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Checking out books for 100 years

For over 20 years, the idea of a county library system had been percolating around Oregon, but not until 1919 did the state legislature officially allow every county in the state to have one.

The idea began in 1898, when an Ohio resident left money in his will for a library building. His relatives insisted that the library be free to all and be open to everyone in the county, with one addition — the county, they said, should support the library with taxes.

It took an act of their state legislature to allow the county to accept the offer, but it did. The J.S. Brumback Library, the first ever county library in the nation, opened its doors in Van Wert City and County, Ohio, Jan. 1, 1901.

Almost exactly a year later, a bill introduced in the Oregon House of Representatives gave city governments the right to levy special taxes to establish public libraries. The following year, the Legislature approved a law allowing county courts (what we now know as county commissioners), to, “at their discretion,” levy taxes to provide libraries and books within all county schools.

In 1903, the Portland city library was the first library allowed to serve residents of their entire county. But it wasn’t until 1911 that the Legislature amended the state’s library law to allow any Oregon county to establish a county library system.

In the spring of 1919, the Legislature once again revised the library law to specify what a library system must be and do if established. Each system had to have a central library in the county seat or largest town in the county, and also branch libraries in other towns and communities. Books would be shared from the central library and a local library committee would oversee all operations.

In September of that year, the Mail Tribune began promoting the cause of a Jackson County library system as the right way to meet the people’s library needs, “supported by a county tax, and pledged under the law to serve all the people.”

“Many of our people are shut off from books,” said Mail Tribune Editor Robert Ruhl. “They are the country people who live so far from a town library they cannot conveniently borrow books from it.”

The Jackson County Court on Dec. 22, 1919, voted for the county library system and approved a .02-mil tax on each dollar of assessed valuation to support it. The tax was expected to raise over $4,300.

With Medford’s Carnegie Library as the headquarters, libraries in eight other communities, Jacksonville, Central Point, Rogue River, Butte Falls, Gold Hill, Eagle Point, Talent and Sams Valley, joined together to share costs and materials.

Absent from the county library agreement was Ashland and its Carnegie Library. Its library board voted to claim a tax exemption allowed under the law for any city not wishing to be included in a county library system.

Renamed Jackson County Library Services in 1970, the county libraries now number 15 branches, including Ashland, which finally joined the others in 1970.

It’s the 100th anniversary of the Jackson County library system — a century of meeting the people’s library needs.

“When I am king,” Mark Twain said, “they shall not have bread and shelter only, but also teachings out of books — for a full belly is of little worth where the mind is starved.”

Congratulations and thanks my friends at Jackson County Library Services.

CORRECTION: Eagle-eyed History Snoopers noticed an error in last week’s story.

The Tualatin Academy eventually became Pacific University, not Willamette University.

Even the Snoop knows better than that.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.