Tacoma history gem must shine on

TNT reader columnist Barbara Parsons. Photo by
TNT reader columnist Barbara Parsons. Photo by The News Tribune

The first time I visited the Northwest Room at the Tacoma Public Library, I accompanied 22 awe-inspired fourth graders. We went to see a Bible.

The Whittier Elementary School class had been studying the Middle Ages. They had studied castles, warfare, clothes, food and illuminated texts. Teacher Jan Thorne told the class that the Tacoma Public Library actually owned an illuminated Bible written in Latin. Real monks had painted the margins and capital letters with gold and vibrant ink.

The book wasn’t on display all the time, Mrs. Thorne told them, but the librarian would take it out just for them.

The kids’ hands stayed in their pockets as the gloved librarian showed them the book. Each child looked closely at the tiny pictures — snakes and scrolls and little animals — painted by a cloistered English monk more than 700 years earlier. The book brought history to life better than any lesson their teacher shared. It had been there, in the 13th century. Now it was here, in Tacoma.

While the children waited their turns, I absorbed the Northwest Room itself, its woodwork, marble stairs and stunning dome. I had heard of Carnegie Libraries, but until this visit about 15 years ago, I hadn’t realized Tacoma had benefited from Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy.

Only the Northwest Room is located in the original Carnegie library built in 1903; the rest of the library was added to it later. Carnegie built libraries across America. His goal was to inspire learning, but he didn’t want to make it too easy, so he insisted that each city contribute.

“An endowed institution is liable to become the prey of a clique,” he said. “The public ceases to take interest in it, or, rather, never acquires interest in it…. Everything has been done for the community instead of its being only helped to help itself."

Carnegie asked cities to come up with 10 percent of the cost of building and thereafter to pay for maintenance and staffing. He also created open stacks. Previously, library books had been fetched for readers, but Carnegie’s foundation opened shelves to the public.

So Tacomans would have walked up the marble stairway of his building (said to represent the path to enlightened thinking), cast their eyes up to the dome and then browsed the shelves.

Over the years as I have visited old homes in Tacoma, I’ve often seen framed photos of those houses when they were new. When asked, home owners always say the same thing: They found the photo in an old paper in the Northwest Room. When I finally bought an old home, the Northwest Room librarian was able to help me find a photo of it, too.

Early Washington newspapers, phone books and rare histories, available only in that room, provide historical and genealogical information every day.

As a writer, I visited the Northwest Room, yet again. Writing a children’s book about the 1885 Chinese expulsion, I found few accounts in circulated books. The Northwest Room had everything I needed, however, including books that were out of print, handwritten manuscripts and contemporary newspaper articles about the City Council’s decision.

Original advertisements for community meetings about the “Chinese Problem” were invaluable, and not available anywhere else.

I am saddened that our city is considering closing this space. Over the years, I’ve seen the Northwest Room touch the lives of children, neighbors, history buffs, writers and readers. Visits to the Northwest Room are unlike other library visits. It is unique in the Pacific Northwest.

The “either/or” situation presented to Tacoma to close a branch library or the Northwest Room to save money is not right and forces opposition where none should exist. We should trim elsewhere. If forced to choose, however, let’s remember that library branches are redundant by design, whereas only the Northwest Room contains its contents.

It is more than a room. It’s a jewel in Tacoma’s crown, on par with the Pantages Theater and Union Station. It must be spared.

Barbara Parsons is a college English professor and writer who lives in Tacoma's North End. She is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Contact her at bbparsons@live.com.