courtesy of Multnomah County
A Study in Stately Understatement
think it's beautiful. I like being in it," says Angela Jennings. "I
love the stairs."
Comfortable, well assembled space, where even
the stairway is remarkable. While not the typical description for a book shrine,
Multnomah County's Central Library is just that kind of place.
appreciation for the steps leading up through all three floors is shared by many
and well deserved: It is a grand staircase with beautifully etched granite steps
reaffirming the building as a "garden of knowledge." The Children's
Library even features an astounding bronze sculpture of a tree, among other specially
It was on her first regular visits that this advocate
for "children, the disabled and seniors" first discovered the city's
public library and soon came to make it a regular part of her trips before moving
to Portland a few years ago from Orange County, Calif. She comes to it even on
days when she is overwhelmed or tired, because here she finds comfort and respite
from daily life.
801 S.W. 10th
the Central Library: Multnomah County Library is the oldest public library
west of the Mississippi, with a history that reaches back to 1864. Today, Central
Library and the 16 libraries that make up the library system house 490 computer
search stations for the public and a collection of 2 million books and other library
Oregon's largest public library, Multnomah County Library serves nearly one-fifth
of the state's population with a wide variety of programs and services.
What is now the Multnomah County Library dates its existence from 1864, a time
when Portland was a frontier town with frame buildings, muddy streets and few
sidewalks. A small group of Portland citizens met to establish a subscription
library and reading room, organizing under the name "Library Association
March 10, 1902, the library became a tax-supported free public library, open to
all residents of Portland. In 1903, services were extended to all residents of
Multnomah County and the Multnomah County commissioners became ex officio members
of the library board.
Library , located at 801 S.W. 10th in downtown Portland, opened in September 1913.
Designed by architect A.E. Doyle, the building took two years to build at a cost
of $480,000. The Central Library building, now on the National Register of Historic
Places, continues to be the heart of what has become a system of branch libraries
that serves library users all over Multnomah County.
July 1, 1990, after 126 years of guiding the library to the respected community
position it currently enjoys, the Library Association of Portland transferred
ownership of the library's buildings, books and other holdings to the people of
Multnomah County, to be governed by the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners.
is in the very brick and stone of this elegant 1903 Georgian Revival landmark
designed by the masterful A. E. Doyle, considered one of the most beautiful buildings
in the city. Honoring historians, philosophers, artists and scientists, the exterior
walls and benches bear the names of those who continue to shape the Western mind.
The towering elms that surround the library also seem to inspire to seek further
Inside, large open archways frame the windows, and the ceilings
soar. Under a domed skylight on the third floor that helps create the perfect
ambience for learning, the lobby plays a dual role as the Collins Gallery, displaying
locally relevant literary arts, such as children's writers and illustrators. Sometimes
the space also moonlights as a stage for some of the city's most stimulating performers.
First and foremost, this is a library. As one of the largest public buildings
in Portland, it serves one-fifth of the state's population. Its stately presence,
however, does not make it stuffy. In fact, it is loved partly for being accessible
and so much more.
all the open space in the three lobbies, the sweeping staircase and impossibly
high walls, the library still holds more than 17 miles of shelves, making available
approximately 2 million choices to view or borrow, from old newspapers to rare
books and DVDs.
An extensive renovation finished in 1997 (which included
structural, aesthetic and technological updates) redesigned the reading rooms
and desks to accommodate laptops and search stations while preserving the staid,
craftsman style of the furnishings. Simple chairs gracefully surround sleek flat
panel monitors, which in turn rest on desks of similar design.
500 terminals are available throughout the building to help with various levels
of searching, from the in-house databases to uncensored access to the Internet.
Information staff on every floor explains and complements the electronic resources.
The number of computers in Central Library makes it one of the best places
to surf the web and check e-mail for people passing through downtown. While they
are there, they can take in an art exhibit, hear a story under the tree in the
Children's Library or find the answer to that question about Portland that has
been nagging them since last night's walk.
Equally important, it plays
a vital support role for many people seeking all types of resources. "I always
encourage people that I know [who need] everything from social services, to work,
to a place to relax, to come find it here," says Ms. Jennings. She empowers
people to satisfy their own needs, find their own answers and feed their own minds
She finds it symbolic of the city's spirit of support and
cooperation. Citizen involvement is a Portland tradition. In this case, Friends
of the Library, a 33-year-old organization, has been instrumental in keeping the
library running and its stacks growing with the evolution of media. The first
records, film projectors, videos and DVDs as well as the first electronic reference
system were all made possible through the advocacy and fund raising by the group.
The Friends also run a retail store in the foyer with unique and exquisite gifts
and souvenir for book lovers of any age.
For a truly rare treat, historians,
researchers and bibliophiles can use the John Wilson Special Collections, housed
and designed specifically to preserve significant historical materials; its current
holdings total more than 10,000 items. These include a perfect copy of Captain
Gray's Company (the first book published in Oregon the year it became a state),
as well as first editions of Little Women and some of the Oz series. Other treasures
include a rare Audubon collection, a rich selection of Native American literature
and even autographed photographs of celebrities like piano virtuoso Rachmaninoff.
Readers are not the only beneficiaries of Central Library's offerings. Besides
the spacious and readily available conference room by the entrance to hold public
and grassroots meetings, the building also provides an invaluable space to writers
who need access to the system's materials: the Sterling Room.
Donald and Adelaide Sterling's own experience in the world of letters (editor
and writer, respectively) and their commitment to local emerging writers, this
room was set up and funded by Donald Sterling, Jr., to designate a private, quiet
space for research and writing, not far from historical and other references.
The library system's young reader summer program, Everybody Reads, is a contributing
factor to increased academic scores in grade and middle schools, as is Writers
in the Schools (WITS) in the middle to high school students by sponsoring workshops
for teen-agers with established local writers in all veins of creativity, from
playwriting to poetry and memoir.
Central Library, the oldest public
library west of the Mississippi, is remarkable enough to be inscribed in the National
Register of Historical Places. Perhaps more significantly, it is lodged in the
hearts of Portland locals and visitors as more than a place to borrow a book.
As Ms. Jennings alluded, it is a living source of knowledge.
and not hard on the eyes, either.
by Vicente Guzman-Orozco, a free-lance writer based in Portland, OR.