Baker Public Library, Baker County, Oregon

Baker Public Library

     The Baker County Library is one of the county's great assets, a tribute to the support and far-ranging interests of its citizenry. In its 80 year history the Library grew from a nucleus of 250 donated books to its present collection of over 90,000 volumes, a dynamic growing collection which is the largest per capita east of the Cascades.

     The present modern spacious building faced with native lava stone called "moon mesa", is a beautiful complement to the city's older historic structures from native volcanic tuff. Backing onto the Powder River, bordering Geiser-Poolman City Park, it is the finest public library building in Eastern Oregon. Partly because of Baker County's unique geography, with sparsely populated mountainous areas larger than the state of Rhode Island, with long harsh winters binding people to their work and homes, books become their windows to the world, and the county can claim the highest per capita readership in the state, among the highest in the nation.

     From the earliest mission of promoting the refined literary interest of a young community, our public library has become a vital resource to business and education, recreational pursuits and information for daily living. The challenge of the first founders has been met by the vision of their children, for themselves and their children.

     The story begins in January, 1900, when five women formed the Alpha Club at the home of Mrs. Charles M. Sage. Mrs. James Goodwin suggested the name "Alpha", a beginning. Their stated mission was the study of literature, of current issues, and the founding of a public library. The first president was Mrs. J.F. Eppinger, a library social was held with the price of admission, one book.

     To make this collection of 250 books self supporting, subscription shares were sold for a minimum of $5.00 each; with the understanding that shareholders would be authorized to vote the shares and subsequent assets of the library to Baker City at any time it wished to take over operating costs.

The library opened its doors to the public then, with rotating volunteers, in rooms of the Commercial Club generously offered. When the Commercial Club disbanded, it donated furniture to the infant library, then briefly given a room in the building (later the Baker Loan and Trust building) by its owner, William Pollman. When he needed that space, Mr. Pollman offered the library a room facing onto Resort Street, behind the Gas and Electric Co. office. To this new setting, members of the Alpha Club each brought one chair. It is reported by Mrs. Chas. I. Flynn, addressing the Alpha Library Club March, 1924 on Library day, that such efforts stirred the business community into taking a strong interest in the purpose of the Club and the Library.

Baker City Took Over

     When in 1905 the present City Hall was erected, Mayor Robert Carter, who had a great interest in the library movement, provided a large room for the Library, and the following year persuaded the City Council to help with its operating costs. The Alpha Club then voted the stock to the city March 17, 1906, and the Library, supported by a city tax, was opened free to the public. Later that same year the first Library Board was appointed as prescribed by the state law, and Miss Anna Faith Taylor was hired as the first librarian, serving until 1909.

Carnegie was Approached

     When it became apparent that more room was needed for the expanding library than City Hall could provide, Anna Taylor suggested application to the great public-library benefactor, Andrew Carnegie, for a building of its own. The request was granted under Carnegie's usual conditions that a donated library must be free and must have promise of support from the local government in an annual dollar amount equal to 10% of the cost of the building. The mayor in office at that time was not convinced of a library's value to the public, and reluctantly supported a $1500 operating budget. This was not only considered inadequate, but would restrict the gift for the new library to $15,000. But when the mayor was sent east in 1908 to interview Carnegie, he was preceded by a petition from Baker businessmen and several City Council members demanding a $25,000 building and pledging $2,500 annual support. The mayor signed for the larger amount but returned to Baker still intent on effecting economies, for Mrs. Flynn says in her remembrances, "The site was then selected primarily for its economic features, with no thought of civic beauty. Consequently the beautiful building given by Mr. Carnegie was placed in its regrettable location," this being the corner of 2nd and Auburn Streets, behind City Hall. The new building was dedicated January 21, 1909. Today it houses the Crossroads Art Center and is being restored to its original beauty.

Service Extended to County

     Public support and use of the Baker Library has always exceeded both state norms and librarian expectations. In 1964, at the end of a state demonstration project which established 5 branches and bookmobile service countywide, the voters approved a plan to convert to a County Library, supported by serial levies. In 1969 a generous gift by Mildred Rogers in honor of her mother, Edna B. Stuchell, led to the formation of a library Building Committee, and in December of that year city voters approved transfer of the building site west of the city park to the county. Work began on the new building in April, 1970, and in May the County voters approved a permanent tax base for operating the library as a county department. The new building was dedicated April 4, 1971. It houses a remarkable 200-periodical subscriptions representing every interest area, a local newspaper microfilm collection, a fine Oregon and Baker history collection, a historic photo collection, Oregon documents, a genealogy section, a beautiful public meeting room, and staff members who know everyone by name. The bookmobile covers 10,000 miles per year, accounting for 25% of books loaned any year, while library branches in Haines, Huntington, Halfway and Richland supply books rotated out of the main library to their citizens. Eighteen librarians have served the library, the longest services being those of Miss Mildred Huntamer from 1929-1942, and Mrs. Leona Fleetwood from 1944 to 1960.

     Although staffing and service hours have been cut in half due to county budget problems since 1983, circulation remains at about 75% of its 1982 peak; and the new library is today still a showplace and hub of activity near the heart of town and in the hearts of its citizens from Oxbow on the Snake River, to Unity in Burnt River Valley and the Blue Mountains to the West. (Aletha Bonebreak)

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