Everett Library’s Margaret Riddle is a touchstone to regional history

In 1977, Jimmy Carter was president. “Star Wars” wowed moviegoers. And the Seattle Mariners played their first ballgame in the Kingdome.

For some, even such recent events are ancient history. For historian Margaret Riddle, 1977 was the start of a rewarding career that helped breathe life into our region’s past.

Along with history specialist David Dilgard, her Everett Public Library co-worker, Riddle has spent 31 years researching and telling long-ago stories while preserving treasures for future generations.

At 66, Riddle will retire from her library job this week, but not from tireless efforts to build on Northwest history and make it more accessible to all. On her last day at work, she’ll celebrate with an open house Friday in the library’s Northwest Room, the domain she and Dilgard have shared since the 1991 remodeling of the library gave regional history a special place.

Settled in a comfortable chair in the book-lined Northwest Room on Tuesday, she talked about her work and the people who have walked through the doors over the years.

“It’s like an old study room, a place people want to come into — a quiet place. Then they find David and me answering the phone, and schmoozing with people,” Riddle said.

That’s an apt description of the upstairs Northwest Room, where visitors find history in tens of thousands of books, photographs and other items in the collection, and in daily interaction between information seekers and finders. It’s anything but a musty old place filled with forgotten things.

Among Riddle’s enduring contributions, in tandem with Dilgard, are oral histories of local people covering topics from immigrant experiences to the labor strife that exploded in the 1916 Everett Massacre that claimed seven lives on the city’s waterfront. Riddle has also been instrumental in the Women’s Legacy Project.

Begun in the 1990s by Ann Duecy Norman, a retired University of Washington social work professor, the project collected stories of well known and unsung women in Snohomish County. Norman was joined in the effort by Riddle and ­Louise Lindgren, now retired after serving as Snohomish County’s senior planner for historic preservation.

“I’ve known Margaret since we were all working on state centennial things in the 1980s,” said Lindgren, who lives in Index. “She has been my mentor, and an invaluable resource for everybody in the county. She does it with such grace. She has a willingness to step back and give information quietly, and allow other people to make waves. She does it with ­generosity of heart.”

Eileen Simmons, director of the Everett Public Library, cited Riddle’s acquisition of grants to preserve old insurance maps as one example of how her work will live on. Sanborn insurance maps show a bird’s-eye view of Everett structures in 1914 and in the 1950s.

“The physical artifacts were deteriorating,” Simmons said, describing how the maps were unbound pages. Riddle wrote one grant to study preservation for the library, and another grant that was used to coat the pages to make them durable and bind them into books.

“They’re beautiful, and will be good on into the future,” Simmons said. The maps are now online, where users can search and print the pages.

While Riddle will use her expertise writing and editing for HistoryLink, an online encyclopedia of regional history, the Everett Public Library will fill her position. “The Northwest Room is too important a place not to have it fully staffed. Both the city and the library strongly support the work the Northwest Room does,” Simmons said.

Those resources serve people looking for family history, house history and property records. “Sometimes people are just regulars,” Riddle said.

Dilgard, who’ll continue doing local historical research and public presentations, doesn’t envy anyone who’ll likely face longtime Northwest Room visitors seeking Riddle’s help. “In local heritage, it’s a game of ‘Who do you trust?’ People tend to look for a guru,” Dilgard said.

“It’s the connections you make in 30 years,” Riddle said.

In retirement, she looks forward to gardening, traveling with her husband and listening to music and audio books. Next month, she’ll be in Washington, D.C., to push for legislation favored by the League of Heritage Organizations.

“She has big, big shoes to fill,” Simmons said. “I tend to think nobody is irreplaceable, but Margaret comes awfully close.”

Open house for library historian

Everett Public Library history specialist Margaret Riddle will celebrate her retirement with an open house from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday in the Northwest Room of the library, 2702 Hoyt. Ave. The event is open to the public.

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or muhlstein@heraldnet.com

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