

Books Shelved Before Governor Seated

On March 2, 1853, President Millard Fillmore signed the Organic Act which created Washington Territory, officially separating the expanse generally north of the Columbia River and west of Montana from the older Oregon Territory. The new law provided $5,000 for a Territorial Library, which the Territory’s first governor, Isaac Stevens, used to purchase and ship some 2,000 volumes and reference materials around the Horn of South America. Most of these first books arrived in the new Territory before its governor did in 1854.

Another 2,000 volumes followed soon after and were stored in a building rented from Father Pascal Ricard in the Olympia mission of the Catholic Oblate Order. The growing library was shifted five times until 1917, when it found haven in the basement of the state Temple of Justice. In 1959, it moved into a permanent, modernistic home immediately south of the Capitol and named for progressive state legislator, Congressman, and Lieutenant Governor Joel Pritchard (1925-1997). 

Steady Growth Over 15 Decades

In the 150 years since its establishment, the Washington State Library collections have steadily grown. The first inventory in 1854 enumerated 2,130 books and documents, which increased to 270,000 over the next century. The collection embraced 547,554 discrete works in the late 1990s. The Library still holds 750 items dating from 1854, such as original printings of Lewis and Clark’s journals, Capt. Charles Wilke’s report on his 1841 exploration of Puget Sound, U.S. census data back to 1790, and rare maps and globes obtained by Isaac Stevens. Its holdings also contain more than 40,000 reels of microfilm copies of Washington state newspapers, a comprehensive collection of other state publications, and virtually all of the works published by Washington state authors.

Washington State Library services have also grown and diversified since 1853. Far from being a passive repository, State Library staff actively assist state agencies, legislators, and citizens in researching governmental history and issues. The Library also serves as partner and information broker to Washington’s other 1,800 public, K-12, and university libraries.

Through joint purchasing agreements and master database licenses, the State Library saves participating libraries across Washington approximately $8 million in annual user fees. It also distributes nearly $2 million in annual federal funding. The Library has developed major new Internet database resources such as “Find-It! Washington, and provides free training to hundreds of librarians, state employees, and citizens each year.

State Budget Cuts Hit the Books

As the economic “high-tech bubble” burst in 2001 and citizen initiatives cut state revenues, Washington state government faced serious fiscal challenges. Many were nevertheless surprised when Governor Gary Locke (b. 1950) proposed elimination of the Washington State Library. Thanks to public opposition and creative legislation, the Library was saved in 2002 and relocated administratively to the office of Secretary of State Sam Reed. Most of the Library budget survived but it was still controlled by the Governor, who mandated a 23 percent reduction in annual Library spending to $7.6 million.

The State Library was also shaken by the February 2000 Nisqually Quake, which severely damaged the Capitol Building and prompted temporary relocation of the Legislature and other offices. The Pritchard Library building was commandeered to house other state staff, and the State Library’s personnel and collection relocated south to a suburban office park at 6880 Capitol Boulevard in Tumwater. The agency also eliminated 26 positions and refocused its mission on more efficient public service and collection management.

In January 2003, Governor Locke proposed to cut annual Library spending from $7.6 million to $2.3 as part of his biennial budget. The reduction would have essentially eliminated all public services and barely maintained the collection. State Legislature ultimately approved a budget of about $5 million, which allowed the Library to retain most of its public services while eliminating special research activites on behalf of the Legislature and state agencies.


Sources: Washington State Library records; State Library News, November 2002 and January 2003; 2002 Legislative District Fact Sheets; Maryan E. Reynolds, The Dynamics of Change: A History of the Washington State Library (Pullman, WA: Washington State University, 2001); Hazel E. Mills, “Governor Isaac I. Stevens and the Washington Territorial Library,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 1 (January 1962), pp. 1-16; H. E. Mills, “Pacific Northwest Collection of the Washington State Library,” Library News Bulletin, Vol. 33, No. 3 (July 1966), pp. 187-197.

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