Many consider the light-filled rotunda on the second floor of the Tacoma Public Library’s main branch to be its beating heart, a living archive that stretches back to the 1800s and holds the history of Tacoma and the region.
In the Northwest Room’s collections are genealogical records, obituaries, maps, newspaper clippings, architectural plans, yearbooks that date to the early 1900s, more than 1 millions photos and regional research materials.
The trove is so vast and meticulously kept that the area’s foremost historians can’t imagine a Tacoma without the Northwest Room.
“I guess on some level in some minds, somebody can think of it as nonessential, but my mind doesn’t work that way,” said Tacoma historian and history professor Michael Sullivan. “I think the culture of the city, there are some little things that we need to be able to depend on, like a heart that continues to beat.”
The Tacoma Public Library was asked in May to target cutting 4 percent from its 2017-18 budget, or about $903,000, as the city works to address a projected $6.7 million shortfall in its general fund.
Library officials are weighing closing either the Northwest Room or the Kobetich branch in Northeast Tacoma to meet those suggested cuts.
Closing the Kobetich branch would save $852,000 over two years; closing the Northwest room would save $621,000, library director Susan Odencrantz has said. Either choice still leaves them short of the city’s goal, and more cuts would be needed.
I think the culture of the city, there are some little things that we need to be able to depend on, like a heart that continues to beat.
Michael Sullivan, Tacoma historian and history professor
Budget talks are in preliminary stages, and figures likely will continue to be adjusted until a proposed budget is submitted in the fall, city officials said.
The memo from the city manager’s and budget offices requested all city department heads to identify between 2 and 4 percent cuts in the upcoming two-year budget, with the majority being asked to cut the higher number.
To many historians, librarians and Tacomans, losing the Northwest Room is unimaginable.
The room is in the library’s original Carnegie Building at 1102 Tacoma Ave. S., built in 1903: Cool marble columns from the Carnegie days lead visitors to its historic nerve center, where the stenciled dome ceiling — the original Tacoma Dome, according to Northwest Room librarians — immediately draws the eye.
Once inside, city residents can trace the histories of their homes, often down to the architect, the builder and the first family who lived there, and look at historical photos. They can access obituaries from more than a century ago and look up their family’s genealogy.
They can find rare books about the Pacific Northwest, study maps of Tacoma from the 1800s and find the original blueprints for some of the historic ships that sailed in and out of Commencement Bay.
They can read almost every copy of almost every newspaper and other publication produced and circulated in Pierce County over the last century-plus.
“Nobody concentrates on Tacoma-Pierce County like we do,” said Brian Kamens, the Northwest Room supervisor who has been a steward of this collection since 1982.
The Northwest Room was officially dedicated nine years earlier, in 1973, Kamens said, thanks to then-chief librarian Gary Fuller Reese, then-library director Mary Francis Borden and a friends of the library group.
The library had been collecting historic materials for more than 60 years, “and they thought it would be useful to put it all together into one usable collection,” Kamens said.
Starting in the 1980s, Kamens nearly single-handedly built the city and county buildings index, also available on the library’s website — it started as a pet project he would take up on his lunch breaks.
“We capture everything that’s here,” Kamens said. “We try to keep the lore and the legends of the city, the good, the bad and the ugly. Some of this stuff is just only here.”
Other highlights: Under lock and key and guarded by an alarm system, there lie dozens of Edward Curtis’ original prints depicting the tribes of the West in the early 1900s.
The Northwest Room also has the full collection of Curtis’ “The Native American Indian,” featuring hundreds of photographs from his adventures, capturing the lives of Western tribes.
We try to keep the lore and the legends of the city, the good, the bad and the ugly. Some of this stuff is just only here.
Brian Kamens, supervisor of the Northwest Room
That collection is in the Northwest Room’s Murray and Rosa Morgan Room, so-named for the renowned regional author who used it as a study before his death.
The Murray and Rosa Morgan Room, a miniepicenter of Tacoma history, also holds pieces of china from the Tacoma Hotel bearing its insignia, found on an archaeological dig for remains from the fire that ravaged it in 1935.
The Northwest Room is unique in part because Kamens and his staff emphasize access. Few items are locked away, and much of the archive — even yellowed maps from a time before automobiles — can be pulled out, touched, pored over.
Karen Haas, a living history performer from Tacoma who spends much of her time researching historical figures, said there are periods during her work when she’s in the Northwest Room every day.
On a Wednesday afternoon, she was digging up information on Carrie Shaw Rice, a local teacher, principal and poet who died in the 1920s.
“This is just invaluable,” Haas said as she stood, surrounded by directories from the early 1900s. “There is information here in the Northwest Room that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s not just the books and the papers, it’s the librarians.”
As for the future, Odencrantz said that because it’s still early and no decision has been made, there aren’t yet plans in place for what would happen to the collections if the Northwest Room were to close.
“The archives are extremely attractive and incredibly useful, so I think there is some hope in maybe being able to find a home rather than having them just sit and molder,” she said. “The goal would be to find a home for them, but that isn’t where the emphasis is right now, to be honest with you.”
Kamens doesn’t want to see the archive become a “gilded closet,” an in accessible place where a few fancy books are shelved and occasionally manned by a volunteer so the public can visit them.
“One thing I’d hate to see is they’ll have a history room, they’ll lock it off and it’ll be open with a volunteer for eight hours a month or something like that,” he said. “It would just be window dressing, and a lot of the stuff we do is just incredibly unique.”
There is information here in the Northwest Room that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s not just the books and the papers, it’s the librarians.
Karen Haas, living history performer
Historian and writer Ron Magden, who said he visits the Northwest Room at least once a week, said its resources are special to Tacoma. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Magden, now 90, served on the library’s board of commissioners.
“It’s worth fighting for,” he said. “There’s a distinction in the Tacoma Public Library that that part of it is far unique compared to (other) library systems. … There’s no equal to it.”
Magden and others said the Northwest Room is a rarity, the envy of many historical societies and neighboring library systems.
Its collections catalog the births, deaths, weddings and major political upheavals of Tacoma: Recently, a special file was created for clippings and information on the proposed methanol plant that was slated to be built at the Port of Tacoma before the developer pulled out amid fierce public opposition.
When Kamens started, five full-time staff members and five other people were dedicated to cataloging newspaper clippings. Now, there are three Northwest Room staff members. Their familiarity with the special collections and with Tacoma’s history have made them almost part of the archives themselves.
“It’s sad, more than anything,” Kamens said of the possibility that the Northwest Room could close. “Sometimes people don’t know what they have until it’s gone. But I think there is going to be an outcry.”
The original Tacoma Dome
The ornate dome that adorns the roof of the Tacoma Public Library’s main branch was known as the original Tacoma Dome, said Brian Kamens, who has worked in the room below the stenciled dome since 1982.
That dome — and the area that now is the Northwest Room — was part of the original Carnegie Building when the library opened in 1903.
“It had fancy glass on the outside, which poured in through the building,” said Kamens, the Northwest Room supervisor, describing the way the dome looked in its early years.
“First,” he said, “they had to paint it over during World War II during the blackouts, because they thought the Japanese might bomb it, and then a few years after that it was damaged in the 1949 earthquake.”
The glass is now gone, but the surrounding shell continued to hold everything together, and is still there today.
Kamens said the library looked at restoring the dome when the building was renovated in 1990, but the cost was prohibitive.
“I believe it was an extra $900,000 to redo the dome,” he said.