On the surface, the Steilacoom Library doesn’t appear much different than your typical library branch: The small brick building nestled in a suburban neighborhood is brimming with books and has a cozy feel to it. There’s a reading area where people can curl up with a good find, and a line of Dell computers where people sit to play games and scour job boards.
What sets the Steilacoom Library apart from its 19 sister branches in Pierce County Library System — and from all the libraries in the state — is its long and rich history.
“In 1858, some fellows were sitting around a potbellied stove and decided they needed a little culture in this town,” said Joan Curtis, who has worked with the Steilacoom Museum for its entire 40-year history. “A year later, they had raised $533 — a lot of money in those days — and were able to send someone down to San Francisco with a list of books they wanted.”
And thus began the first circulating community library in the Washington territory — statehood wouldn’t come for another three decades. Early meetings took place at the Methodist Episcopal Church on Wilkes Street, after which the location of the library and its soon-to-be 600-book collection would move nine times.
“It’s really amazing any of the books survived,” Curtis said, shaking her head and looking at the hundreds of original titles still preserved in the museum. “They weren’t always kept in the best places. Some of them got damp and moldy.”
When Curtis first started working at the museum, she said that she and a friend took damaged books to Olympia to have them fumigated.
“There were these long rolling carts that they put the books on, and then they rolled them into a gas chamber,” Curtis said, closing her eyes to remember. “I suppose that protects against bugs and mildew. These days, they freeze them instead.”
Ahead of its Time
The Steilacoom Library was the first of its kind in Washington in its establishment and also in the scope of its mission. Unlike many early libraries, the Steilacoom Library was more than a place to find books. The goal of the Steilacoom Library Association — the group responsible for starting the library in 1858 — was “the diffusion of useful knowledge and sound morality by establishing a library (and) reading room, (and) by procuring public lectures, essays, and establishing debates.”
By pursuing knowledge and morality through lectures and debates, the Steilacoom Library was a lot more like today’s libraries than you might expect.
“I do think that they were ahead of their time,” said Georgia Lomax, executive director of the Pierce County Library System. “There’s this long tradition in Steilacoom of the library supporting the community in taking on issues and thinking about impactful things. We’re still doing that.”
The topics of discussion have changed over time. Today, there are lectures that focus on human trafficking and homelessness. In the 1800s, debates ended in resolutions like, “Love is a stronger passion than Anger” and, “Mechanics have been more beneficial to the community than Farmers.”
Lomax said that the fact that discussions of this sort were happening at all speaks to something very special about the roots of the Steilacoom Library.
“(The founders) cared about their community. They saw the value and the impact of what happens when people are connected and work together for the betterment of all,” Lomax said. “Libraries are so idealistic in many ways: We provide you with the whole range of views, and you can learn and then do the right thing. The original Steilacoom Library was all about that.”
Staying Tuned In
Over 161 years, the Steilacoom Library — now grouped with 19 other branches as part of the Pierce County Library System — has worked hard to remain in tune with the community’s needs. This dedication, Lomax said, is one of the reasons she isn’t terribly concerned about libraries disappearing.
“Libraries have changed since the 1850s because our communities have changed,” she said. “Whatever matters to the community matters to us, and we’re going to adjust and provide whatever that is. We aren’t too worried about our survival (because) we’ll keep adapting.”
A big shift, she said, occurred in the 1990s with the increasing ubiquity of computers. No longer was information as scarce, and many of the questions that people used to answer via library services suddenly were accessible online. This cultural change forced libraries in a new direction and made them evaluate ways to provide help in less concrete ways.
“The path that libraries are on now is engaging with people to help them be successful in whatever matters to them,” Lomax said. “In developing our strategic plan in the last three years, we asked the public to tell us about their lives. We heard a lot about people feeling stressed and needing to relax or talking about how difficult it was to meet and connect with neighbors. Then we developed our strategic plan around what the library might do to meet these needs.”
Based on these public surveys, the Pierce County Library System’s mission now centers around learning, enjoyment, and community. By partnering with other community-based organizations, the library is able to offer support with filing taxes, obtaining a marriage license, searching for a job, and navigating retirement. It runs STEM programs for students of all ages and checks out science-to-go backpacks full of hands-on learning activities and books for kids. It hosts well-attended lecture series that dig deep into pertinent and complex social issues.
And public libraries can stay close to the communities they serve because they are one of the last places where people are able to go for any number of things without being required to swipe their credit cards.
“You pay for us through your tax dollars, so we’re, in effect, free in the moment,” Lomax said. “That removes a huge barrier for people. You can come as many times as you want; you can stay as long as you want. Everyone
Beyond the Books
The Steilacoom Library was, of course, built on books, a characteristic that began in earnest after that first ship was sent down to San Francisco. Yet, in the 12 years that Georgia Lomax has been working with the library through the Pierce County Library System, she said she determined that the physical books actually weren’t the library’s heart.
“Books are really just the thing that lets us provide the service; they’re not truly the service,” she said. “It’s the stories in them that you enjoy, or the information that helps you build your new garage or ace the test. So, it doesn’t matter if you’re reading online or on a tablet; the book is just the vehicle that gets you to something else.”
And for the past century and a half, through lectures and programs and surveys and partnerships, the Steilacoom Library has been constantly looking for ways to make that “something else” as robust as possible.