Women’s History Month: Cornelia Marvin Pierce

In celebration of Women’s History month, each Monday I’m sharing about a woman in history who left her mark on the world around her.

This week’s spotlight shines on Cornelia Marvin Pierce.

Cornelia Marvin Pierce served as the Oregon State Librarian from 1905 until 1929.  She was a pioneering librarian in a state still dominated by the pioneer spirit. “People wanted books. The three free Public Libraries in Portland, Salem, and Eugene became a hundred or more during my time,” said Pierce. “Excellent subscription libraries in Ashland, Astoria, and elsewhere, after much persuasion, were made free libraries. Books began to flow into the little schoolhouses too remote to be reached by public libraries. Sets of encyclopedias and reference books were clipped (for lending in sections) in order that the benefits of books collected in Salem might reach beyond the walls which housed them and be put in hands stretched out from the far corners of the state.”

She arrived in 1905 in Salem to fill the position of Secretary of the Oregon Library Commission to find, “neither books, quarters, traditions, nor financial support beyond the state appropriation of $1,200 a year for all expenses. The field was clear before me. It was the great privilege of my life to have placed in my hand the beginning and shaping of the new library venture in Oregon.” She would go on to formulate policies, secure financing from the Legislature, plan legislation for extending the library service through public and county libraries, and gaining the name of Oregon State Library for the institution she oversaw for more than 25 years.

Born in Monticello, Iowa in 1873 , Cornelia Marvin attended public schools in Minnesota and Washington, was privately tutored in Boston, and pursued higher education at the University of Chicago and then the Armour Institute library school. Women were welcomed to the profession of librarian in the 1890s, especially as the library movement spread across the country and communities opened tax-funded libraries.

After completing her studies in 1895, Cornelia taught library school. She helped establish open settlement-house libraries in Chicago. From 1897 to 1905, she worked in Midwest libraries and joined the Wisconsin Free Library Commission, one of the nation’s model library development agencies. While there, she became mastered the politics and practicalities of setting up and running public libraries.

Marvin moved to Salem in 1905 to direct a new agency, the Oregon Library Commission that went on to become the State Library in 1913. Cornelia was only 31, but was on her way to earning a national reputation for her skills that were in growing demand. The market for skilled, trained, effective librarians was competitive. She took a cut in salary to come to Oregon, finding the position offered appealing enough to do so.

When she came to Oregon, there were only three public libraries. By 1928, there were 82. She was a formidable, well-known advocate for libraries and public education. Under her capable leadership, the entire landscape of libraries in Oregon changed for the better.

Often traveling by team and wagon, she met with farm groups, teachers, clubs, and anyone else who would lend an ear to her pleas to support public libraries. Cornelia found many small communities lacking the resources to establish public libraries so she developed the concept of traveling libraries. The Legislature appropriated funds for the purchase of trunks, each to include 50 books, and began a traveling library service.

Her goal of providing the best books to the greatest number at the least cost was on its way to becoming reality. Among her many accomplishments were the development of free loan of books by mail to individuals without access to a library, collections of books suitable for school debating societies, and a campaign to improve the quality of children’s literature in Oregon.

In 1928, Cornelia wed Walter M. Pierce, who served as Oregon’s Governor from 1923-1927. Criticism was heaped on her because she continued her career, influencing state legislation. Many thought she should stay home, content to be a housewife.  It’s a good thing she ignored them.

Governor Julius Meier appointed her to the State Board of Higher Education where she served from 1931-1935. She was also the driving force behind her husband’s decision to run for Congress in 1932. Pierce ran a “two for the price of one” campaign, playing off her high public profile and exemplary reputation. Together, they worked as a team to represent Oregon during the New Deal era with Pierce serving in the U.S. House of Representatives and Cornelia doing what she did best.

Upon her death in 1957, she left her estate to Reed College. She is honored there with a faculty chair in her name.

Cornelia wanted to make “libraries the hub of the wheel of knowledge” for everyone. I, for one, am glad she did her best to make that happen.

Since tomorrow is National Library Worker’s Day, it seems fitting to highlight Cornelia and her contributions to not just the state of Oregon’s library system, but the country as well.


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