News & Stories

‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ shows off Seattle’s weird side at Central Library

The Level 10 ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ in the Central Library shows off the odd Seattle ephemera in The Seattle Public Library’s Special Collections.

You may not be able to fully appreciate the depth of The Seattle Public Library’s Special Collections until you see it for yourself.

That’s partly the inspiration behind the Cabinet of Curiosities now presented to the public on Level 10 of the Central Library, next to the Seattle Room.

The Library possesses thousands of rare and unique items that “never get to see the light of day,” Special Collections Librarian Debra Cox says.

Now featured in the Cabinet of Curiosities, they include a 1920 wanted poster for a man accused of killing a King County sheriff’s deputy, cartoons featuring real-life Seattle folk hero, “The Umbrella Man,” World’s Fair memorabilia, and an 1894 Republican campaign songbook.

Your donations to The Seattle Public Library Foundation support the curation and preservation of Special Collections every year.

Cox, who assembled the display, just asked her colleagues for “some weird stuff you’ve seen.”

The concept stems from “Cabinets of Wonder,” or “Wunderkammer,” which date back to sixteenth-century Europe and contained a rare and often macabre mix of items – like faked dragon blood or antique surgical instruments – intended to provoke awe.

“Traditionally they were just a collection of stuff for people to look at,” Cox says, that “left it to your imagination or forced you to research it, yourself.”

In the Library’s case, the collection includes a book of dance steps, an old bell, a Seattle Pilots parking sign, and a small old book simply titled, “Asparagus” – “It’s a literary triumph, I’m sure,” Cox jokes.

“I especially like the things where you don’t know what the heck they do or what they are,” she added.

The Cabinet of Curiosities has already provoked laughter and wonder among patrons, she says.

It’s Central’s first such display to show off the ephemera of the Special Collections, and Cox hopes it will expand or take on themes in the future, like one dedicated to bizarre postcards.

“Everything has a story,” Cox says.

Event spotlight: Book launch celebrates Seattle’s open spaces

When Seattle’s population exploded at the turn of the 20th century, in the wake of the Klondike Gold Rush, subdivisions were platted, and streets were built at a furious clip.

As the resident count swelled from 43,000 in 1890 to 237,000 in 1910, city leaders realized that they needed to build a parks system in the city, or Seattle wouldn’t have one at all.

So they turned to The Olmsted Brothers, America’s most prestigious landscape architecture firm from Brookline, Mass. who also had a hand in developing other cities’ park systems, as well as national parks.

The resulting work, which occurred on and off from 1903 to 1936, would forever shape Seattle’s landscape.

Environmental historian and author Jennifer Ott detailed this profound transformation in her latest book, “Olmsted in Seattle: Creating a Park System for a Modern City,” which launches next month with an event at the Central Library.

Today, 82 Seattle parks are directly connected with the Olmsteds, whether they were completely designed by the brothers or benefited from the advice they gave to Seattle city planners.

“If you live in Seattle, you are touched by the Olmsted parks plan today,” Ott told The Seattle Public Library Foundation. “We have this incredibly diverse and effective park system because of the work that was done 100 years ago.”

These parks include Alki Beach, Cal Anderson, Volunteer, Discovery, Golden Gardens, and Gas Works parks, as well as several scenic parkways. The last Olmsted park developed was the Washington Park Arboretum.

Ott says the development of Seattle’s extensive and iconic parks system took immense galvanization of political will – something she didn’t fully appreciate until researching for this book.

And it’s something not to be taken for granted today.

Author Jennifer Ott

“The things we love about these parks need to be invested in,” Ott says, adding they need constant maintenance. “There are so many challenges because they can be loved to death.”

When pressed to name her favorite Olmsted park, Ott instead names a chain of parks linked by scenic parkways: South Seattle’s Jefferson Park, Cheasty Boulevard, Mount Baker Boulevard and Park, and Lake Washington Boulevard Park.

It “captures Olmsted’s vision,” she says, creating accessible scenic corridors that allow people to experience views of the city, Puget Sound, Olympic Mountains, the forested hillside, the bungalow neighborhood, and access to the lake – all in one string of landscapes that one can find “only in Seattle.”

“Olmsted made it possible so that someone like me could have views,” Ott says. “I wouldn’t get to experience those amazing things about Seattle had they not been reserved.”

The launch event for “Olmsted in Seattle” takes place 2 to 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 16 at the Central Library. Proceeds from books sales benefit Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks. Place a hold on the book before it hits Library shelves here.

‘Virtual user’ expands reading horizons

Madison Park resident Carolyn Fairbanks enjoys The Seattle Public Library’s catalog with e-books and downloadable e-audiobooks. Photo credit: Brian Lawrence

Carolyn Fairbanks of Madison Park opened her Library account six years ago upon moving to Seattle with a stop at the Central Library.

“I’ve since never set foot in one,” she says.

Yet she’s an avid Library patron, evangelizing its collection among her fellow bridge players.

Fairbanks calls herself a “virtual user,” relying on the Libby app to read several e-books and e-audiobooks at a time on her Kindle reader.

Last year, the Foundation supported the purchase of 6,500 e-books and e-audiobooks to maintain a robust electronic collection.

Fairbanks loves enjoying books in different formats, from reading on her Kindle in the evening to listening to audiobooks while she goes to the gym, drives, and performs household chores.

“That gives me the opportunity to vary what I read,” she says. “Now I just read everything.”

She says the Libby app is so intuitive that she’s a self-taught user, managing her holds and loans from her smart phone.

Fairbanks enjoys thrillers and romantic comedies, yet has also enjoyed recent nonfiction releases by Michelle Obama and Melinda Gates. Other recent titles she’s read include “Magic Hour” by Kristin Hannah, “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman, and Barbara Kingsolver’s “Unsheltered.”

Her use of e-books and e-audiobooks has bumped up her annual reading rate to 40 to 50 books per year, she says, making it a favorite pastime.

“It’s the most wonderful preparation for life you can have. It’s entertainment, it’s education, it connects you to the world.”

‘They’re beautiful and brilliant’: Library fosters self-expression to empower youth

Children living at Brettler Family Place in North Seattle participate in a photo shoot at a celebration capping off this spring’s Art Club, an after-school program hosted in part by The Seattle Public Library. Photo credit: Michael B. Maine

When 30-year-old pregnant mother of four, Charleena Lyles, was fatally shot by police in her North Seattle apartment at Brettler Family Place in 2017 during a reported mental health crisis, Library staff sought to explore ways to help her community.

Brettler Family Place, an apartment complex managed by the nonprofit Solid Ground, supplies permanent housing to people who previously experienced homelessness. Though idyllically set next to Magnuson Park on the shores of Lake Washington, it’s relatively isolated – the nearest grocery store is a high-end market 2 miles away, and the Northeast Branch of The Seattle Public Library is also 2 miles off, neither of them convenient pedestrian destinations.

Brettler Family Place serves as a prime example of an opportunity for The Seattle Public Library to listen to what the residents need and develop public engagement projects.

After working closely with community caregivers, Lyles’ death galvanized the Library staff to initiate a new effort: an after-school youth art club.

“The Art Club at Brettler is a really profound example of what it looks like when community voices are the focus of equity work,” says Davida Ingram, public engagement and programs manager at The Seattle Public Library, who led the implementation of the program. “When community members who deal with disproportionate violence know they matter to us and that we will help them create the 21st century healing tool they want to have, that is social justice through and through.”

Ingram’s position is one of the five Library staff roles funded by the Foundation.

The program kicked off this year, running for 16 weeks from January to April and allowing Brettler Family Place’s children the opportunity to engage in several different types of art, from printmaking to hip-hop to photography. In coordination with the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture and Solid Ground, teaching artists and Solid Ground staff provided hands-on support – sometimes to show a child how to use a digital camera, and sometimes just to be a reliable adult presence and lend an ear.

“I was just trying to create a safe space for young people to express their creative genius,” says Dakota Camacho, one of the Art Club’s teaching artists who shared their dance and hip-hop talents with the youth. “I think it’s just about showing up and seeing that they’re beautiful and brilliant human beings.”

Time was divided between creative play and deep discussion about social justice issues such as police violence and racism, says Ricky Reyes, a songwriter, poet, and musician who staffed the program in his capacity as racial equity coordinator for the Office of Arts and Culture.

“I think we don’t give kids a lot of credit,” Reyes says. “We discount that they actually understand what’s going on around their community.”

Ingram says the Art Club arose from parents’ and caregivers’ desire for activities that connected art and social justice.

But staffers and artists say it not only gave kids something to do; it gave them a safe space in which to be creative and vulnerable.

Kids at Brettler Family Place Art Club experimented with drawing, hip-hop, poetry, and photography.

“The group was really an empathy experiment for a lot of kids,” says Oliver Alexander-Adams, children’s advocate at Solid Ground. Youth participated in sometimes-uncomfortable activities like listening to each other’s rhymes, sharing their art, and expressing feelings, but they became drawn to the Art Club and looked forward to it. “People were excited to be there.”

Soon, when he told kids “The Library’s coming,” it would elicit an enthusiastic reaction.

“Art empowers children to see their vision of the world has value,” says David Olivera, lead childcare specialist at Solid Ground, and a constant presence in the lives of Brettler Family Place’s children.

What helped the program’s success, Camacho says, was keeping the children’s needs central to the mission and showing them that people who look like them can achieve their dreams.

“People don’t realize that there are people who look like them traveling around the world being an artist and there are people who are very successful looking like them,” Camacho says.

Michael B. Maine, a photographer and teaching artist, says that through that effort, the kids displayed their abilities to express what they were passionate about.

“They’re obviously celebrating their environment and the people they care about,” Maine says. “They were living up to expectations that maybe they didn’t even know they had for themselves and it was beautiful to see that.”

The Library maintains its presence at Brettler Family Place with weekly art programs throughout the summer, accompanied by Library materials to check out and Foundation-funded giveaway books for the taking. During the school year, Northeast Branch librarians come to the kids’ schools and ensure Brettler Family Place kids participate in the annual district-wide Global Reading Challenge.

The Library had been making summer Bookmobile visits to Brettler Family Place, but this year has been bringing library materials to check out and Foundation-funded giveaway books inside their community room.

The efforts that work well in that location will inform potentially similar equity initiatives in other Seattle communities, says Robin Rousu, a supervising librarian on the Mobile Services team.

The Art Club might serve as inspiration. Those involved say that the culminating celebration that took place in June and featured the participating kids sharing their art with their caregivers and neighbors attracted the biggest crowd for a public program in memory at Brettler Family Place.

“I hope it gives kids a different idea of what the Library can do,” Alexander-Adams says. “Kids associate it with artists and activities now.”

It also positions the Library as a trusted partner in the community, Ingram says.

“When libraries say black lives matter and race and social justice is important, it builds trust,” she says. “It was true team effort.”

The Seattle Public Library Foundation is proud to support this program thanks to generous supporters like you.

Anyone can be a Homework Helper

Elisabeth Beaber and Jed Fowler, pictured with 2-year-old daughter Helen, have volunteered as Homework Helpers at the Douglass-Truth Branch for seven years.

Jed Fowler says you don’t need to be a brainiac to volunteer at Homework Help.

As a longtime Homework Helper, he says his role consists of “part cheerleader, part coach, part road block diagnostics.

“Sometimes it’s about the homework, sometimes it’s about the helping,” he says.

Homework Help is an after-school drop-in program for K-12 youth that supported 12,000 student visits across 11 branch libraries last year. The Foundation supports these tutoring sessions as part of the slate of Youth and Family Learning programs it funds.

Fowler and his wife, Elisabeth Beaber, have volunteered for seven years as Homework Helpers at the Douglass-Truth Branch in the Central District.

They’ve also supported the Foundation as donors for six years.

Beaber was inspired by her ancestry to start volunteering at the Library. Her grandfather immigrated through Ellis Island and never attended high school, but he emphasized the importance of education with his own children.

Beaber, herself now a staff epidemiologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, says she’s “paying it forward.”

After one year at Homework Help, Fowler – President of H.D. Fowler Company in Bellevue – joined in. Self-described math specialists, they now take turns on their weekly shift so they each volunteer once every other week.

“What I really enjoy is talking to high schoolers about their aspirations and ambitions,” Beaber says. “I like to share my path and hope it gives students some ideas.”

While most kids need direct homework help, others use Homework Help to play educational games during the period before their parents come home from work. Most of the kids at Douglass-Truth speak a language other than English at home making it difficult for their parents to look over their schoolwork, Fowler says.

The couple counts problem-solving among the most important skills as a Homework Helper.

“You don’t need to know about trigonometry, you just need to know how to learn about trigonometry,” Fowler says.

And if there’s something you don’t know, reference librarians are always there to help – giving the students and grown-ups alike some research assistance.

Thinking of becoming a Homework Helper, yourself?

“Definitely try it out,” Beaber says. “Everyone has something to offer in terms of being an adult advocate.”

Homework Help will accept volunteer applications throughout the fall. Tutors are especially needed at the Columbia, NewHolly, Rainier Beach, and South Park branches.

For questions about volunteering for Homework Help or an array of other Library programs, contact Volunteer Services Coordinator Anne Vedella at Learn more about the programs in need of volunteers at The Seattle Public Library’s website.

“I can’t imagine a place that’s more fun to volunteer than the Library,” Fowler says.

Santa Claus and catalogs: Special Collections highlight life in Seattle through history

Anyone living in Seattle 30 years ago or earlier will remember Frederick & Nelson, the retail institution whose flagship department store in Seattle once served as one-stop shopping and a cultural hub.

From its tearoom to its beauty salon to its nursery to the annual photos with Santa Claus, Frederick & Nelson was a commercial force in Seattle until its closure in 1992.

Debra Cox, special collections librarian, laid out several Frederick & Nelson staff newsletters from the 1940s in The Seattle Public Library’s possession, pointing to the profiles of employees who were sent off to war during World War II.

The twice monthly internal newsletter, titled “Between Ourselves,” serve as an “absolute snapshot of the culture of Frederick and Nelson,” Cox says.

“It wasn’t just a place to work, it was a lifestyle.”

These publications are only part of a new archive made public this month in The Seattle Public Library’s Special Collections, called the “Frederick & Nelson Collection.”

Patrons can now visit the Seattle Room at the Central Library and explore eight boxes of materials from the Northwest department store chain, including training books, catalogs, photographs, newspaper articles, and buttons. The “Between Ourselves” newsletters alone date back to 1926.

“They’re hard to resist,” Cox says.

The Frederick & Nelson collection is part of the Special Collections staff’s continual effort to gather materials critical to Pacific Northwest history and make them accessible to visitors, both online and at the Central Library. Other collections detail the World’s Fair, building surveys across Washington state, and menus throughout history from popular local restaurants.

The Seattle Public Library Foundation granted $50,000 this year to the Seattle Room and its efforts to acquire and preserve special archival materials.

These unique archives of Seattle history are why Claudia Skelton, member of The Foundation’s Board of Directors, has given her time and financial support to the Library for about two decades now.

The Special Collections are the part of the Library she’s “most addicted to,” she says.

“Having a Special Collections in a public library is particularly unusual and really special,” Skelton adds. “That’s how we learn a lot about the history and how our culture evolved over decades and centuries. You can sit there and gain access to a lot of materials you wouldn’t find in most libraries.”

A visit to the Level 10 of the Central Library will immerse you in historic maps, old high school yearbooks, and photos showing how Seattle has changed through history. As Skelton notes, the staffers there, including Cox, lend their expertise to show visitors exactly what they’re looking for.

“You get more than just the data,” Skelton says. “You get the culture and the history and the story on what was going on.”

Skelton has even helped a close friend in California writing about the Klondike Gold Rush just by stopping at the Seattle Room and locating information for him.

She’s also slowly working on piecing together her family history – her main passion – by consulting the genealogy librarians who work in Special Collections on Level 8 of the Central Library.

Skelton directs her donations to The Foundation to Special Collections so it can maintain its special place in the city and its unique access to the public.

“It’s really critical that we continue to focus on the Seattle history,” she says. “That’s really what I care the most about.”

Visit Level 10 of the Central Library to see the items for yourself.

Ballard boy turns green thumb into green for the Library

Atticus Diaz, 7, grows tomato plants from seed to sell to neighbors as a fundraiser for The Seattle Public Library Foundation. Photo by Kiersten Henderson

Atticus Diaz, 7, has enjoyed the Library his entire life.

His mother, Kiersten Henderson, prepared to give birth to him by checking out baby DVDs from The Seattle Public Library. Today, Atticus visits the Library – usually the Ballard Branch – to check out books with his dad and browse magazines like “National Geographic.”

“I like it because you can share books and you get to take out books and I like reading,” Atticus says.

He’s an avid reader who reads about 45 minutes a night with his father.

Now he’s showing his gratitude for all the joy the Library has brought him by turning over the earnings from his vegetable gardening to The Seattle Public Library Foundation.

Atticus sells tomato plants he’s grown from seed for $3 per plant, or two for $5. He’s been gardening since he was 4 years old and also grows flowers, fruits, and other vegetables at home.

For the past two years, he’s sold tomato plants by manning a stand in his neighborhood and offering them to his father’s co-workers.

What started as an entrepreneurial effort for Atticus turned into a philanthropic one, his mother says.

“People really enjoyed the concept of giving to the Library,” Kiersten says of her son’s customers. “He’s definitely learning about philanthropy and giving and the concept that publicly supported institutions need contributions from people who can make them.”

He’s also learning how to count money and develop relationships with people, she adds.

This year, Atticus sold 30 tomato plants. He intends to donate all his proceeds to the Foundation.

In memoriam: Macon ‘Mimi’ Howard

Mimi, as pictured in a 1987 group photo of The Seattle Public Library’s Board of Trustees.

We regret to share news of a loss in our Library Foundation family.

On Aug. 7, we lost pioneering Library leader Macon “Mimi” Howard at age 83. Mimi served as a trustee of The Seattle Public Library from 1982 to 1992, then as a member of The Seattle Public Library Foundation’s Board of Directors from 1992 to 2013, including a stint as the Finance Committee chairwoman.

We remember her as a friendly happy-spirited person who was a dedicated servant to the Library and had a mind for finances.

Mimi was an early donor upon the formation of the Foundation and is the namesake of the Mimi Howard Reading Area at the Madrona-Sally Goldmark Branch, dedicated in 2008.

Born in Pittsburgh, Mimi lived in Seattle for the last 40 years. She worked as a librarian for 10 years and co-founded The Information Group in Seattle, which provided a wide range of Library services to the city. She then became a stock broker, becoming one of the first women stockbrokers at Dean Witter.

Mimi counted the construction of the Central Library among her capstone achievements as a board member of the Foundation.

Current Seattle Public Library Trustee and Foundation Emeritus Board member Ron Chew remembers Mimi as “someone who was warm and witty, with a funny sense of humor who lent her passion for the cause to the campaign.”

She is survived by three children – Charles W. Cummings, Jr., Lee Blanchard Cummings, and Evelyn Howard Cummings – and eight grandchildren.

Grassroots activists use Library resources to advance mission

FIGHT volunteers Savannah Son, Brandon Wong, Many Uch, Eric You, and JM Wong support both incarcerated and freed Asian-Pacific Islanders with education and immigration cases. | Photo credit: Katrina Shelby, exclusive to SPLF

This story originally appeared in the Foundation’s 2018 Report to Donors. Find the full publication here.

Brandon Wong and Many Uch are volunteers who run an advocacy group for currently and formerly incarcerated Asian-Pacific Islanders across the state.

But when they partnered with the Library, they connected with resources that could advance their cause – and the volunteers would lead the way.

The collaboration was part of the Library’s COPE program – the Committee for Outreach, Programming, and Engagement. It’s a new Foundation-supported effort to help social justice advocacy groups by listening to their needs and responding to their ideas on how the Library can help them advance their causes.

At Formerly Incarcerated Group Healing Together – known as FIGHT – they help form educational curriculum for the incarcerated, assist released people with deportation cases, and bring counseling services to those on the inside.

“At first we thought it was just all about books,” Brandon, FIGHT co-founder, said of the collaboration. Brandon himself was incarcerated for 10 years before starting FIGHT with Many.

The Library did help FIGHT with books and materials to supply to prisoners, but it offered printing services and event space, also.

“It helped open our eyes to what resources – not just books – the Library had that we could try to use or share with each other,” Brandon said. “At the same time, the folks at the Library could
learn the work that we do.”

Last year, FIGHT hosted three events with the Library’s help: a discussion on youth incarceration, a panel addressing the unique needs of former Asian-Pacific Islander prisoners, and an event supporting the family members of incarcerated people.

Many spent more than five years in prison and immigration detention. He said Asian-Pacific Islanders are susceptible to deportation after prison release and are often forced to perform hard labor and under-the-table work to support themselves.

JM Wong, an advocacy volunteer at FIGHT, said the Library’s help solidified its role as a social service provider committed to equity.

“I’m really impressed that folks in the Library are taking such a proactive role in the community and seeing itself as a hub where folks from all different backgrounds can come to access resources,” she said. “That’s one really powerful way in which we can get our work out there.”

Virtual reality uses modern technology to bring Seattle’s past to life

University of Washington students Stephen Cooper and Cara Pangelinan served as interns at The Seattle Public Library, where they helped create an interactive virtual reality exhibit that connected patrons with the Library’s Special Collections. Photo credit: Katrina Shelby, exclusive to SPLF

This story originally appeared in the Foundation’s 2018 Report to Donors. Find the full publication here.

Last year, The Seattle Public Library expanded its Digital Media Learning programs to include a virtual reality program that promotes the Library’s collections in creative ways and educates people on local history in the process.

Cara Pangelinan, a junior at University of Washington, applied to work on the virtual reality project “kind of on a whim.”

She had no experience with virtual reality, but as a double-major in English and human-centered design engineering, she knew it fit in to her academic focus of designing products for intuitive public use.

Stephen Cooper is a senior computer engineering major. He said that because of his internship working on the Library’s virtual reality exhibits, he developed skills that would propel his career.

Both UW students earned the internship through the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation grant, which aims to recruit more people of color into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. They developed a virtual reality exhibit hosted by the Central Library about the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. Users acted as volunteer firefighters to learn about the massive blaze and why it prompted Seattle to rebuild the city in its wake.

The Library’s goal through its virtual reality program is to connect users with The Seattle Room and Special Collections, bringing their historic archives to life in an interactive way. It will continue to unveil new exhibits, with one featuring the historic Duwamish River set to debut in the Fall.

“I learned a lot from the experience that I don’t think I could have in a traditional classroom setting,” Cara says.

Nearly 800 visitors tried out the exhibit for themselves in February.

“It was really important for us to convey the history of the entire event, really bring the user to the knowledge of what happened and why it was such a big deal,” Stephen says, “and why we had to change the city to make sure it never happens again.”

Stephen credits the project with helping him land a prestigious summer internship at HBO, working on the TV network’s streaming services at its Seattle office.

“Virtual reality has given me a skillset I can use in the future,” he says. “It really helped broaden my horizons and helped me leverage my own endeavors.”