Pioneer Women Librarians
Pioneer. Zealot. Politician. Visionary. Social reformer. Librarian. Mary Frances Isom arrived in Portland in 1901 to catalog a collection of books that was to become the basis for the first tax-supported free public library in Oregon. In 1902 when she became the city’s Head Librarian there was one library building in downtown Portland; within a few years she had established branches throughout the county, school outreach programs, deposit centers in private homes, post offices, grange halls, and any community gathering place willing to participate. She described the library as the “great social center of the community.” By 1916 the library had become such an integral part of the cultural community that it supported over 3,000 lectures and meetings attracting over 111,000 attendees.
Isom was a pioneer in believing the library should be accessible to a diverse clientele. She wrote in 1902, “ It is a question whether a newspaper room so isolated is doing the best service for the community. Careful observance of its visitors shows that the tramp element is practically missing.” It was said that the firefighters who came to put out a fire in her home, left with library cards.
Isom was instrumental in promoting the use of tax based funding for libraries and with Cornelia Marvin created the State Library Commission, which became the Oregon State Library and the foundation for library services in Oregon. She organized the Oregon Library Association and helped create the Pacific Northwest Library Association.
In 1918, the library came under intense public criticism because one of the librarians, a pacifist, did not purchase war bonds. Under the urging of Isom, the Library Board pushed back, supporting the right of an individual to hold unpopular positions. “ We are not willing to give up, in advance the very thing for which the best and bravest of us are now fighting, and which our ancestors risked their lives to win for us.” Isom later went to France with a program of the American Library Association to set up libraries in hospitals for psychologically and physically wounded soldiers. She said it was one of the most difficult and rewarding experiences in her life.
Mary Frances Isom died in 1920. Oregon, not just Multnomah County, owes a huge debt to her unceasing and visionary work to make libraries a vital part of our community. For more about this amazing Oregon pioneer librarian, click here.
How Public Libraries Help Build Healthy Communities
“Libraries and librarians contribute two particular strengths to advance a culture of health: accessibility and trustworthiness.”
Recent research has found that libraries play an increasingly important role as community “third spaces” (gathering places in addition to the home and the work place). More and more often, libraries do far more than loan out books, adding to the public health of communities. Librarians often act as informal social workers for teens, immigrant communities, homeless people, and many others, helping them to navigate challenges like housing, healthcare, education, social services and employment resources.
“Public libraries are dynamic, socially responsive institutions, a nexus of diversity, and a lifeline for the most vulnerable among us.”
From Homeless to Harvard
The public library is a crucial resource and support for many teens in our community – and for some more than others.
Khadijah Williams is one teen for whom a library was an anchor – and helped her from the streets of Los Angeles to the halls of Harvard University. Khadijah says, “When I was younger I used to spend a lot of time at the Los Angeles Public Library, and it kind of changed my life. I was able to teach myself. The library gave me some control over one aspect of my life: even though I couldn’t control where I lived, I could control how much I learned.”
Khadijah went on to graduate from high school with honors, and selected Harvard from more than 20 university offers. She graduated in 2013, and now works in education with underprivileged young people. Watch her inspiring story here.
A Parthenon of Banned Books
A fascinating structure has sprung up in Friedrichspltaz, Germany, constructed from such authors as Orwell, Marx and Rushdie. What do these book-building-blocks have in common? They have all been banned in various countries and at various points in history. Read about this “tribute to democracy” here. We remain grateful to live in the times we do, and for the crucial role our library performs by providing access to freedom of information, and to the free exchange of letters and ideas.
Ode to a Librarian
Nikki Giovanni, University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech since 1987, has stirred hearts and minds for decades as a poet, writer, activist and teacher. She was born in Knoxville, Tennessee (1943), and raised in Cincinnati. She is the recipient of several awards including the Langston Hughes Award, the NAACP Image Award, and has been named as one of Oprah’s Living Legends. Her books are available at the Eugene Public Library.
Giovanni was one of several professors at Virginia Tech who tried to warn authorities about and get help for Sueng Hui-Cho, the South Korean student who in the spring of 1987, killed 32 people on campus. She delivered a moving address at the memorial for the victims.
Giovanni and her sister spent summers in Knoxville visiting their grandparents, where Giovanni found solace and inspiration at the beloved local library.
A POEM FOR MY LIBRARIAN, MRS. LONG
(You never know what troubled little girl needs a book)
At a time when there was not tv before 3:00 P.M.
And on Sunday none until 5:00
We sat on the front porches watching
The jfg sign go on and off greeting
The neighbors, discussion the political
Situation congratulating the preacher
On his sermon
There was always the radio which brought us
Songs from wlac in nashville and what we would now call
Easy listening or smooth jazz but when I listened
Late at night with my portable (that I was so proud of)
Tucked under my pillow
I heard nat king cole and matt dennis, june christy and ella fitzgerald
And sometimes sarah vaughan sing black coffee
Which I now drink
It was just called music
There was a bookstore uptown on gay street
Which I visited and inhaled that wonderful odor
Of new books
Even today I read hardcover as a preference paperback only
As a last resort
And up the hill on vine street
(The main black corridor) sat our carnegie library
Mrs. Long always glad to see you
The stereoscope always ready to show you faraway
Places to dream about
Mrs. Long asking what are you looking for today
When I wanted Leaves of Grass or alfred north whitehead
She would go to the big library uptown and I now know
Hat in hand to ask to borrow so that I might borrow
Probably they said something humiliating since southern
Whites like to humiliate southern blacks
But she nonetheless brought the books
Back and I held them to my chest
Close to my heart
And happily skipped back to grandmother’s house
Where I would sit on the front porch
In a gray glider and dream of a world
I love the world where I was
I was safe and warm and grandmother gave me neck kissed
When I was on my way to bed
But there was a world
And Mrs. Long opened that wardrobe
But no lions or witches scared me
I went through
Knowing there would be
Reprinted with author’s permission
Invest Early for Equal Opportunity
There is perhaps no more heartbreaking demonstration of the importance of libraries than the work by statistician and sociologist Sean Reardon of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. After Reardon distilled the standardized test results of 200 million reading and math scores, one statistic stood out: the richest school districts are outperforming the poorest by almost four grades.
Over the past thirty years, this gap has widened by almost 40 percent. The takeaway is that It is important to invest in our children early, and deeply. Most libraries, including ours, stand as a bulwark against this trend, prioritizing early and equal opportunities for children. This was the impetus behind Imagination Library, which delivers books into homes and hands of children from birth to age five, free of charge, to anyone who signs up. Story times, reading programs, music, art and technology activities, all are vital library services, available for everyone. Outreach to low income communities, services and organizations ensures that everyone who needs these services can take advantage of them. The upcoming purchase of a bookmobile van, will extend that reach even more.
The Library Foundation plays an important role in the health of these programs. The Foundation secured funding for the van, initiated the Imagination Library, and raises the funds for it as well as a host of other cherished library programs. We hope you consider becoming more involved as a donor or volunteer. If you are already a donor or volunteer, our deepest thanks.