The True University
A History of the Western Washington University Library1899-1998
By Marian Alexander
In the legislative session of March 1899, an appropriation of $33,500 was made to the State Normal School at New Whatcom, of which $1,500 was intended to both equip and purchase a collection for "the nucleus of a general library." The Circular of Information for the upcoming school year, prepared by the newly arrived Principal, E. T. Mathes, promised potential students that "a reference library, containing about twelve hundred volumes will be ready for use in September." The library was to be situated on the main floor of the new school’s sole facility, a majestic redbrick structure at the eastern edge of the barren, swampy ten-acre campus high on the northwest shoulder of Sehome Hill.
With other faculty not yet appointed, it fell primarily to Dr. Mathes to manage all aspects of the library’s creation. Simultaneously, he attended to immediate needs delayed by the two-year absence of maintenance funding from the legislature, including sidewalks, sewers, and steam heat. For the new library, since time was of the essence, multiple copies of basic reference works such as dictionaries (including twenty copies of Webster’s in various editions) figured largely in the purchases for the initial collection. Interested local supporters, notably the well-known author and Normal neighbor Ella Higginson and Board of Trustee’s member and poet Frank Carleton Teck contributed copies of their works. As they arrived, new faculty members also donated books from their own collections and were invited to recommend favorite titles for immediate purchase.
Thus, on the first formal opening day, September 6, 1899, the school was able to present a library nearly equal to Dr. Mathes’ early promise, containing 800-1000 volumes, selected "with special reference to research work." In addition, the library housed the large collection of textbooks the state provided free to all students. To assure funding for future acquisitions, the Board of Trustees implemented the legislatively sanctioned Normal school library fee of $10 per student per year. Half of this fee directly supported a library fund for the purchase of new books. The other half was placed in a rebate account and returned at the close of the year, or when students left the institution, provided that books belonging to the school were returned in good condition ("natural wear excepted").
At its meeting on August 25, 1899, the Board had approved the appointment of Hattie B. Thompson of Tacoma as the school’s first librarian as well as stenographer of the school, commencing on September 5 at the salary of $30 per month. Although a senior student and not a trained librarian, Hattie Thompson was an experienced teacher whom the students were soon praising enthusiastically for her "happy faculty of ‘lending a hand’ to struggling ones" as well as for answering "hundreds of questions patiently every day." Under her tolerant direction, and with Principal Mathes’ continued devoted attention, the library flourished. By December, the student newspaper, The Normal Messenger, reported that there were 1,420 volumes, 250 more were on order, and there was still $400 unexpended in the library fund.
To the students’ delight, Miss Thompson agreed to stay on after graduating in June 1900. While she vacationed during that summer, Principal Mathes continued to order books and other materials for the library’s collection, including 60 periodicals "representing the best literature of the day." In September, The Messenger marveled that it was anticipated that 1,000 volumes would be added to the collection during the coming school year. With continued growth expected, and the limits of the original room doubtless already reached, the library had been moved upstairs into "the most pleasant rooms in the building," just above the main entrance and under the assembly room. The new area was capable of comfortably accommodating up to 80 library users at a time, and from the high northwest facing windows, must have offered a fine view of the broad expanse of water which pooled persistently from November through April in front of the building.
By the start of the Normal’s third year of operation, the library collections were described as including more than 3,000 volumes with circulation exceeding 400 volumes per month. During the summer of 1901, additional bookcases had been constructed to contain the increasing inventory, the walls of the library whitewashed ("kalsomined"), and "several large pictures hung." The legislative appropriation to the institution continued to include $1,000 per biennium for the library, and there was a steady increase in the acquisition fund generated by the required library fee as the student body grew. There seemed every reason for optimism regarding the library’s future.
In March 1901, however, the popular Hattie Thompson resigned, as The Messenger sorrowfully reported, to accept a teaching assignment in Seattle. Such was the general affection for her that "on the evening she left, a large crowd of students assembled at the Whatcom dock and accompanied her as far as Fairhaven." The new school year began with an "Acting Librarian" in place. Mrs. Ada B. Clothier was given a "hearty welcome" and credited for quickly learning most of the students’ names and faces, but the students immediately noted her sterner temperament. "Why does Mrs. Clothier object to the students carrying money in the library? Because money talks" constituted one mild Messenger reproof.