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Women in City Government

Librarian Mary "May" Banks: Addressing "Those in Power"

The Library was perhaps the only place where women found employment with little resistance. When the first Freeholders' Charter was ratified in October 1890, the Seattle Public Library was created as a branch of city government. Although unpaid, Mrs. A.B. Stewart and Mrs. J.C. Haines were appointed to the Library Commission in 1890.

Seattle Public Library
Seattle Public Library

The Seattle Public Library was housed at various locations in its early years, including the Yesler mansion at Third and James, which was destroyed by a fire in 1901. With the help of Carnegie funds, a new Central Library opened in 1906 between Fourth and Fifth at Madison and Spring.

Several women worked for the Seattle Public Library in its early years. In 1895, Miss Mary Banks was employed as Superintendent of Circulation, at a salary of $45 per month. Banks began working for the Library in 1893 and quickly moved from the Circulation Department to Reference, becoming Chief Reference Librarian. Known as "May," her reports bubble with energy and ideas.

reading room
Reading room

At the Library, she was responsible for inaugurating a "Seattle Authors" collection in 1908. Banks thought that the Library could request copies of books from local authors, with the goal of representing each local author with at least one book. Banks wrote in her 1908 annual report:

"Quite unforeseen to the originator of the idea, it has already become one of the attractions of the Library . . . Were it possible to have all of the works of even a few such authors [such] as Col. Chittenden, Mrs. E. W. Champney, Miss Adele Fielde, or others now residing here, it would make a showing that would, I believe, surprise not only non-residents, but those residents who consider themselves best informed about local authors."

In her 1909 report, Banks stated the "Seattle Authors Collection . . . proved one of the main drawing cards to the Library during the [Alaska Yukon Pacific] Exposition, the interest in it still continuing unabated."

Mt. Queets
Mt. Queets

Banks worked to establish the Washington State Library Association and was elected its first secretary. She was a charter member of The Mountaineers, and the first woman to reach the top of Mount Queets during the club's first annual outing to the Olympic Peninsula in 1907. Mary Banks was the first of four women to summit on the first ascent made from the west on August 1, 1907. The ascent was part of a six-week climbing trip chronicled by the editor of "The Mountaineer," Mary Banks.

Banks' last annual report reflects frustration with her inability to secure better resources for her department, despite pleas each year. She wrote of herself "...[I]t would appear that the head of this department had failed to convince those in power of even the most evident needs of the Reference Department, though so keenly aware of them herself. This is especially strange since she has quite the opposite reputation outside the library, to such an extent that when anything seems hopeless of accomplishment it is very frequently turned over to her, with some measure of success . . ."

Banks worked for the Library for 17 years, leaving in 1910 to work for the public service commission in New Jersey. She later worked in a library in New York City and was the librarian for the National Cash Register Company in Dayton, Ohio. She returned to Seattle, performing social work until her health failed. She died on May 29, 1917.

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