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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County History: Vancouver librarian Eva Santee

By Martin Middlewood, for The Columbian
Published: October 31, 2021, 6:00am
2 Photos
A librarian's librarian, Eva Santee spent nearly three decades expanding Fort Vancouver Regional Libraries.
A librarian's librarian, Eva Santee spent nearly three decades expanding Fort Vancouver Regional Libraries. (Columbian files) Photo Gallery

During World War II, youngsters wishing to expand their reading would find alternatives at the Carnegie Library on Main Street in Vancouver. When they couldn’t find Edgar Rice Burroughs or Daphne du Maurier books, they sought help from the no-nonsense librarian. Bravely, they’d stammer their requests. Many saw Eva Santee (1897-1979) as intimidating despite her mischievous smile. The librarian met pleas for an “inappropriate” book by peering over her glasses, smiling impishly, and saying, “That isn’t good literature.”

Santee cared for children and steered youngsters toward her literary preferences to improve their minds. But what she wanted more was to extend the library into Clark County’s unserved areas. “Library service for all” was her motto. The existing system of FVRLibraries shows her vision and 27 years of loving labor.

After attending what is now Western Washington University, Santee gained a librarianship master’s from the University of California. Santee taught in California, then in Clark County until the Camas Library hired her in 1932. As the county’s first librarian holding a master’s degree, she earned $75 a month. In her nearly eight years there, she organized the library and convinced the town it needed a new one, which local architect Day Hilborn designed.

In 1940, she began working at the Carnegie Vancouver Library on Main Street, managing its growth from the boom times of WWII while extending library services. Bookmobiles had been around since 1904, but Clark County didn’t have one. So Santee redeployed an Army truck to serve remote areas of the county in the early 1940s, and mobile service continues today.

Santee started a community forum during World War II and invited speakers, including poet Carl Sandburg and philosopher Will Durant. Concerned about “juvenile delinquency,” she also led the Clark County Guidance Clinic on the fourth floor of the courthouse.

Every moment, she lobbied for the library. During her decades as the Vancouver librarian, she was involved with many library organizations and their conferences, especially the Pacific Northwest Library Association, which elected her vice president in 1954 and president in 1955. She presented papers on budgeting, finance and reporting at library conferences. She followed library trends, especially the one centralizing library services. To her, it made economic sense.

Although she preferred working quietly in the background and disliked publicity, it came her way. The Community Foundation for Southwest Washington named Santee a First Citizen in 1945. She was the first woman to win the honor. In 1951, Gov. Arthur Langlie appointed Santee to a three-year term to the state board certifying out-of-state librarians seeking jobs in Washington and improving the standards for admission to the state’s librarian schools. At the 89th conference of the American Library Association in Cleveland, she received $100 and a certificate for her “outstanding librarianship.”

Convinced the community needed to vacate the Carnegie library, she sought a new one on Mill Plain Boulevard. Standing between Vancouver Mayor Rudy Luepke and architect Don Cassady, Santee cut the official ribbon for the library’s opening on March 31, 1963. Then, after retirement, she refused to enter the building, fearful someone would think she was meddling.


Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.

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