The library can change a life. Just ask new UW Tacoma Library Director Annie Downey.
Type “library quotes” into your preferred search engine then click the images option. Chances are you’re now awash in a scrolling wallpaper of sleek graphic design and some variation of a chic, folksy or irreverent font that is meant to emphasize the sagacity of lines like Albert Einstein’s, “The only thing you have to know, is the location of the library” or Rita Mae Brown’s earnest, “When I got my library card, that’s when my life began.”
These words are powerful, but ring hollow, when devoid of context. The library we know today, the place where anyone can check out a book or get on the internet, the brick building where one can step inside to cool down on a hot day or pop in for an afternoon story time reading session with their kid, didn’t happen overnight, and is the result of decades-long advocacy by different communities.
Annie Downey, Associate Dean of University Libraries and the new Director of the University of Washington Tacoma Library, knows the twists and turns, the subtle details and prolonged drama that is the larger story. Downey understands the role libraries play and her words are no less profound just because they’re not Photoshopped for dramatic effect. “What we try to do is help students have better lives, that the focus really is on helping our students get an education that helps them improve their circumstances in some way,” she said.
A Calm, Cool, Quiet Place
Born in Illinois, Downey moved to Denison, Texas, in the northeast part of the state, at age 12. The second of four siblings, Downey says her family didn’t have a lot of money growing up. The local public library, with its free books and resources, played an important part in her development. “My mom took us to the library every two weeks to get books,” she said. “I used a computer for the first time at the library.”
In high school Downey went to the library to study or to meet up with friends. “It was one of the only places in small-town Texas that you could go as a teenager,” she said. The building also provided refuge from the Texas heat and from the turbulence of everyday life. “It was this calm, cool, quiet place,” said Downey.
Downey spent a lot of time in libraries but she largely viewed the institutions as homes where books lived. As an undergraduate, Downey pursued a degree in anthropology from the University of North Texas. “After graduation I was trying to decide what I wanted to do next,” she said. “My sister worked at a public library in Austin and we started talking about the work she was doing. I was looking for work that had a research component and a teaching component but wasn’t necessarily either of those completely.”
Downey returned to school and earned a master’s degree in library and information science as well as a Ph.D. in higher education administration from the University of North Texas. “I first started working in the library as a graduate student,” she said. “I really loved working with people at the reference desk and answering questions or helping students with their papers. The work really drew me in.”
Downey held different positions at UNT including Head of Reference and Instruction. She left that post in 2012 to become Associate College Librarian and Director of Research Services at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Downey worked at Reed for seven years before taking the role as Associate Provost and Director of the Armacost Library and Learning Commons at the University of Redlands in Southern California.
An Abridged Version of Library History
Libraries have been around in one form or another for thousands of years. The first libraries in the United States were subscription-based, meaning you had to pay to belong to one. Members of these clubs tended to be white, male and wealthy.
The idea that libraries should be open to the public and should be funded by tax revenue didn’t take off until industrialist Andrew Carnegie donated money to build more than 2,500 public libraries around the world, including more than 1,600 in the United States.
The city of Richmond, Virginia, rejected Carnegie funding for fear that Black citizens would be allowed access. A handful of segregated Carnegie libraries were built, but they were often smaller and offered fewer services than their counterparts. A number of activists were arrested in the 1950s and 60s while attempting to use “whites-only” library facilities.
University libraries in the United States started out as places to house old texts. The active lending of books to faculty, staff and students came later. Access to books and services was once reserved for those with some kind of connection to an institution. The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education as well as the Civil Rights Act opened the doors to academic libraries by opening the doors to colleges and universities to populations that were once denied entry.
A Changing Library
The Snoqualmie building on campus once housed massive transformers that supplied power to the city. A feed-and-grain warehouse and, later, a one-story cement-block manufacturing building used to live on the spot where the Tioga Library now resides. Many of the structures at UW Tacoma are on their second or third life. “I think the campus is incredible,” said Downey who started at UW Tacoma in May 2021. “The idea of taking a downtown and reinvigorating it by reusing buildings to make this university is really just fantastic.”
Downey comes to UW Tacoma during a time of transition, and not just in terms of leadership. The library is changing. Work on the Learning Commons started in February of this year and is slated to end in late September or early October. Once completed the Commons space will span Snoqualmie and Tioga Library, providing a home for the library as well as the Teaching and Learning Center and the Center for Equity & Inclusion. “I’m very excited to see how the staffs of these different departments can come together and create an experience for students that is very welcoming and inclusive and also provides students with a lot of different tools to succeed,” said Downey.
The Learning Commons with its emphasis on equity and access speaks to the university’s mission. “One of the things that really drew me here is that UW Tacoma is an urban-serving university,” said Downey. The new director hopes to build off the programs developed by former director Lauren Pressley and interim director Justin Wadland. Doing so will mean striking a balance between individuality and working as part of the larger University of Washington library system. “Being part of a larger system allows us to work with our colleagues at Seattle and Bothell on these kinds of bigger, more complicated library issues, while also getting to work in this smaller community, where we get to know our students and really get to know the faculty,” said Downey.
Here’s another string of words to look up: “books take you places.” There are a number of variations on this idea but the thought is that books — more specifically, reading — open up new worlds. This is true in Downey’s case, except it’s probably more accurate to say “libraries took her places.” Downey’s degrees in library science and education helped her see the world by giving her a path to different positions, positions that required traveling to professional workshops and conferences.
Earning those degrees, in many cases, meant using the library, both in Downey’s K-12 education and during her college career. “I was a low-income college student,” said Downey. “I did not have a lot of financial support, so I did all of my computer work in the library as well as all of my printing. I eventually figured out that I could get most of my textbooks from the library.”
Downey doesn’t mince words when it comes to the transformative impact of education and libraries' role in that process. “Education changed my life, both in terms of how I look at the world, and how I process the world, but also where I get to sit in the world,” she said. “The library is one of those places that does help to even the playing field.”