Seattle: Much more to this library than books

Road Journals Blog—While in Seattle to report VIA's current cover story, I had the great fortune to score a hotel room overlooking one of my favorite works of contemporary American architecture, Seattle's Central Library.

The 2004 building never fails to draw me inside its cantilevered, glass-and-steel-lattice space, and this trip was no exception. After happily wandering for an hour, taking in views of Elliott Bay and downtown skyscrapers but also of reading rooms filled with patrons, I stopped by the welcome desk on Level 3 to nose around their printed info and chat with the volunteer on duty there.

Seattle library's central branch. | Seattle Municipal Archives

"Have you seen all our art?" she asked. I said, no, I hadn't, and she handed me a self-guided-tour brochure.

The building, it turns out, is home not just to books but to some terrific art. The volunteer was particularly keen that I see one work in particular, a 1959 decorative screen from the previous Central Library that had just been re-installed in an alcove behind the Level 1 auditorium.

There's no shortage of interest in the library's interior. | rxb/Flickr

The Northwest Screen, as it's known, is a tour-de-force of art glass, cast bronze, and enamel on brass. Measuring more than 8 feet high and 27 feet long, it was created by James H. FitzGerald (1910-1973), a leading Pacific Northwest painter and sculptor who was a precursor to the region's most famous living glass artist, Dale Chihuly.

The range of art at the library is wide. There are video installations, textile works, a sculptural fountain, and an entire wooden floor that is itself a conceptual work of art. One intriguing electronic work maps the library's circulation on six plasma screens, providing a collective computerized snapshot of what the community is reading at a given moment.

Next time you're in Seattle, pop into the Central Library and check out the art, as well as the books.

Christopher Hall wrote the cover story about Seattle for the May/June 2011 issue of VIA.

This blog post was first published in May 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.