When Helen Perry moved to the Spokane Valley in 1973, she was raising five children alone. She came for a job as a librarian at the Spokane County Library District’s Valley branch and ended up gaining a family.
Perry and fellow librarians from the branch would gather for potluck dinners on Friday nights. They played volleyball at her house on Sundays. And during the week, they helped patrons find materials at the public library, an institution Perry calls “a cornerstone of democracy.”
“There was a lot of camaraderie because we knew we were fighting the good fight,” she said.
This year, the district celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Valley library, its first branch. It will commemorate the birthday with an open house on Wednesday.
Before the Valley branch was built, the district provided library service for county residents out of bookmobiles and at the Spokane Public Library. The structure built at the branch’s current location would take a new shape later, but the site has been the home for library services since the year the first McDonald’s restaurant opened and the show “Gunsmoke” debuted on television.
After a major renovation in 1986 that more than doubled the branch’s space, the library saw a spurt in activity, said Priscilla Ice, who was branch manager from 1978 to 2003. There were a couple of days when the branch checked out more than 4,000 items, breaking records, she said.
But the biggest shake-ups to the library have been courtesy of technological advancements, Ice said. She described her tenure as branch manager as “pretty much 25 years of nothing but change.”
In the late 1970s, the branch replaced the card catalog system with microfiche, putting it on the cutting edge of libraries. A decade later, a computer-based catalog replaced the microfiche.
“Then, the Internet came,” Ice said.
Undoubtedly, 2004 will go down as one of the stormier years in branch history. Since the city of Spokane Valley incorporated in 2003, it has contracted with the district for library services. The city opened up the 2005 contract to competition from private companies last year. The city council chose the district for the job, but didn’t agree with the method of calculating the cost of the contract that the district offered in its proposal. The district came close to handing out pink slips and closing the Valley branch because the Spokane Valley contract accounts for about one-third of its budget.
The situation was resolved last month.
When librarians recall their memories of the branch, though, they mostly talk about former patrons and colleagues and about funny moments.
Michael Wirt, the district’s director since 1980, remembered a scene that would sometimes repeat itself. Before the building was remodeled, the restrooms sat in the middle of the main floor just behind the checkout area. Unfortunately a toilet in the men’s room often overflowed.
“Right below it was the (community) meeting room,” Wirt said. “Every so often when something was going on in the meeting room there would be a ‘drip.’”
Librarians remembered their colleague Lois Watson, an “institution” who worked there from the 1960s through at least the 1980s. She died last year after retiring several years ago.
Ice recalled a group of retired men who came in almost every day to read the newspaper and talk to the staff.
And Perry remembered a slower era, when people would keep a handwritten list of books they read and their “reading advisers,” as they were called, recommended new books along the theme of the others. Although the pace was too quick for this when she started working there, there were rumors that Valley librarians before her were able to knit between helping patrons.
“The evolution of the Valley branch sort of mirrors the evolution of our whole society,” Perry said. “How many people do you see knitting lately?”
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