Pre-1949 Library Association of Portland Library Card issued to Grace E. Montgomery
Library Association of Portland
In early 1864, Leland Howard Wakefield (1823-1914), proprietor of a daguerreotype studio and the local postmaster, recognizing the need for a library in the rapidly growing city of Portland, canvased the citizenry to “obtain signatures of those that were willing to materially aid” the establishment of a library. The canvasing proved great interest in a local library, and within months, a library committee was elected, and Association by-laws were drafted. The Association secured rooms on the second floor of the Stark Building at 66 First Street (at Stark Street) for $50/month. Membership was open to any city residents (including women) by signing an agreement to abide by the library’s Constitution and by-laws and paying an initiation fee of five dollars (~$95 today) and quarterly dues of $3. Lifetime memberships could be purchased for $100 (~$1900 today). The Library Association of Portland opened in December 1865 with approximately 1,500 volumes.
In March of 1869, bankers William Sargent Ladd, Esq. (1826-1893) and Charles Elliott Tilton (1827-1901) presented to the Library Association a rent-free lease of three years for a suite of rooms on the second floor of their new bank building at SW First and Stark Streets. The library inventory had grown to over 3,000 volumes by 1869, and library membership fees were adjusted to a more modest quarterly fee of one dollar, making the library accessible to many more citizens.
It was stipulated that the lease would be renewed at the end of three years provided the association raised $6000 for on-ongoing maintenance of the library. The Library Association of Portland would subsequently occupy space at the Ladd and Tilton Bank Building for the next 24 years until June 1893.
The Library Association of Portland Builds Permanent Location
In 1893, the Library Association of Portland sought assistance from Portland architects William Marcy Whidden (1857-1929) and Ion Lewis (1858-1933) to design and construct a new library building at Washington (now SW Washington Street), Stark (now SW Harvey Milk Street), East Park (now SW Park Avenue), and 7th (now SW Broadway). Funds for the new library building was the culmination of 27 years of fundraising and a major bequeathment of over $100,000 from the estate of a wealthy heiress, Ella M. Smith (1848-1889), daughter of the late Sea Captain Benjamin F. Smith (1810-1879).
Daniel F. W. Bursch (1866-1948), the library’s first trained librarian, instituted the Dewey Decimal system and maintained an open shelf system for members to browse freely. However, the library continued to be a subscription library only accessible to paying members of the Association.
The Library Association of Portland Becomes Public
In September 1900, John Wilson (1826-1900), a successful Portland merchant, bequeathed his entire collection of over 8,000 books, manuscripts and maps to the Library Association of Portland with the stipulation that the collection be used as a “free reference library for the people of [Portland.].”
On June 20, 1901, by a unanimous vote, the Library Association of Portland entered into a contract with the City of Portland to allow inhabitants of the city free use of the Association library for a period of ten years. Ordinance No. 12,302 was approved by the Mayor on July 18, 1901, and the Association accepted the terms and conditions on August 18, 1901.
Mary Francis Isom (1865-1920) was engaged to catalog the Wilson Collection, and the Browne Charging System was instituted. The library opened its door to the public on Monday, March 10, 1902, making it the first free library in Oregon supported entirely by citizen taxes, an accomplishment of which the City of Portland took great pride.
No Saloons Near Library
During the population boom of early Portland, transient workers sought “goods and services” for entertainment during their leisure hours. Accordingly, saloons, gambling halls and other “vice” services proliferated in early Portland. So much so, that the Association began a “crusade” to prohibit saloons near public libraries. In short order, an ordinance was passed that prohibited the granting of licenses to saloons located near public schools and libraries.
New Public Library Building
As Portland’s population grew, library usage and book circulation steadily increased. The circulation of the Central Library went from approximately 175,000 books per year in 1904 to nearly 410,000 in 1909. This figure was double that of the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania public library, and surpassed the circulation of Boston’s public library. Due to the robust library usage, the Association president, Winslow B. Ayer (1860-1935), suggested a new main library building and additional branch libraries be built.
In early 1912, the Association purchased a block at 10th and Yamhill Streets to be the site of a new main library building. However, this location came as a great disappointment to many local organizations including the Greater Portland Plans Association, Northwestern University Alumni Association and several Portland women’s organizations. In an attempt to quell these concerns, on May 4, 1912, Ayer issued a public statement in The Oregon Daily Journal that the site was considered central to business and shopping districts and very accessible due to the proximity of main traffic routes and street car lines, but most importantly the purchase fell within the budget available to the Association. Public disfavor did little to change the purchase decision, and days later the Association made their decision known by placing advertisements in the local newspapers seeking bids to raze structures on the already-purchased site. By mid-September 1912, construction of the new building was under way, and one year later on September 6, 1913, the new library opened its doors to the public
Early 1900s postcard of the public library in Portland (public domain)
A major renovation was begun in 1994 to provide necessary seismic upgrades, rearrange interior spaces to facilitate technological needs, and add two floors for staff offices and meeting rooms. The renovation returned the interior of Central Library to its original grandeur and added new decorative details by artists, including etched black granite stairs by Larry Kirkland. Hardy Holtzman Pfeiffer Associates developed the initial design concepts, with Fletcher Farr Ayotte completing the design development.
On April 8 1997, the Central Library reopened after a three year renovation. Much of the original Georgian Revival architecture was restored and the building was modernized with seismic upgrades.
Now operating as the Multnomah County Library System, in addition to the Central Library, there are 32 branch libraries. The Central Library is located 801 SW 10th Avenue in Portland and is open 7 days a week.
Grace Ellen Montgomery
Grace Ellen Montgomery (November 26, 1915-May 24, 1995) was born in Lyon, Minnesota. She married Harold W. Buckles in 1936. Mrs. Buckles was a piano teacher in the Salem area for over 25 years.