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Friday, March 1, 2024
March 1, 2024

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Clark County History: Vancouver’s Carnegie Library

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Editorializing confidently in 1906, The Columbian proclaimed there was “little or no doubt” Vancouver would get a Carnegie Library. The industrialist-turned-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was funding a dozen public libraries across Washington already. One in the city would publicly express its citizens’ attitudes and attract new ones, said the newspaper.

Vancouver struggled throughout the end of the 19th century to create a lending library. All the city’s previous attempts failed for funding or space shortages. Edgar Swan initiated correspondence with Carnegie’s people and garnered interest. In January 1908, James Bertram, Carnegie’s secretary, responded that if the city agreed to yearly maintenance, the donor “would be glad to give ten thousand dollars” for Vancouver’s public library.

So, in 1908, R.H. Back, Vancouver’s city attorney, wrote inquiring about the particulars of the funding. The Carnegie grant of $10,000 covered the building — not its contents. It looked like the city would finally have a library, as long as the city council agreed. That committee would also need to meet the other requirements for the grant, including naming a building site, hiring and paying staff, using public funds and making the service free to all.

In early 1908, the offer was often on the city council agenda, members’ response was generally favorable, and the grant chugged ahead slowly. By February, locals had raised $1,500 for the library. Then in April, the city council accepted the gift and all its requirements. Councilmembers approved a lot on the corner of 16th and Main streets for the library (today the home of the Clark County Historical Museum). Lowell Hidden donated the site.

Groups, organizations and individuals planned fundraising events throughout 1908 and 1909 to pay for books and furniture. Women and women’s groups seemed to initiate the fundraising role. One club wanted to donate a clock and pictures. In the high school auditorium, women of the Merry-go-Round Club staged recitations, vocal and instrumental solos, and acted in the whimsical “Chronothanatoletron, or, Old Times Made New: An Entertainment for Female Characters.” The Refined Ladies, whose members were wives of prominent men, staged two minstrel shows to raise money for the library.

Work on the building, designed by Dennis Nichols and William Kaufman in Neoclassical Revival style and built by Ole Larson, began in November 1908. After cement workers finished the basement, bricklayers, in April 1909, raised a one-story wall, setting expectations for opening the new building June 1. A week before, The Columbian told readers it wouldn’t be ready because the interior remained undone. The library opened in November with a capacity for 25,000 books.

On New Year’s Eve 1909, the library had its official grand opening. Dr. C.H. Chapman, Oregonian editorial writer, made a plea for libraries as places of seeking out the truth on all issues and declaring they were for all people. However, Edgar Swan, now secretary-treasurer of the library board, dampened the opening spirit by grousing at his audience about how any library use must be cleared by its board members.


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

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