New Library in Seattle Tries a Novel Idea: Books

In Seattle, a new private library -- the first of its kind in a century -- is based on the throwback idea of having a quiet place to read.
by | February 2016
One of the three reading rooms. (Karen Steichen)

These days, public libraries are as likely to have video production studios and 3-D printers as they are shelves of books. One library in San Diego is pushing things even further, with a new biotech lab, where patrons can examine cells under microscopes and even extract and copy DNA.

But in Seattle, a new private library is offering a surprising old-fashioned amenity: a quiet place to sit and read a book.

Called Folio, the nonprofit membership library opened last month, just a block from the city’s Rem Koolhaas-designed public library, with about 300 members. Well-established “athenaeum” libraries -- institutions devoted to literary or scientific study, like the libraries in Boston; Providence, R.I.; and elsewhere -- can boast 200-year-old collections and cultivate somewhat of an elite status.

But Folio, which bills itself as the first new athenaeum library in more than a century, has memberships as low as $10 a month, and its chief aim is to be a place where book lovers and writers can congregate -- albeit quietly.

Located in a historic downtown building, Folio’s growing collection of about 15,000 books is built on private donations. In addition to comfortable reading rooms with good lighting, it offers afternoon and evening programming and separate workrooms for writers. “The aim is to recreate an old idea with new wrinkles,” says founder David Brewster. “It’s really what libraries were before the public library.”

Indeed, when public libraries first appeared in America in the late 1700s, they served a similar purpose. But as the institutions have evolved, their mission to educate has expanded beyond books and reading. Particularly in the past few decades, public libraries have responded to the role technology has played in changing how people learn and educate. Starting with computers for conducting research on the Internet, libraries’ missions have expanded rapidly to other areas to spur creative thought, innovation and entrepreneurship. Today that means podcast studios, video classrooms and e-readers alongside -- or, in some cases, instead of -- old-school tomes. “We realized there were opportunities to be at the center of community learning,” says Sari Feldman, president of the American Library Association. “So libraries are taking different directions based on what the community needs and interests are.”

Far from competing for readers with Seattle’s public library, Brewster envisions Folio as a book-focused partner. His nonprofit has already hosted a pre-event reception for one of the public library’s author engagements, and he hopes more collaborations are on the way. Ultimately he sees the institution as a cultural contributor to downtown and a place beyond the city’s trendy bars and coffee shops for people to meet. “We’re for people who love books,” he says, “and for people who love people who love books.”