The Hudson’s Bay Company enjoyed two libraries at Fort Vancouver during the 1830s and 1840s. Both might lay claim as the first north of the Columbia River.
It first consisted of medical books the post’s doctor used and kept in the dispensary. Records show at least two doctors managed the medical library and ordered books, Dr. Forbes Barkley and his predecessor Dr. William F. Tolmie. Based on an 1844 inventory, the volumes covered human physiology, midwifery, surgery and medical terminology — all important subjects for a frontier physician.
The fort also ran a lending library between 1833 and 1843. Books and periodicals were ordered by subscription from London and then shared among the employees in its distribution center.
The founding of the Vancouver Catholic Library Association in 1865 brought about the next library. It was housed in a building on the military reserve but held meetings at Holy Angels College. The association’s library advertised itself as open to all in the Vancouver Independent. A decade later, the United States Bureau of Education noted just two libraries in the territory contained over 300 volumes, the Washington Territorial Library and the association’s. It remained popular until it closed in 1886 and turned 350 literary books over to St. James Parish.
Vancouver was starved for literature and news. So reading rooms popped up. One over Maxon’s store in 1878 was supported by a new library association that named the shopkeeper as librarian. When the Good Templars Lodge disbanded, it donated its books to the Odd Fellows Lodge. The fraternity opened a reading room in 1881 housing a library containing 200 volumes and periodicals. Although open days and evenings to the public, advertisements requested patrons enter through the back door on Fourth Street.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union also opened a reading room, which was used by 6,000 people in 1890. The group closed the library when it could no longer afford the $25 a month rent. Then, it petitioned the city to open a library.
The Vancouver City Council passed Ordinance 262 in 1891, providing for a library board of five trustees and outlining their duties. It seemed Vancouver was finally ready to set up a civic-supported lending library. By 1896, the city library was in financial straits. J.J. Beeson, the county clerk, relocated it to his office at the corner of Fifth and Main streets. It was open to all patrons willing to pay 15 cents a month to borrow books. After that, the library bounced to City Hall, then to a Vancouver public school.
The Vancouver Columbian spoke out in a 1905 editorial on the library, stating “more reading would be done” with a public library and a community with the “size and wealth” of the city deserved one. The newspaper also wanted a separate building for the library. Undoubtedly, Vancouver’s residents were ready for one.
Meanwhile, industrialist Andrew Carnegie was funding other libraries in Washington. By 1906, Vancouver was abuzz with interest in the opportunity to receive a grant for constructing a new library building.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.