When you walk into the Central Library on Tenth Avenue, you’re stepping into history. From the architectural features to the books housed in the John Wilson Special Collections, every aspect of the library has historical significance to Portland and the Pacific Northwest.
The first library in Portland was founded in 1864 by local businessmen, just thirteen years after the city became incorporated. It was called The Library Association of Portland and was originally a subscription library with quarterly fees. The Association spent its first twenty-five years housed in different buildings of other businesses before finally getting their own building on Broadway in 1893. This was called the Stark Street Library. The library was housed on the first floor, while the second was occupied by the Portland Art Association. This library was only open to members paying subscription fees, however.
Around this time in 1890, another group of citizens began their own library located at Portland City Hall, called the Free Reading Room and Library Association. They operated independently for a decade before merging with the Library Association, creating the organization that’s recognized today.
In 1900, Portland businessman John Wilson left the Library Association his entire personal collection of over eight thousand books. The only condition: the collection must be made available to the public for free. He also left $2,500 worth of gold coin. This bequest effectively changed the way the library was run. The Association agreed to these terms and then signed a contract with the City of Portland for additional funding from taxes. They also hired the first professionally trained librarian, Mary Frances Isom, who was also the first woman to be head librarian. On March 10, 1902, the Stark Street Library was officially open for free to the public.
It quickly became apparent that the current building housing the library was too small. When Isom realized that the funds allocated by the City of Portland wouldn’t be enough to fund a new building, she reached out to Multnomah County for additional financial support. Isom and the library board bought the block bordered by Yamhill and Taylor Streets and Tenth and Eleventh Avenues in 1911. What is now considered a central location in Portland was then still on the outskirts of the city. Portland architect Albert E. Doyle was hired to design the new building. On September 6, 1913, the new Central Library was officially open for the public. In 1979, the Central Library was granted a place on the National Register of Historic Places.
The exterior design of the Central Library has stayed mostly the same since its original opening. However, the interior has since gone through several major changes and renovations. The latest was the massive renovation that took place between 1994 and 1997. After a structural analysis revealed that the support partitions were severely insufficient, the library closed for the installation of scaffolding that would prevent debris from falling and potentially harming patrons. In addition to the structural reinforcements, the library also had a whole new computer system installed to meet the demands of an increasingly technological age. During these renovations, the library remained closed, temporarily moving to a location on Columbia Street. In order to move the books, patrons would check them out from the Central Library and then check them back in at the temporary location called TransCentral.
On April 8, 1997, the Central Library was reopened. In addition to the structural and technological upgrades, “many of the original Georgian Revival architectural and design flourishes were beautifully restored to their early 20th century glory.” Contemporary art pieces were also added during the renovation, including the second-floor light fixture, Solar Wreath; the tree in the Children’s Library, Preserving a Memory; and the signature black granite main staircase, Garden Stair.
One hundred and four years later, the Central Library continues to serve and educate the Portland community through various events and programs, including Storytimes for children and families, English classes, crafting events, computer classes, and much more. Libraries add incalculable value to any community they serve, empowering readers of all ages. The Central Library is a historic part of a vital and invaluable tradition.