Early libraries in our area
The very first library in the Pacific Northwest was established by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1833 at Fort Vancouver. Requests for books and periodicals were sent to the company’s headquarters in London. This subscription library remained in operation for 10 years and books were loaned throughout the region. After it was discontinued, other efforts were made to provide a subscription library in the area. One was located on the grounds of St. James Mission in 1865, organized by the Vancouver Catholic Library Association and later run by the Vancouver Library Association. This library moved several times; it was located over Maxon’s Store in 1878, then Weigels Store the following year.
Meanwhile, one other early library was established in Union Ridge (now called Ridgefield) in 1868, as a Sunday school library.
The first free public library in our area was started in 1891, when the Women’s Christian Temperance Union petitioned the City of Vancouver for a tax-supported library. The City Council approved this and appointed a board of trustees. In 1908, a Carnegie grant was secured for construction of a library building. Vancouver Public Library opened on December 31, 1909 on the corner of 16th and Main Streets, on a lot donated by L. M. Hidden.
During the early 1900s, many other libraries were established throughout the region. These include:
The Women’s Association of Goldendale established a library in 1912 in the grammar school. Funding to help operate the library was provided by the Goldendale city council. A five-member board of library trustees was appointed. In 1913, land was purchased for a library building and a Carnegie grant secured. Local fundraising helped to pay for the construction of the library. The library opened on March 15, 1915.
In Ridgefield, the Priscilla Study Club formed in 1914. They opened a library to the public in City Hall in 1923, and in 1934 they moved the library into the Priscilla Building (a house located a few blocks from the current Ridgefield library).
A library was founded in Stevenson in 1921 through the Stevenson Woman’s Club. In 1938, a building was constructed on Russell Street to house the library.
The Washougal Women’s Club organized in 1924 and soon after established a reading room and a circulating library in the back of the Carpenter General Store on Main Street. In 1930, Mrs. Mabel Moody willed her house on "E" Street to be used as a library and clubhouse. Later, that library was given to the city.
Public library service was established in Woodland in 1926, in the building that currently serves as the Woodland library. Privately operated libraries preceded the public library, one established by Mrs. Sam Conrad and the other, some years later, by the American Legion and the Men’s Club. The books from the latter were donated to the new public library.
The White Salmon Woman’s Club founded a library in 1929 and it was operated jointly by the city and the club.
So, by the end of the 1920s, there were a number of city-oriented libraries in place serving portions of the area population. This still left many residents in rural communities without library service.
Formation of Clark County Libraries
In November 1940, teachers from several school districts in Clark County got together to discuss combining funds to buy and share books among the schools. Vancouver Public Library staff agreed to select, process and distribute the books, which would be owned by the schools. Soon, there was interest in expanding this resource so that there would be books for adults, too. This began to set the stage for developing regional library services.
Eva Santee was hired as librarian for Vancouver Public Library in 1940. “Library service for all,” was her motto as she began to expand the reach of the library to underserved areas. In 1941, Eva worked with Washington State Library to secure a Works Progress Administration grant that provided funding for a bookmobile, driver, librarian, and collection of books. Vancouver Public Library contributed space in its basement and additional books from its collection. The rural schools book pool was also incorporated into this collection and there were other contributions from the community to help pay for the service. Bookmobile service throughout the county began on November 18, 1941, and was an enormous success. Skamania County expressed interest in participating, so service was expanded to cover both counties.
Knowing the WPA grant funding would end, interested residents circulated a petition during the summer of 1942 asking the Clark County commissioners to place a measure on the ballot to establish a rural library district. This request was granted, and that November the voters approved formation of Clark County Library, the first rural library district in the state. A board of trustees and librarian were appointed and the new system went into operation in April 1943. Local taxes now paid for bookmobile services and Clark County residents also had access to Vancouver Public Library.
The war had an impact on the formation of libraries in Vancouver. Vancouver Housing Authority included libraries in its projects. There were six neighborhood libraries that were soon integrated into the Clark County Library system. Also, a library was opened in Battle Ground on April 1, 1944, as part of the Clark County Library system, and the independent Washougal library joined the system in 1944.
Formation of Fort Vancouver Regional Library District
By 1945, Eva Santee was leading discussions about forming a larger library district by merging Vancouver Public Library and Clark County Libraries. It took five more years, but Eva stuck with it and on July 1, 1950, Fort Vancouver Regional Library District was born. Skamania County joined FVRL in 1952, expanding the district’s service area to 2,500 square miles. The district had six outlets at that time: Battle Ground, Fruit Valley, McLoughlin Heights, Stevenson, Vancouver and Washougal. Other milestones from Eva’s time include:
- The replacement of Vancouver Public Library, which moved in 1963 from the Carnegie building on Main Street to a larger, modern building at 1007 E. Mill Plain Boulevard. Funding for this library was obtained through a bond measure that passed on the third try.
- A library opened in North Bonneville in 1954. A new site for the Battle Ground library was acquired in 1958 and the new facility opened in 1959. The operation of the library in Ridgefield was turned over to FVRL in 1961.
Eva retired in 1967 and Ruth Watson became the director on June 1, 1969. Most notable during Ruth’s tenure were:
- The introduction of the books-by-mail service in 1974. This service was first offered through a mail-order catalog that was published four times a year and mailed to every household in the district. People could return a postage-paid card to request books from the mail-order collection of about 300 titles. The service changed from a mail-order catalog to a reserves system in 1977. With the reserves system, library users were able to request any circulating materials owned by the district to be mailed to their homes.
- "Library at Vancouver Mall" opened in November 1983.
- Klickitat County joined the district in 1972. The service area grew to 4,200 square miles.
- 1987 brought significant financial troubles due to a decline in property values following the closures of aluminum plants in Vancouver and Goldendale.
Ruth Watson retired in 1987 and, with financial problems continuing, libraries in Hazel Dell and Orchards were closed in early 1988.
Later in 1988, Sharon Hammer was hired as director. The district continued to progress under Sharon’s administration. Major accomplishments included:
- Automation. This was made possible thanks to the passage of a one-year special levy in November 1990. The Dynix integrated library system was up and running in all FVRL libraries in early 1992. In February 1993, the public access catalog became available remotely via dialup.
- Subscription databases and a new library. Voters approved a levy lid lift in 1993 that allowed for the purchase of subscription databases (Periodical Articles onLine, or PAL) and a new library branch in Vancouver, later opened in Cascade Park.
- Many other technological features and upgrades were accomplished.
- Two district-wide bond measures were run in 1996 (in September and November), to try to address facility needs, but both were unsuccessful in obtaining the required 60% supermajority support. However, this didn’t stop facilities plans from moving forward in FVRL’s communities. The Vancouver Mall and White Salmon libraries both moved to larger spaces in 2000, made possible through a combination of district support and community fundraising. Changes in legislation allowed for communities to form Library Capital Facility Areas (LCFA). In November 1998, voters in Fire District 6 approved library capital funding using this legislation, which resulted in the opening of Three Creeks Community Library in January 2002.
Sharon retired in December 2000, and Assistant Director Bruce Ziegman was promoted to executive director in January 2001. During Bruce's 10 years as executive director, the district made great strides in providing adequate facilities to keep up with growing demand for services:
- After two unsuccessful attempts, an LCFA bond measure passed in the city of Vancouver, paying for the construction of libraries to replace the Cascade Park and Vancouver libraries, which opened in 2009 and 2011, respectively.
- A new library opened in Battle Ground in May 2009, made possible by a combination of district funding and private fundraising by the district and Friends of the Library.
- Bruce led the expansion of the district’s programming efforts to include events and services targeted to teens, tweens, English as a Second Language patrons, and—of particular emphasis—early learners.
- He was instrumental in forming a statewide group, the Early Learning Public Libraries Partnership, which brought attention and support to public libraries as important members of the early learning community.
- Bruce led the effort to increase library funding through a district-wide levy lid lift ballot measure, which narrowly passed in August 2010. The additional funding allowed the district to restore full schedules in seven locations that had had hours cut, and to purchase more books and other resources.
Bruce retired in October 2011. Operations Director Patty Duitman was appointed by the Board of Trustees to be interim executive director. Patty continued work that had begun on the provision of non-mobile rural library services as the Clark County bookmobile was retired, resulting in the opening of Yacolt Library Express, Green Mountain Library Express and Yale Library Express in 2012. She also moved plans forward for resizing and remodeling Vancouver Mall Community Library into The Mall Library Connection, which opened in March 2013.
The Board of Trustees selected Nancy Tessman, formerly long-time director of Salt Lake City Public Library, as FVRL's next executive director. Nancy started her tenure at FVRL in July 2012 and retired in October 2015. She initiated several projects:
- The Mall library was renovated in early 2013.
- A facilities planning study in 2013 by BergerABAM identified underserved areas such as Brush Prairie and inadequate facilities such as Woodland, Ridgefield and Washougal libraries. This study was followed by a pre-design study with FFA.
- Free return postage for books by mail started in early 2015.
Amelia Shelley became FVRL's executive director on October 12, 2015. Amelia came to FVRL from Garfield Public Library District, where she had been executive director since 2007. Here are some highlights of her leadership:
- With input from the community and staff, the district's mission, vision and values statements were rewritten, and new strategic priorities were created.
- The district was rebranded as "Fort Vancouver Regional Libraries" in 2018 to reflect the organization's strategic direction and values as well as to unify branding, marketing, and messaging efforts.
- Amelia developed and launched the district's first designated Outreach and Community Partnerships division in order to support to our branches, develop and coordinate district-level services and activities, and actively grow and sustain partnerships with agencies in the community.
- The district has moved forward with building projects, securing sites for Woodland, Ridgefield and Brush Prairie, and working towards a site in Washougal.