The Origins of the Oregon State Library

By Scheppke, Jim | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

The Origins of the Oregon State Library

Scheppke, Jim, Oregon Historical Quarterly

THE FIRST OREGON STATE Librarian, Cornelia Marvin Pierce, had at least two occasions to publicly reflect on the origins of the Oregon State Library. Both times, she began the story with her arrival in Oregon in August 1905. In her 1928 "resignation message," under the heading "Library Beginnings," Pierce wrote:

May I remind you that it was on August 1, 1905, 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?

The other occasion was a speech written by Pierce that was read at the dedication of the State Library Building on April 3, 1939. Once again, Pierce had little to say about the events that brought her to Oregon, but she did 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. She described Isom as a "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 in the speech, Pierce returned to her theme that library development in Oregon was something for which she and her associates had to fight. In summing up her career at the State Library, Pierce quoted Theodore Roosevelt: "The noblest sport this world affords is aggressive fighting for a great cause." In the eleven biennial reports that Pierce wrote, beginning in 1907, she conveyed an image of herself as a heroic figure much like Roosevelt, fighting alone against great odds to establish library services for Oregonians.

Although I do not wish to diminish Pierce's considerable achievements, the fact is that a number of clear historic trends converged in Oregon in 1905 and led to the establishment and success of the Oregon Library Commission, today's Oregon State Library. Oregon was one of twenty-six states that established state library commissions to lead the development of public and school libraries between 1895 and 1910. (3)

BEFORE TRACING THESE ORIGINS, however, it might be best to start with the other "Oregon State Library," which had its beginnings in 1850 and, confusingly, bears little relation to the Oregon State Library that celebrated its centennial in 2005. This earlier Oregon State Library began as the Territorial Library. It was the "law library" that Pierce dismissively referred to in her 1928 resignation message. In the act that enabled the Oregon Territory, passed on August 14, 1848, Congress appropriated five thousand dollars for a library to be maintained at Oregon City, the seat of the territorial government. An initial two-thou-sand-dollar book purchase was made in New York City in 1849 by newly appointed territorial Governor Joseph Lane. Governor Lane's successor, John Gaines, purchased the remaining three thousand dollars worth of books and maps in 1852. (4) the collection included mostly law books but also books dealing with politics, education, history, and agriculture.

The library was not organized until 1850, when the territorial legislature provided funding for and appointed a state librarian. In 1851, the legislature passed an amendment requiring that it elect a state librarian annually. That same year, the state capital, including the library, was moved to Salem. During the week after Christmas 1855, the Capitol building was destroyed in a .re and, along with it, the entire library collection except for the few books that were checked out.

The 1856 legislature asked Congress for an appropriation of twenty thou-sand dollars to replace the Territorial Library collection, but Congress appropriated only five hundred dollars. …

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