By Jessica Peyton Roberts
The history of Tacoma’s Main Library and the city itself collide in the library’s current exhibition, “Defending America’s Freedom: It’s Everybody’s Job!,” a series of World War I propaganda posters. On display until April 26, 2014, Robert Schuler curated the collection from the library’s immense holdings, previously held in storage.
But how did Tacoma’s Main Library come to hold such a large collection of original World War I posters and pamphlets? Library associate, Jody Gripp, librarian, Jeanie Fisher, and Northwest Room Supervisor, Brian Kamens, explained that the library was already over a decade old by the time World War I erupted overseas.
Tacoma’s leaders envisioned a grand city library back at the turn of the century and in 1901 Andrew Carnegie, industrialist and philanthropist, offered $50,000 to complete the project. The city’s representatives were convinced that the new library would cost an additional $25,000 to build and petitioned for a $75,000 grant, which they eventually received. In 1903 the Tacoma Main Library was completed, making it the first Carnegie library in the state of Washington.
A little over a decade after the library first opened its doors, America found itself enmeshed in World War I. The Library Director at the time was John B. Kaiser, (whose last name is indeed an interesting coincidence!) a man who showed remarkable foresight about what materials were destined to become historically significant. From 1914 to 1924 Kaiser collected and catalogued propaganda items, including posters, pamphlets and books, making Tacoma Public Library’s World War l propaganda collection an extensive one.
Today, on the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, members of the public are invited to the Main Library to walk through the Handforth Gallery, where the collection is currently on display.
Fisher highlights the Red Cross posters as a personal favorite, as well as the posters urging people to buy bonds. These posters feature early twentieth century people from every day walks of life, underscoring how everyone and anyone could aid the war effort.
Gripp’s favorite is a picture of a woman dressed in a feminized version of the Navy uniform and remarking coyly, “Gee!! I wish I were a man – I’d join the Navy!” followed by the instruction from the United States Navy Recruiting Station to actual men, “Be a man and do it.”
However, the World War I collection is only a small piece of the library’s offerings for learning more about Tacoma’s history. The Northwest Room hosts myriad resources for amateur and professional researchers alike, including the personal collections of noted local historian Murray Morgan and musician Red Kelly.
Additionally, people can comb entire collections of local newspapers dating back to the 1880’s, along with school yearbooks for Tacoma and Pierce County (and donations of your yearbook are eagerly accepted). The library’s Northwest Photography Archives currently has 40,000 images digitized and available online, with another million slated to be uploaded.
Thanks to its exhaustive collections and co-commitments to both preservation and accessibility, Tacoma Public Library is on track to become one of the first libraries to join the Northwest Digital Archives, a regional-specific resource for “archival and manuscript collections in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Alaska, Utah, and Washington.”
In the same vein as its benefactor’s legendary generosity, the library maintains a regular schedule of free classes and events for its patrons. David Domkoski, Community Relations Officer, describes the opportunities on deck for summer 2014, including two week-long coding camps (one exclusively for girls), two week-long Photo Safari classes with local photographer Jesse Michener, and three summer reading clubs, for kids, teens, and adults.
If you haven’t already, stop by the Tacoma Main Library, where the city’s history continues to play out.
1102 Tacoma Avenue South
Tacoma, WA 98402