When the Central Library opened in May 2004, The Stranger responded with a heavily illustrated 1,018-word joke. The headline: "Killer Library." The subheadline: "The New Central Library Offers Civic Validation, a Huge Collection of Material, and a Staggering Number of Startling New Ways to Die." We mentioned the hazards of a certain dizzying lookout on the 10th floor. We mentioned "dismemberment, strangulation, and other tragedies associated with escalator technology." We mentioned chromatophobia (fear of colors), cleisiophobia (fear of being locked in an enclosed space), bathophobia (fear of depths or sinking), and barophobia (fear of being crushed). And, just to underline that we were kidding, we mentioned the hazards of thinking: "Ideas have never been safe or stable. They are as violent as the library itself. Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Gandhi were men of ideas. Look what happened to them."
What we didn't say in that piece—because it would have ruined the joke—was that we were astounded by the library, at a loss for what to say about it, inarticulate in the face of its beauty, its originality of function, its genius. It's staffed by geniuses, too, as anyone who's ever had a conversation with City Librarian Deborah Jacobs knows, or picked up the phone and dialed the Quick Information Line (386-4636), or logged into the 24-hour librarian feature on the website (www.spl.org). I once called the Quick Information Line because I was writing about a homeless poet selling his work out on the streets of Capitol Hill and I wanted to know the technical description for the poetic meter in the line "A ghetto of crack is a valley of dope." The librarian who happened to pick up didn't put me on hold or ask a colleague or anything. He just said, "Oh, that's anapestic tetrameter."
The resources at the library for people who write or make art or films or theater are staggering. When Sarah Rudinoff, who won a Genius Award in theater in 2004, was creating The Last State, her one-woman show about Hawaii, she spent untold hours at the Central Library reading transcripts on microfiche of the Senate hearings on Hawaii's statehood, parts of which she used as dialogue. When Gabriel Baron, who won a Genius Award in theater in 2005, was starting his theater career and couldn't afford internet, he used the library's computers to look for work and send out résumés; more recently, Baron spent time in the library reading Troilus and Cressida, the Cliffs Notes for Troilus and Cressida, and various essays about Troilus and Cressida's status as one of Shakespeare's "problem plays," because there's a production of Troilus and Cressida he might direct soon. Jonathan Raban, who won a Genius Award in literature in 2006, likes taking long walks around the book spiral and discovering things he wouldn't think to look for. In the basement of the previous library, he once found an original copy of 1769's An Universal Dictionary of the Marine by William Falconer, which Raban used when putting together The Oxford Book of the Sea. The book was so old and bound so beautifully he felt like a vandal opening it up to place it on the photocopier. "My sense is there were and probably still are unrecognized treasures in the undisplayed collection," Raban says. "I'm a huge enthusiast of the library." He's taken advantage of the writers' room, too.
That's the other thing about the Central branch of the Seattle Public Library. It doesn't just have books (roughly one million), government documents (millions), DVDs (thousands), sheet music (more than 150,000 pieces), magazines (the library's print collection of Gentleman's Quarterly goes back to the 1790s), newspapers on microfilm (the entire run of the Seattle Times, the Seattle P-I, the New York Times, as well as lesser-remembered newspapers like the Seattle Star and the Puget Sound Mail), maps (more than 10,000), the image collection (one librarian told me, "We have a much bigger image collection than Google"), and databases (one of them, Play Index, allows you to search 31,000 plays based on whatever criteria you want—subject matter, size of the cast, etc.). It also has practice space with keyboards and such (for musicians), the Eulalie and Carlo Scandiuzzi Writers' Room (for writers), and the Kreielsheimer Foundation Performance Arts Room (for rehearsals), all of which are free to anyone. The only requirement is that you book them in advance.
Not to mention Seattle Public Library's programming—hundreds of readings and lectures per month, zine symposiums, film festivals, and music-and-art events for teens. There's a customizable calendar of events at www.spl.org.
This is the fifth year The Stranger has given a check for $5,000 and an obscene amount of attention to a filmmaker, a writer, a visual artist, a theater artist, and an arts organization making startling, original work in Seattle, and then thrown a party in their honor. This year's winners—Linas Phillips, Alex Schweder, Heather McHugh, Amy Thone, and Strawberry Theatre Workshop—are profiled on the pages that follow. (For profiles of past winners, as well as reporting on previous years' parties, visit www.thestranger.com/genius.) It's hard to convey how excited we are to be celebrating the fifth annual Stranger Genius Awards at the Central Library, the Seattle institution with the most legitimate claim to this word we keep throwing around.
The entrance to the party is at the Fourth Avenue doors, although most of the celebrating will take place in the Living Room on the Fifth Avenue level, the Mixing Chamber that overlooks the Living Room, and the red corridors on the level in between. The party would not be possible without the generous contributions of Smartwater, Crave Foods, Trophy Cupcakes, Whole Foods, and Cameron Catering. The party is Friday, September 14, opens to the general public at 9:30 p.m., is 21+, and features live music by Velella Velella and the Blow. Like every day at the library, it's free.
edited by Christopher Frizzelle and Brendan Kiley
photos by David Belisle • ILLUSTRATIONS BY Eric Hanson
LIGHT BULB illustration by Corianton Hale