History of the Washington State Library


In honor of the Washington Territorial Library Collection's 160th Anniversary, the State Library and Office of the Secretary of State have featured library history articles at their respective blogs: Between the Lines and From Our Corner.  The State Library has also created a booklet featuring select 160th Anniversary articles, available as a downloadable PDF here (1.64 MB).


Washington State and Territorial Library: An Historic Overview

The original books, maps, globes, and miscellaneous materials that made up the original Washington Territorial Library Collection were secured using funds appropriated out of the Organic Act approved March 2, 1853 by United States Congress.

This act was signed by President Millard Fillmore and provided $5,000 to the newly appointed Territorial Governor, Isaac I. Stevens, for purchases toward the library. Given inflation, this amount is approximately equivalent to $131,500 in the year 2009. With these funds Stevens purchased books from H. Bailliere of London and C.B. Norton and Co. of New York City; collected archival documents from all the states of the union; acquired the still unpublished Wilkes Expedition charts, having them printed by George F. Lewis of Philadelphia; and made arrangements for the casing and portage of these materials through vendors in New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

The first 1,850 books left New York City on May 21, 1853 on the clipper Invincible. The ship traveled around the Horn of South America to San Francisco, where the Port of San Francisco held the books briefly. The collection then traversed the waters from San Francisco to Olympia, arriving October 23, 1853 on the brig Tarquina packed in “Massachusetts steamer trunks.” Since the day that brig touched shore, the Territorial and then the State Library has moved around Olympia and Tumwater occupying several historical sites including the Territorial Legislative building, the Old State Capitol Building and the Temple of Justice until finally moving into the Pritchard Building that was built specifically for and served as the home of the Washington State Library from 1958-2001 .

Growing to a collection of 2,852 volumes by 1855, this early collection of legal publications and books, journals, maps on other general subjects was an essential reference resource of the Territorial Government.  When Washington obtained Statehood on November 11, 1889, the Territorial Library became the Washington State Library with 12,224 titles in its collection. Indeed, when debates arose over the location of the seat of government, an attempt to relocate the library collection was considered a critical opening move in a change to the location of Washington's capitol city. Despite those early efforts, the State Library has persisted in Olympia, WA and over the last 160 years has played a major role preserving and providing public access to books, maps, collections, documents and other vital information about Washington’s history and government. 

Washington State Government Publications has been maintained at the State Library since statehood. This information is published by state agencies, regardless of format that is intended for distribution to state government or the public. Those materials going back to 1889 are available as a resource for research into Washington’s past and as a cornerstone for Washington’s future. The Washington State Library has been participating in the Government Printing Office's (GPO) Federal Depository Library Program since its inception over 100 years ago. The State Library was designated as the Regional Depository Library for Washington and Alaska on May 10, 1965. Since that time, the library has received most federal publications distributed by GPO through the program. The library uses these materials to aid its elected leaders in the goal of governing the state through changing times and to empower citizen’s understanding of those changes. The original Law Collection separated from the State Library to form the Washington State Law Library in 1907, and that collection continues to serve the State Courts System and legal community from its Temple of Justice Reading Room today.

The State Library has led the way in information access for Washington State residents since those early pioneering days. The State Library helped to establish the first travelling library (a.k.a. "Bookmobile") service that served Washingtonians from 1899 to 1929.  Washington State Library joined with other libraries of the state to create the Washington Library Association, the first time in 1905 lasting until 1909 and then again continuously in operation since 1932. The State Library led the study on the information needs of Washington's institutionalized population that began in the 1930s and came to fruition in the mid-1960s as Institutional Library Services, a service that still provides Washington's prison and state hospital residents' access to information. 

Established in the mid-1960s, Washington State Library Branches maintain focused access to resources and highly valued reference service for state agencies. A long-running Legislative Reference Service ably served the needs of Washington's lawmakers and today’s State Library Public Services continues to assist legislators and their staff to access quality resources that assist the State Legislature in the creation and interpretation of policy. Researchers in Washington State history and culture have long valued the Pacific Northwest resources that can be found in the Pacific Northwest, Genealogy and State Library Special Collections. The State Library continues to extend its availability through programs like Resource Sharing that facilitates interlibrary lending and borrowing of materials. The Washington State Library Digital Collections, established in 2005, connects today’s Washingtonians to an increasing array of resources in all areas of the State Library collections via the internet.

Since the mid-1930s the State Library Development staff have worked diligently to coordinate services and help secure federal or private funding to benefit other libraries throughout the State of Washington. The Washington State Library also provides training and continuing education opportunities to library staff statewide, offers sub-grants to libraries to create, expand, or enhance services, and certifies the professional credentials of librarians. 

Once an agency of the Governor's Office overseen by an independent State Library Commission, the State Library joined the Office of the Secretary of State in 2002. Currently the State Library is located in Tumwater, WA.  An ambitious project to preserve Washington history and tell the stories of the people of the state will include the planning and construction of a new Washington State Library and State Archives building. 

In 2008, administration of the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library (WTBBL) transferred from Seattle Public Library to Washington State Library/Office of Secretary of State. WTBBL traces its beginnings to the Seattle Public Library's Braille Collection that began in 1906 and has been a part of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) of the Library of Congress since 1931. WTBBL was one of the first “Regional Libraries” and from 1934 to the late sixties and early seventies, provided library service to the residents of Montana and Alaska. This award-winning library provides outstanding and innovative library service state-wide, at the library and by mail, to any Washington resident unable to read standard print material due to blindness, visual impairment, deaf-blindness, physical disability (cannot hold a book or turn pages), or reading disability.

The staff of the Central Library and the Library’s collections, which now contains over 2.25 million items, are available to Washingtonians through the Ask-a-Librarian service, which provides real-time access in-person and online through the World Wide Web at http://www.sos.wa.gov/library/ask.aspx, and the Library’s catalog at http://www.sos.wa.gov/library/.


Additional Library Histories:

Dynamics of Change, a history of the Washington State Library through the 1970s, by former State Librarian Maryan Reynolds.

Historic Sites of the Washington State and Territorial Library - A recounting of the historic evolution, buildings and locations that have housed the collections of the Territorial Library, and later, the State Library of Washington.

Territorial Librarians - Brief biographical sketches of the territorial librarians. (Biographies of the State Librarians coming soon)

Governor's Writers Day Awards at the Washington State Library, 1966 - 2000

Washington State Book Awards, 2001-Present