The Walla Walla Library Association is incorporated on January 20, 1865.

  • By Michael J. Paulus Jr.
  • Posted 8/24/2008
  • Essay 8729

On January 20, 1865, the Walla Walla Library Association is incorporated and becomes the first library established for the public in the City of Walla Walla. A group of Walla Walla professionals, interested in literary culture in the new and booming mining town of Walla Walla, had formed a literary society and then took steps to establish a circulating library for it. Subscriptions were collected, books were purchased, and an accessible location for the library was found. But interest in this early regional library endeavor will not prove to be sustainable. The vision of a public library -- and eventually a free public library -- for Walla Walla would be realized later by other, similarly-minded individuals.

Books on the Frontier

The City of Walla Walla, which began as a small settlement around the U.S. military Fort Walla Walla in the late 1850s, became one of the most populous areas in Washington Territory after a gold rush in the early 1860s. The town that quickly emerged included farms, churches, schools, and various businesses. Although there were rough elements in the life of this frontier town, most pioneers who settled in and around Walla Walla desired to establish in the West the American culture that existed in the East. This culture included books and, increasingly, libraries.

An advertisement for the City Book Store in Walla Walla in 1864 boasted the availability of "Histories, Bibles, Hymns Books, Testaments, Gift Books, Poetical Works, Bancroft's Lawyer, Poetical Works [again!], Dictionaries, and a general assortment of miscellaneous works" as well as school books and the latest Western and Eastern newspapers ("City Book Store"). In addition to books, there was an interest in public educational events, such as lectures and discussions, and in making more books accessible to the public.

A Circulating Library

In 1864, a group of professionals in Walla Walla came together to promote literary culture in the city. They formed the Calliopean Society and, through subscriptions, created a library of some 150 books, which were kept in the office of the county engineer. On January 20, 1865, the society was incorporated as the Walla Walla Library Association. A constitution and by-laws were adopted and a board of directors was established. The first directors were Dr. A. J. Thibodo, R. Jacobs, J. H. Lasater, J. D. Cook, L. J. Rector, and W. W. Johnson (who was also the first librarian), and Dr. J. H. Day was the treasurer. The cost of membership was an induction fee of $5 plus quarterly dues of $1; others could use the association's circulating library by paying a monthly fee of $1 per month. The library's books and periodicals were kept in various locations downtown where they could be accessed during weekdays. The association initially met regularly for educational lectures, discussions, and debates, but interest in the association waned and it soon dissolved.

The idea of a literary society with a subscription library was revived in the early 1870s by a group of Fort Walla Walla officers, who formed the Walla Walla Library and Lyceum Association. In 1877, the association merged with the Walla Walla Association for the Advancement of Science and the next year built a small, one-story building downtown. This building provided space for the library and a reading room and was supervised by Walla Walla's first librarian, Margaret Welch. But interest in this library waned, too, and the building closed in 1887. The library was given use of a room in another building downtown, but by 1890 the library's books were simply being stored. Local businesses paid a small fee to maintain the reading room for young men. Walla Walla would not have a free public library until 1897, two years after the Washington State Legislature passed a law authorizing municipalities to start and sustain public libraries.

Sources: Robert A. Bennett, Walla Walla: Portrait of a Western Town, 1804-1899 (Walla Walla, Wash.: Pioneer Press, Inc., 1980); "City Book Store," Washington Statesman, April 9, 1864, p. 3; "The Election of the Walla Walla Literary and Library Association," Walla Walla Statesman, April 7, 1865, p. 3; Frank T. Gilbert, Historic Sketches: Walla Walla, Whitman, Columbia, and Garfield Counties, Washington Territory (Portland, Oregon: A. G. Walling, 1882); "Library Association," Walla Walla Statesman, March 10, 1865, 3; W. D. Lyman, An Illustrated History of Walla Walla County, State of Washington (W. H. Lever, Publisher, 1901); Maryde Fahey Orr, "Development of the Walla Walla Public Library" (M.L. Thesis, University of Washington, 1953); "Walla Walla Library and Literary Association," Walla Walla Statesman, October 6, 1865, p. 1.

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