Seeing the reports in the paper that the Library here received a $500,000 challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities reminds us that the Port Townsend Library is on a roll – for the last hundred years. The Library was actually founded in 1898 as the Port Townsend Library Association and opened in a second-floor room of the Central School with a small collection of books donated by the founders. Within a year it had almost 700 books and a circulation of nearly 2,000. By January of 1903, the association had purchased a lot on Lawrence Street for $400, intending to build a library and by January of 1907 the association and the city had begun talking with the Carnegie Foundation. The foundation was providing funding for community libraries throughout the United States that met a standard of public support. The foundation required the town receiving funding not only demonstrate the need for a public library, but provide the building site, and promise 10 percent of the cost of the library’s construction annually to support its operation.
The Port Townsend Library Association had a site for the library and could demonstrate the need, so citizens petitioned the City Council for financial support. In April 1911 the City Council passed a resolution to create and support a free library. It was a good thing, too, since that same month, according to the Morning Leader, the school district served notice on the library that it had to move out of the school. Circulation more than doubled in that first year May B. Smith, the Librarian, reported to the City Council and the number of registered borrowers went from 97 to over 500.
Plans for a new library building were submitted to the Carnegie Foundation, and in the fall of 1912 the foundation agreed to give $12,500 to the City of Port Townsend to erect a public library building on the condition that the city continue the monetary pledge for maintenance and salaries. The grand opening was held Oct. 14, 1913, with a citywide celebration.
The Library evidently served citizens locally with distinction during the first half of the 20th century. It cooperated with local school officials during the depression to increase time for students to complete homework at the library. New collections were developed for young children and expanded reference materials were made possible through funding by the Ladies Auxiliary of the American Legion and the Parent-Teachers Association. In 1934, at the height of the depression, the library raised enough money to remain open following budget cuts, winning a special levy by a nearly four-to-one margin. In the 1940s, the library added story hours for young children.
In 1987 a group of residents formed a Diamond Jubilee Campaign to renovate and expand the library which had become too small and was physically deteriorating. City residents – by then numbering 7,000 – raised $800,000 for the expansion, and in June 1990 a renovated and expanded Carnegie library was opened.
Growth in the town has us on the verge of expanding the Carnegie again, but this time the historical nature of the library and its success in serving the people of Port Townsend is attracting a wider audience. The NEH grant is only one of the honors the PT Library has received. It has also received a “Star” award from the Library Journal for the second year in a row – one of only five libraries in the state to be awarded and it is perennially among the leaders in the state for circulation in its size category.
Truly, as the Port Townsend Public Library continues into its second century it remains on a roll and there’s more news to come.