A river runs through it: Renton Library. Photo credit: JiaYing Grygiel
Libraries used to be places where you went to check out a book or ask a question at the reference desk. Now, libraries are all that and much, much more, with a wide-ranging roster of activities, programs and events for kids and adults, as well as special attractions that make some of our local libraries bona fide tourist destinations. The best part? Everything is still free.
At the library, my two kids will gleefully collect a small mountain of books. It’s so empowering to pick out anything — anything! — they want and get to take it home. More than 460,000 people are Seattle Public Library cardholders, including my 5-year-old.
“We are in the part of the country where people really do value libraries and really do use their libraries,” says Julie Acteson, community relations and marketing director for the King County Library System.
Seattle voters approved a $196.4 million bond measure in 1998 that paid for a new downtown library, added four brand-new libraries and replaced or renovated 22 neighborhood branches.
In the King County Library System, a $172 million capital bond measure approved by voters in 2004 paid for 15 new libraries, 11 expanded libraries, 13 renovated libraries and two parking-expansion projects.
All this investment has added up to some showstopping libraries around the Puget Sound region. Find out which library is shaped like a boat, which has a rooftop garden and which offers you a view of salmon swimming underneath it. Building a day around a library visit is a good way to explore a new neighborhood — and to encourage your kids to love books.
Central LIbrary Photo credit: JiaYing Grygiel
1. Central Library
1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle
The Central Library, which opened in 2004 to a collective gasp from the architecture community, is an iconic building at the heart of the Seattle library system, and its children’s section is so vast, it’s practically like its own branch.
Children’s librarian Jenny Craig loves the Central Library because of the scope of the collection — “We have most things” — and the open play areas. There are blocks, puzzles and Magna-Tiles galore in the hot pink zone. On most weekdays, the toddler and preschool set has the run of the place, because few families live downtown.
Take the elevator up to the 10th floor. There you’ll find a dizzying lookout point where you can peer all the way down to the lobby. On level four, the walls, ceilings and floors are all painted trippy shades of deep pink and red.
Most of the library’s nonfiction collection is located in a “book spiral,” composed of four levels connected by a continuous gentle ramp. Big call numbers are clearly printed on the floor. It’s a great walk for little ones learning digits (and it’s stroller-friendly, too).
Day trip: Two blocks from the library is Columbia Center, where you can get a 360-degree view of the city from the observation deck on the 73rd floor. We like the (free) view from the Starbucks on the 40th floor just as much.
Also fun for families is the first floor of the Seattle Art Museum, with a free art-making space and a hidden mural.
Renton Library. Photo credit: JiaYing Grygiel
2. Renton Library
100 Mill Ave. S., Renton
The most distinctive feature of King County Library System’s Renton branch — which was built in 1966 and renovated in August 2015 — is that it’s built over the Cedar River. The library rests on 12 giant columns on an 80-foot bridge.
The stunning location has its challenges. To wash the windows on the building’s north side, window washers have to rappel down the side like Spiderman.
The interior of the library is one giant open space with a row of study rooms in the back. You can sit by the floor-to-ceiling windows with a book and watch the mallards paddling in the river.
Stop by the library during Renton River Days in July to watch rubber ducks float downstream. In the early fall, you can see salmon making their annual migration.
Day trip: The library sits on the edge of Liberty Park, with a playground, baseball field and skate park. On the other side of Interstate 405, Cedar River Park includes a community center, a theater and a big outdoor swimming complex (open seasonally) with two corkscrew water slides.
Suzzallo Library. Photo credit: JiaYing Grygiel
3. Suzzallo Library
University of Washington, 4000 15th Ave. N.E., Seattle
Everyone calls it the “Harry Potter room.” With its Gothic details, vaulted ceilings, stained-glass windows and ornate bookcases lined with 16,000 books, the Reading Room at the University of Washington’s (UW) Suzzallo Library does look like the stuff of fiction.
At the entrance to the Reading Room, you’re greeted by a giant purple sign reading “Entering Silent Zone.”
It’s quiet enough to hear a pin drop. Tour groups and selfie-taking visitors stream in and out of the Reading Room, but if your child doesn’t have a mute button, expect to incur the fury of Reading Room users. On the day we visited, however, library staff was friendly and welcoming. Stroller? Here’s the elevator. First visit? Here’s a brochure.
Just outside the Reading Room is one of the world’s biggest books, a photo book about Bhutan. The pages are the size of a dining table and are turned about once a month.
Tip: The University of Washington is public, so anyone can visit the library and use the materials on site. You can also get a free temporary UW NetID to use the wireless network.
Day trip: The UW’s cherry trees typically bloom through April in The Quad behind the library (on Twitter, follow @uwcherryblossom for blossom status). The campus is also home to two museums that are good for kids: The Henry Art Gallery, now free on Sundays; and the Burke Museum (free on the first Thursday of the month), which covers natural history and culture. If you have a dinosaur fan, the Burke’s playroom is a must.
Ballard Library. Photo credit: JiaYing Grygiel
4. Ballard Library
5614 22nd Ave. N.W., Seattle
The Ballard branch is the Chia Pet of the Seattle library system. On top of its roof is 4 inches of soil planted with more than 18,000 Northwest native plants. It’s a roof that needs to be mowed and have its weeds whacked.
To see for yourself, ask library staff to take you upstairs to look around, or use a periscope on the main level to check out the roof; look for two unmarked slits in the wall, just to the right as you walk in the main entrance.
The library, which opened in 2005, is one of the busiest branches in the city. Last summer, the library closed for six weeks for renovations, which included replacing carpeting, adding outlets to the tables and lowering the children’s bookshelves for better sightlines. The kids’ section includes Magna-Tiles, big Legos and regular story times.
Day trip: The library is located in the heart of Ballard’s retail core. Within a three-block radius, you can pick your poison: Cupcake Royale, Clover (toy store), Secret Garden Books and Sweet Mickey’s candy shop. We love getting the $7.75 extra-large bowl of pho beef noodle soup from Than Brothers on Market Street. For free fun, check out the skate park and fountains (open seasonally) just outside the library at Ballard Commons Park.
Sammamish Library. Photo credit: JiaYing Grygiel
5. Sammamish Library
825 228th Ave. S.E., Sammamish
Bring your thermos of cocoa and settle into a comfy seat by the fireplace. You might feel like you are at a fancy lodge — one that happens to be stuffed with books.
The Sammamish Library, which opened in 2010, is modern, light and bright, with walls of windows and yes, a glass-enclosed gas fireplace. It’s a happening place; Sammamish is the fourth-busiest library in the King County system. The children’s area is partially corralled by a row of bookcases, which is helpful if your children tend to be escape artists.
Assistant operations manager John Allman has worked throughout the King County Library System, but the Sammamish Library is at the top of his list. “I have to say, this is about as good as it gets,” Allman says.
Day trip: Pack your swim stuff. Next door to the library is a YMCA that opened last April; it boasts a family swimming pool with a two-story waterslide, lazy river and a shallow wading area for tots. If the weather is nice, bring your scooters and balance bikes instead. The library sits on the edge of a 25-acre, two-level park called Sammamish Commons, with a skate park, playground, swings, sand pit and spray park.
Bellevue Library. Photo credit: JiaYing Grygiel
6. Bellevue Library
1111 110th Ave N.E., Bellevue
It’s the biggest library in the King County Library System (80,000 square feet) and has the largest staff (six children’s librarians alone). Sometimes, size does matter.
The building opened in 1993, and 24 years later, its open footprint still feels modern and inviting. A grand staircase connects the library’s three levels. Skylights and big windows allow in lots of light and views, including — on the day we visited — a view of three cops patting down a man against the library wall outside. (That’s city life for you.)
The children’s section is located on the first floor, offering easier access for the stroller-pushing crowd, but unfortunately, it’s also the area with the least amount of natural light. Look for the story time room’s special child-size entrance. The double doors lead to a short tunnel lined with tiles drawn by children, illustrating Pooh, the Cat in the Hat and others beloved storybook characters.
Other special features include a huge current newspaper and magazine section, a dedicated Northwest history collection and 362 free parking spots in the adjacent three-story garage.
Day trip: It’s easy to pair a visit to the Bellevue Library with play time at the brand-new KidsQuest Children’s Museum, which is located just on the other side of a playfield from the library. Parking tip: Library parking, unfortunately, is for patrons only (they will issue citations). If you're planning on also going to KidsQuest, you'll need to park elsewhere; here are parking tips.
Beacon Hill. Photo credit: JiaYing Grygiel
7. Beacon Hill
2821 Beacon Ave. S., Seattle
At some libraries, crying either gets us a big ol’ stink eye or even kicked out. When my 1-year-old started wailing at the Beacon Hill branch, the woman at the checkout counter leaned over with a tin of stickers. Thank you.
Children’s librarian Diane Cowles has worked at the Beacon Hill Library for 27 years, starting in its old storefront location. She’s seen kids grow up and then bring in their kids. “It’s always had a very welcoming feel, because it’s always been a neighborhood of immigrants and refugees,” Cowles says of the diverse neighborhood (more than two-thirds of Beacon Hill’s residents are people of color).
The architecture of the building echoes that warmth. The library is shaped like a giant ship, and stepping inside is like walking into the belly of an overturned boat. Wood and stone materials keep the vibe cozy, and big windows flood the interior with light. The branch, which opened in 2004, was refurbished in January.
Day trip: Start by taking Link light rail in; there’s a stop just across the street from the library. After you’ve gotten your fill of books, check out the snack options at Despi Delite Bakery, a Filipino eatery complete with cheerful aunties and mini purple ube rolls, or Fresh Flours, where you can get your Japanese-inspired flaky pastry with a side of ambiance. Jefferson Park, less than a mile south of the library, is every little kid’s dream come true. Look for zip lines, a climbing mountain with a bridge, a splash park, paved loops for bike riding and even a food forest for fun foraging.
Elisabeth C. Miller Library. Photo credit: JiaYing Grygiel
8. Elisabeth C. Miller Library
3501 N.E. 41st St., Seattle
It’s the library no one knows about, and the nicest people work there. I heard that tip from a children’s librarian, and I had to check out the Elisabeth C. Miller Library at the Center for Urban Horticulture.
The Miller Library is a horticulture library, and is a great resource for anyone who likes plants and nature. Once a month, the library hosts a children’s story time, followed by an art activity.
And yes, it has a children’s section, a sunny nook with more than 700 kids’ books. Topics are wide-ranging: bees, garden animals, wildlife, flower and vegetable gardens, forests, seeds, weather and climate, birds and composting. The book spines are color-coded for age appropriateness.
Anyone can register to check out books at the Miller Library. The library is free and open to the public. There is even a free parking lot.
Day trip: After book time, a hike is in order. Look for five display gardens around the building campus, including a fragrance garden. My kids also loved the Yesler Swamp boardwalk trail, which is a 15-minute loop popular with bird-watchers, just one trail among 74 acres of nature trails. For lunch, University Village, a two-minute drive away, is the closest place to buy food (hello, Din Tai Fung and Molly Moon’s!).