Fulfilling the Vision of Henry M. Suzzallo: The University of Washington Libraries

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[Photo of book: History of the Expedition]
  Lewis Meriwether. History of the expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clarke...during the years 1804-5-6. Philadelphia: Published by Bradford and Inskeep, and Abm. H. Inskeep...,1814. University of Washington Libraries Special Collections. First Edition as issued. Gift of Elisabeth C. Miller, 1989.

The UW Libraries provide the foundation on which all scholarship at the University builds. Today, the library system at the UW has holdings of over 5.5 million volumes, plus millions of manuscripts, microforms, maps, photographs, and materials in other formats.

The Libraries' resources in the humanities and fine arts are concentrated in the Suzzallo and Allen, and East Asia Libraries, and in the Art, Drama, and Music Libraries. Geographic coverage emphasizes the Americas, Europe including eastern Europe, the Near East, and the various areas of Asia.

The UW libraries ranks fifth among research institutions in the number of materials it loans. It ranks fourth in the size of its microform collections and second only to Columbia University in number of current serial publications.

But in contrast to its high status today, the library system, like the University itself, had a rather inauspicious beginning. The UW was founded in 1861-less than a decade after the Territory itself was established, and at a time when the settlers in the Seattle area numbered only in the hundreds. The obstacles to launching and running an institution of higher learning were, as one might imagine, quite formidable. In 1866, the first president of the University, William E. Barnard, lamented that

Education throughout the [Puget] Sound District is in an extremely backward condition-as an illustration: not one of the misses attending the university the first quarter, after our arrival, could accurately repeat the multiplication tables…Society is also greatly disorganized. Drunkenness, gambling, licentiousness, profanity…We have two distilleries, eleven drinking establishments, one bawdy house…These are the influences we have had to encounter in our efforts to build up an institution of learning. I need not say it is discouraging and well-nigh hopeless.footnote 1

[Selection of first editions] Selection of first editions and photographs from the Andrew and Frances Hilen Nineteenth Century Americana Collection.
Stephen Crane, Red Badge of Courage: an episode of the American Civil War. New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1985. (Crane's third book in original dust jacket.)

Nathaniel Hawthorne. Fanshawe: a tale. Boston: Marsh & Capen. Press of Putnam & Hunt, 1828.(Hawthorne's first book)

Amy Lowell. Dream drops or stories from fairyland by a dreamer. Printed for the author by Cupples & Hurd. Boston (1887). (Lowell's first book)

Emily Dickinson. Poems by Emily Dickinson. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1890. (First collection of Dickinson's poems)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The Belfrey of Bruges and other poems. Cambridge: John Owen, 1846, c1845. Postcard with portrait of Longfellow showing his birthplace, study and residence. Carte-de-visite of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Mathew Brady, 1862. University of Washington Libraries Special Collections.

The library system-and scholarship itself at the University-owes a great debt to the original vision of President Henry M. Suzzallo. When Suzzallo took office in 1915, the student population barely exceeded 3,000, and the faculty numbered just over 200. But within five years, Suzzallo had forged new links between the institution and the community, bringing the intellectual resources of the University to bear on real-world problems in areas important to the region such as fisheries, forestry, mining, and education. And the capstone would be a university library to rival any in the country.

Ground was broken for Suzzallo's proposed library in April of 1923. During that biennium, the library was given its first major book appropriation of $94,600. By 1925, the library's collections approached 150,000 volumes.

Suzzallo's new library opened in 1927, and was named for him after his death in 1933. Over the years, the library system expanded to various departments and campus units as the institution grew. By the 1950s, the system included over twenty branches. Under the leadership of President Charles M. Odegaard, the faculty increased from about 1,000 to over 2,400 and the library grew from 1 million to over 2 million volumes by 1973. By 1980, the libraries ranked 13th overall among major research libraries in the U.S. and Canada with a collection of over 4 million volumes. A major building expansion was completed in 1990 with the addition of the Kenneth S. Allen Library.

Today, with its multi-million volume collection and other unique materials, such as those contained in its Special Collections (see Special Collections and the University of Washington Libraries by Gary Menges, Head, Special Collections and Preservation Division), the UW library system is truly a precious resource for the institution, the State, and for scholarship in general.

  1. Faculty Handbook, University of Washington Libraries, 1996, revised.

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