Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

"Wheedling, Wangling, and Walloping" for Progress: The Public Service Career of Cornelia Marvin Pierce, 1905-1943

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

"Wheedling, Wangling, and Walloping" for Progress: The Public Service Career of Cornelia Marvin Pierce, 1905-1943

Article excerpt

CORNELIA MARVIN PIERCE (1873-1957) is a formidable figure in Oregon history, an important Progressive Era public servant and reformer whose impact on the state is still evident more than fifty years after her death. Beginning in 1905, she directed statewide efforts to develop free public library services as head of the Oregon Library Commission and, later, as Oregon State Librarian. Citizens and civic leaders throughout the state knew "Miss Marvin" for her highly visible and effective efforts to introduce library services, particularly in remote rural areas, and she is best remembered for this phase of her public service career. In addition to serving as the state's leading librarian, Marvin also helped reform and develop public higher education as a Regent of the Oregon State Normal School and as a member of the Oregon State Board of Higher Education. She left the State Library in 1928 to begin the second phase of her public service career, this time as a political spouse, marrying former governor Walter M. Pierce. With her support and assistance, Pierce moved to the national political arena as a member of the U.S. Congress during the New Deal era.

In all of these capacities, Marvin operated as a progressive reformer and highly skilled manager, well known for her strong opinions and forceful style. Her tool of choice for sharing these opinions was her pen; she was an extraordinarily prolific correspondent, with a vast national network of contacts in librarianship, education, social reform organizations, and government. Cornelia Marvin Pierce's career and liberal-reform work--especially her pioneering work in the development of free public libraries--influenced and directly affected political, educational, and social conditions in Oregon.

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Typical of pioneers in many areas of endeavor, Cornelia Marvin benefited from a fortuitous combination of circumstances: the national public library movement was just gaining momentum in the Pacific Northwest; the tools of direct democracy--initiative, referendum, and the direct primary--were just being implemented in Oregon, requiring a well-informed citizenry; professional training for librarians had just been introduced in American colleges and technical institutes in the 1890s, and Marvin was a graduate of one of these early library schools; and she was recruited to Oregon from the State of Wisconsin, the "laboratory of democracy," where many progressive political reforms had already been tested. (1) She believed the free public library was an institution with tremendous potential for advancing progressive reform, especially with Oregon's new possibilities for direct democracy: "The new form of government being tried in Oregon has sent the people of Oregon to school," Marvin wrote, "and that school is the only one open to adults, and to those who wish to carry on any sort of practical research outside of the public schools and universities--the free public library, state, county and municipal." (2) She used all of her considerable energy and expertise to extend public library services throughout the state.

Marvin was a challenging, demanding, effective leader who was easier to admire and respect than to like. In her correspondence, even with her closest colleagues, family, and personal friends, her tone was often imperious, unapologetically reflecting her confidence in her own judgment and opinions. It was not unusual for her to issue bold, frank, and sometimes public challenges to government officials, colleagues in American library leadership, prominent Oregon citizens, and others when she objected to their actions or wished to offer advice. She was a relentlessly insistent correspondent, and thousands of her letters have been preserved, along with many responses. They illuminate her strong sense of purpose, her resistance to compromise, and the impact she had on local, state, and national affairs. Her life and career exemplify tensions and conflicts between social expectations of a woman from a middle-class background and the opportunities and demands of a high-profile professional position. …

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