New Library Sounds Great, But So is the Old One


Call me sentimental, but I like the old library.
A recent Statesman story about plans for a new, state-of-the-art library quoted a newcomer to Boise as saying that her first visit to the Downtown library “was so depressing I almost turned around and left.”
A reference to what was described as cramped, outdated quarters. The new library the city is planning will be larger, more attractive and have more to offer. It’s overdue, and if it’s even half as good as described it will be a great addition to Downtown.
But as we look forward to a glittering new library, it seems fitting to reflect on what the old one has done for us and meant to us.
The newcomer is entitled to her opinion, and it’s probably justified. The old library on Capitol Boulevard is just that – old. It may well be that in the greater library world, it’s a dinosaur.
But depressing? Compared with the library that preceded it, it’s positively exhilarating. The Carnegie Library, at Eighth and Washington streets, was Boise’s library from 1905 until 1973. It was small, dimly lit, and, well, depressing. It’s since been renovated as offices, but at the end of its run as a library it was dated and then some.
Late Statesman columnist Bob Lorimer described a last visit there as being “sorta’ like moving out of the old family home. … Maybelle Wallan and Marilyn McConaughey turned the lights on for Tim Woodward and me so we could get a final peek before the final rites were intoned.”
An event erased entirely from my memory banks.
The news that it would be replaced with what we now know as the Downtown or main library met with almost universal approval. The city bought what was then the Salt Lake City Hardware Building on Capitol Boulevard and converted it to a library at a fraction of what it would have cost to build a new library. It was one of the best bargains the city ever got.
Its opening was big news. Compared with the Carnegie Library, it was cheerful, spacious, inviting. It seemed positively huge. The Statesman called it “a showcase,” offering “more space and services, comfortable seating, listening spaces and meeting rooms”.
Lorimer described it as “pretty fancy,” but confessed to having a soft spot in his heart for the old one.
As I do for the Downtown library, now destined to become a memory.
One of its attributes was that as demands on it increased, it could be expanded at relatively little expense. Initially only the first floor was used. As Boise’s population grew, the second and third floors were converted from warehouse space to library space.
The main library has enriched its patrons’ lives with, obviously, books, movies, music, magazines, reference resources, computers, Internet access and meeting rooms. It has a recording studio and a children’s section that once boasted a story well with a secret door. The fourth floor houses Learning Lab offices. Activities its has hosted have covered the spectrum from classes and public hearings to book signings and model railroad shows.
On a recent visit, it struck me how much of my own experience is tied up in the library. The Marge Ewing Idaho Room, previously the Northwest Room, is where I spent countless hours doing research for a biography of an Idaho author, which sold dozens of copies. It and other of my books are on the library’s shelves.
Ewing is a longtime library supporter and was a member of the city council when I was The Statesman’s local government reporter. She was a straight shooter who didn’t play politics and was always willing to give a rookie reporter a break. I remember her fondly.
Hanging on a wall nearby is a painting of Boise’s old city hall, done by late Boise artist John Collias. John was one of my oldest and dearest friends. I can’t walk by that painting without thinking of him, and missing him.
I can’t begin to estimate the number of books from the main library that have provided me with inestimable pleasure – novels from Abbey to Zola, biographies, mysteries, books by regional writers, obscure writers, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners.
I’m drinking coffee from a library cup while writing this. It was a gift for giving a talk there. The cup is decorated with the now famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view), “Library!” logo. I think the logo is pure genius. With a single punctuation mark, it conveys enthusiasm for books, reading, knowledge.
None of this is to say that I’m opposed to replacing the library. Downtown needs a new library, and the plans for it are enough to make any library patron’s heart beat quicker. It would be in the same, Capitol Boulevard location, which is perfect for a library, and would include more space, a coffee shop, a rooftop garden, a small theater, more parking and a view of the Boise River, something conspicuously lacking in the current library.
The sooner they build it, the better. I’ll even donate a few bucks to the cause. But as we look forward to what will be the valley’s newest and largest public library, we should be mindful of all the old one has done for us. We’re lucky to have had it.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Statesman and is posted on the following Mondays. Got an idea for a column subject for him? Contact him at


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