Text Size:   A+ A- A   •   Text Only
Find     
Site Image

Origins of the Oregon State Library
Origins of the Oregon State Library
Jim Scheppke, State Librarian
 
Written on the occasion of the celebration of the State Library Centennial, January 27, 2005
 
 
The first, and certainly the greatest, Oregon State Librarian, Cornelia Marvin Pierce, had at least two occasions to reflect on the origins of the State Library.  And when she did, she began the story with her arrival in Oregon in August of 1905. For example, in her “resignation message” that appeared in the Library’s biennial report for 1926-28, under the heading “Library Beginnings” Pierce wrote:
 
May I remind you that it was on August 1, 1905, that I began my library service in Oregon, with a clear field, large opportunity, and two thousand dollars a year to be devoted to the cause of library development in a state with no state library except a law library, no free books available for any person in Oregon except for those fortunate ones who lived in Portland, Salem, and Eugene, and only one of these maintained a tax-supported library?
 
Another occasion was a speech that Pierce wrote that was read at the dedication of the State Library Building on April 3, 1939, where once again Pierce had little to say about the events that brought her to Oregon in August, 1905, though she does pause, in recounting her many accomplishments, “to recall the names and contributions of those who fought by my side,” most notably her late friend and professional colleague, Mary Frances Isom, “gifted Librarian of the Portland Library, an associate whose generous nature urged her to serve beyond the borders of her own library territory, and to whose eager advocacy of the library cause Oregon is most greatly indebted.”  Later on in the speech Pierce returns to her theme that library development in Oregon was something that she and her associates had to fight for.  Pierce relished a good fight, and in her speech she quotes Theodore Roosevelt in summing up her career at the State Library: “The noblest sport this world affords is aggressive fighting for a great cause.”
 

Cornelia Marvin Pierce
It is clear that Pierce saw herself in the heroic mold of Roosevelt, and thus was not inclined to dwell on the precursors to her considerable achievements.  But in fact, there were a number of clear historic trends that converged in Oregon in 1905 and led to the establishment of the Oregon Library Commission.  Oregon was one of 25 states that, between 1890 and 1915, established state library commissions to lead the development of public and school libraries, and the Oregon Library Commission was closely modeled after one of these.
 
Before tracing these origins, however, it might be best to start with the other “Oregon State Library” that had its beginnings in 1850, and, confusingly, bears little relation to the Oregon State Library that celebrates its centennial in 2005.
 
This Oregon State Library began as the Territorial Library.  It was the “law library” that Cornelia Marvin Pierce dismissively referred to in the one-sentence summary of “library beginnings” in her resignation message.  On August 4, 1846, Congress appropriated $5,000 for a library to be maintained at Oregon City, seat of the territorial government. The books were purchased in New York City and included mostly law books, but also books dealing with politics, education, history and agriculture.  It wasn’t until 1850 that the Territorial Legislature provided for a state librarian who was appointed by the assembly and who organized the library in that year.  An amendment was passed in 1851 requiring that the state librarian be elected annually by the assembly.  When the capital was moved to Salem, the library moved to the new State Capitol. But in 1855, in the week after Christmas, the Capitol was destroyed in a fire, and along with it, the entire library collection, except for the few books that were checked out.
 
The 1856 Legislature asked the Congress for an appropriation of $20,000 to replace the Territorial Library collection, but the Congress appropriated only $500.  With this small amount of money, a small law library was reestablished.  After statehood in 1859, the library continued to struggle for resources.  The state librarian continued to be appointed by the Legislature, but in 1864, he was placed under the supervision of the Secretary of State.  In 1872, the state librarian, in his biennial report, summed up the situation that the library found itself in throughout the 19th century: “[The library was] one of the most constantly and consistently neglected institutions of the state — inferior to the library of many respectable villages in the eastern states.”  However, it should be noted that according to the 1876 United States Bureau of Education Report, Public Libraries in the United States of America, the State Library had the largest collection of any library in the state, with 5,257 volumes.  The library at Pacific University in Forest Grove ran a close second with 5,500 volumes. Most of the other eleven “public” libraries in 1876 (i. e., libraries not in private homes or private subscription libraries) had only a few hundred volumes.
 
In her 1939 speech at the dedication of the State Library Building, Cornelia Marvin Pierce recalls “finally winning the name Oregon State Library” for the Oregon Library Commission.  This happened in 1913.  By that time the “law library,” as Pierce referred to it, included 40,000 volumes of general non-fiction books, in addition to the legal reference collection and state and Federal documents.  On June 3, 1913, the legislature passed a bill to create the Supreme Court Library, under the direction of the Oregon Supreme Court, and including all of the law books and legal reference materials of the former Oregon State Library.  The bill also provided for the transfer of the general collection and the documents collection to the Oregon Library Commission, and directed that the Commission be renamed the Oregon State Library. The transfer occurred in February, 1914, and both libraries took up quarters in the new Supreme Court Building, with the new Oregon State Library on the first floor and the Supreme Court Library on the second floor.
 

Reading Room
As should be clear from this brief account, today’s Oregon State Library only bears the name of the Oregon State Library that existed from 1850 to 1913. It is the Supreme Court Library, today known as the State of Oregon Law Library, that can properly be said to trace its history back to the Territorial Library of 1850.  The primary mission of the Territorial Library as a legal and reference library for the judicial and legislative branches is still at the core of the mission of the State of Oregon Law Library.  The only significant connection between today’s State Library and the 19th century State Library, besides the name, is what remains of the collection that was transferred in 1914.
 
If the origins of today’s State Library are not to be found in its 19th century namesake, where are they to be found?  For the answer, we must look at the evolution of state library services in other states, where we will find that Oregon followed a well-trodden path.
 
Many other states in the 19th century had a state library, most of which bore a strong resemblance to Oregon’s 19th century State Library in that they were primarily law libraries that served state assemblies and other elected officials and the courts.  The state libraries in colonial states such as South Carolina, Virginia, and Pennsylvania can trace their histories back to colonial times.  Until they were consolidated in 1816, Pennsylvania had three state libraries serving the executive branch, the House and the Senate. These early state libraries were most active in collecting the statutes passed by other states, and in 1811, Massachusetts led an effort to begin a system of exchange of state statutes.  In 1813 the Congress passed the first law directing that free copies of federal laws, journals, and documents be distributed to each state.  This helped to stimulate the development of state libraries in other states such as Ohio (1817), New York (1818), Indiana (1825), and Michigan (1828). 
 
Library historian Wayne Wiegand summed up the condition of state libraries by the end of the Civil War this way:
 
Generally, collections were inadequately supported, haphazardly housed, infrequently used, and grew mostly through gifts and exchange.  They were managed (often indifferently) from the Secretary of State’s office, and usually served state officials only. State libraries were indeed state supported, but since their use was not state mandated, and since no one could prove that the government or general welfare of one state was better than another because the former had a superior state library, officials in charge of these agencies had difficulty finding a persuasive argument for increased appropriations.
 
Wiegand is especially critical of the leadership of 19th century state libraries, that consisted mostly of untrained and unqualified political appointees who could not see much beyond the limited aims of their libraries to collect mostly free legal research materials and Federal documents.
 
It was leadership of a different kind that came to the New York State Library in 1889 and began to transform that state library into a model of what state libraries in other states, including Oregon, were to become in the early 20th century.

Melvil Dewey
Melvil Dewey will probably stand as the greatest American librarian in history.  While most known for the decimal classification system that is still in use in most public and school libraries, the decimal system was just one of a long list of innovations, among them the idea of the state library as the agency best suited to see to the development of school and public library services within a state.
 
Dewey’s invention of what is now known as “library development services” can only be understood in the context of the broader “public library movement” that began throughout New England in the mid-19th century, most notably in the founding of the Boston Public Library in 1848.  A related development at the time was the establishment of tax-supported public schools and compulsory school attendance laws.  Public libraries were seen as a logical extension of the public school system — a “people’s university” where anyone could continue their education, once their public schooling was completed.  This new idea that all citizens needed to be provided with a tax-supported public library was widely accepted, at least in the Northeast, by the time Dewey undertook to develop the New York State Library in accordance with his vision.  Dewey created the first library school to train librarians, mostly young and female.  He broadened his library’s collections so that they could be shared with developing libraries in his state, collecting books in the health sciences, children’s literature and even a “Women’s Library.”  He pioneered, in 1893, what would become, a little over a decade later, a major service for the Oregon State Library. His “traveling libraries,” were collections of 100 general interest books packed into specially made wooden crates that were rotated among small towns and rural areas. Their purpose was to begin to satisfy the need for reading materials until local public libraries could be established.
 
Dewey tried to interest other state librarians in his library development efforts, but with little success.  In 1889 he invited his colleagues to the American Library Association Conference in St. Louis.  Only nine state librarians attended the meeting. Nevertheless, Dewey was successful in having them agree to establish the National Association of State Librarians with Dewey as the group’s first President.  The Association, however, turned out to be ineffectual, and by 1898 Dewey complained in a letter to a library colleague that “most of our state librarians are asleep.”

Traveling Library
The political appointees who ran state libraries in the late 19th century were mostly uninterested in an expanded role to serve in the vanguard of the public library movements in their states.  Their constituents were legislators and judges and other elected officials, most of whom were similarly indifferent to the public library movement. The movement found its champions among school officials, women’s clubs affiliated with the National Federal of Women’s Clubs, and assorted educated elites, many of whom were active with local subscription libraries that proliferated in the 19th century, but were only open for use by those who paid an annual subscription.
 
A solution to this problem of indifferent state librarians emerged at the end of the 19th century: if most state librarians could not be persuaded to lead the public library movement in their states, then it would be necessary to create another state agency to do so, an agency run by a commission of citizens and officials who were committed to the cause of library development.  Wisconsin was one of the first states to adopt this solution in 1895 with the creation of the Wisconsin Free Library Commission.  Wisconsin was not the first state to create a library commission.  Five years earlier, Massachusetts had done so, but Professor Wiegand believes Wisconsin had the most successful early commission.  The new commission in Wisconsin followed the model developed by Melvil Dewey in New York, providing library training and giving advice to local organizers working with city councils to establish “free” (i. e., tax-supported) libraries, and sending out “traveling libraries” to stimulate interest in forming libraries, usually in smaller towns and rural communities.
 
Currents of the public library movement had reached Oregon by the end of the 19th century.  Like other Western states, Oregon followed much the same evolution of public library services as states in the Midwest and the East, just a few decades later.  Oregon saw a number of subscription libraries formed in mid to late 19th century, some of which came and went, like the Multnomah Circulating Library at Oregon City.  Considered to be the first subscription library in Oregon, this library formed in 1840, but seems to have disbanded (because of shaky finances) by 1849.  The most successful subscription library was founded in Portland in 1864 as the Portland Library Association.  While it too had to weather some financial problems in its early years, by 1895 the library was located in its own $150,000 building in downtown Portland.  It was endowed with an operating endowment of $50,000, and a collections endowment of $25,250 raised from $250 life memberships paid by 101 Portland families.  A more humble library, called the Portland Public Library was established by this time in a room at Portland City Hall.  This library is said to have begun as a sailor’s reading room founded by a Unitarian minister on Burnside Street.  Later is was supported by subscriptions, but was said to be “free” by the time it became the Portland Public Library in City Hall.  But in the 1890’s, Oregon still did not have a public library law that allowed cities like Portland to establish a public library and provide for tax support so that the library could be forever “free.”
 
As in other states, where women’s clubs affiliated with the National Federation of Women’s Clubs provided leadership in efforts to pass public library enabling legislation, it was the Portland Women’s Club that led the way in Oregon. The Portland Women’s club enlisted other women’s clubs in the effort, through the Oregon Federation of Women’s Clubs.  Under the leadership of Sarah A. Evans, the Portland Women’s Club worked with a legislator, George Hill, to introduce legislation in the 1899 Legislature, but the bill was never given a hearing. Undeterred by this setback, Evans organized a larger coalition with representatives of women’s clubs from Eugene, La Grande, and Roseburg, as well as Portland.  The Library Committee of the Oregon Federation of Women’s Clubs worked with Dr. Joseph Schafer, new to the history faculty at the University of Oregon, but formerly active in the public library movement in his native state of Wisconsin.  Shafer may have planted the notion that Wisconsin was the place to look for the best practices in library development work.  He sent the Committee a pamphlet, entitled “Why I Approve of a Free Library,” that explained the value of free public libraries and contained endorsements from 20 “nationally prominent men,” that the Committee reprinted and sent to each member of the Legislature. By the time the 1901 Legislature had convened, the Library Committee had obtained pledges from many legislators to support public library enabling legislation.  The Federation also approved a budget of $50 to support Sarah Evans and another Federation member to lobby for the bill in Salem.  With all of this advance work, and lobbyists active at the Capitol, the outcome in 1901 was much better than in 1899.  As Wilbur Rowe wrote in his invaluable history of the Oregon State Library from its beginnings until 1938:
 
After the legislators were assured that the library bill had nothing to do with women’s suffrage, it was passed, February 13, 1901, with only two votes against it.  The bill was signed … and sent to Mrs. Evans and Mrs. Brayman, who took it to Portland where they presented it, in triumph, at the Women’s club meeting the following day.  It is interesting to note that they returned about half the traveling expenses voted from the treasury for their stay in Salem.
 
In 1900 Portland’s two subscription libraries, the Portland Library Association and the Portland Public Library, merged and moved into the library built by the Association.  After the public library bill passed in 1901, the City of Portland wasted no time in using the new law to approve a city library tax equivalent to 20 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation on July 18, 2001.  The income was to be used to contract with the Portland Library Association so that the former subscription library could be made “free” and available to anyone in Portland.

Mary Frances Isom
So 1901 saw the first public library law in Oregon and the first public library formed under the law.  But this year also saw the arrival in Oregon of the person most responsible for the founding of the Oregon Library Commission that would occur four years later.  A thirty-six year old librarian named Mary Frances Isom was hired by the Portland Library Association as a cataloger.  Isom had a degree from Wellesley College, had received library training at the Pratt Institute, and had worked briefly at the Cleveland Public Library.  Once she arrived in Portland, her considerable talents as a librarian became evident and she was soon made director of the library.
 
 
Isom’s vision for library service extended much beyond the city limits of Portland.  She was determined that her library serve all of Multnomah County, and in the 1903 legislative session, she led an effort to amend the public library law just passed in the last session, that only provided for city-supported libraries, to allow a county library to be formed in Multnomah County.  This effort was successful, and soon thereafter the Portland Public Library became the Multnomah County Library, only the third county library in the U.S. at that time. Isom believed deeply in the ideal of the public library movement, that public library services were for everyone, not just for affluent city dwellers.  In an article that appeared in the September, 1902, issue of the Women’s Club Journal, Isom wrote: “Let us not rest until every town and village in Oregon has its free public library as well as its free public school.” 
 
By 1904, Oregon had established its public library law and was beginning to see the development of public libraries in major cities like Portland, Salem, and Eugene, but it still lacked a state commission, such as many other states had established, to lead this development.  In her first annual report to the Portland Library Association, Mary Frances Isom made clear what was needed:
 
It is not within the province of this library to undertake such state work … but is it not fitting, as the only free library in the State, that we should use our active influence to bring such an organization, properly equipped with a trained library organizer at its head, whose work should be to encourage libraries already started, to establish new ones, and to answer fully to many demands which come to this library and which we must often neglect in part or refuse entirely because our hands are tied?
 
It was Isom herself who drafted House Bill 6, modeled closely after the statutes that in 1895 had created the Wisconsin Free Library Commission. The mission of the Oregon Library Commission would be to “give advice to all school, free and other public libraries, and to all communities which may propose to establish them, as to the best means of establishing and maintaining such libraries, the selection of books, and other details of library management.”   The Commission would also provide “traveling libraries” to stimulate interest in public library development. Again with the support of the Oregon Federation of Women’s Clubs, H.B. 6 passed easily and was signed into law by February of 1905. 
 
Isom then undertook to visit the Wisconsin Free Library Commission in the spring of 1905 so that she could see firsthand the work of the agency that had provided the model for Oregon’s legislation.  Isom did not intend it to be a recruiting trip, but she could not help but be impressed by a thirty-two year old librarian named Cornelia Marvin who, by 1905, had worked at the Commission for six years.  When Isom returned from her trip she received a letter from Marvin expressing her interest in coming to Oregon, even if it meant a decrease of $600 in her income to accept the $1,200 annual salary that the Legislature had authorized for the new Commission’s Secretary.
 
Marvin received her appointment at the second meeting of the new Oregon Library Commission on May 25, 1905, at the recommendation of Isom. In drafting H.B. 6 Isom had given herself a seat on the Commission.  The other four members of the Commission were the Governor, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the President of the University of Oregon, and a citizen appointed by the Governor.  Isom would serve on the Commission for 15 years until her death in 1920.
 
The origins of the Oregon State Library tend to be obscured by the dominant personality of the first State Library and by confusion over the fact that quite a different Oregon State Library existed in the 19th century.  But in fact, these developments followed a similar evolution that, by 1905, had already occurred in many other states.  What drove this evolution was the public library movement, led primarily by determined women who believed in the value of public library service for everyone.  In Oregon it was the Oregon Federation of Women’s Clubs that provided the spark that led to the first public libraries beginning in 1901, and not long thereafter, to the establishment of a state agency to serve as the catalyst for this development. 
 
It was Oregon’s great fortune that two remarkable librarians, very similar in their energy and their vision, came to the state in the first decade of the 20th century to bring public library service to “every town and village,” and to isolated farms and ranches in every corner of the state.  As we celebrate the State Library’s Centennial year, it is most important to remember Mary Frances Isom and Cornelia Marvin Pierce, who, more than any other individuals, deserve our gratitude for their work in laying the foundation for public libraries in Oregon.
 
 
 
 
Sources
 
Pierce, Cornelia Marvin. The Oregon State Library and its Book Service to the People of Oregon.  Salem: Oregon State Library, 1928. 
 
Pierce,  Cornelia Marvin. "Dedication of the Oregon Library Building April 3, 1939, Message from Cornelia Marvin Pierce." Salem:  1939. 
 
Rowe,  Wilbur D. The Development of the Oregon State Library and Its Contributions to the Public Schools (Master's thesis).  Eugene: University of Oregon, 1939. 
 
Wiegand,  Wayne.  "The Historical Development of State Library Agencies."  State Library Services and Issues.  Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1986.  1-16.