Many people do not realize the genuine appreciation, held by westerners, of the written word. Yes there were illiterate people but not as many as you might think, and even those were not at all above setting down listening to others read. Newspapers were often handed around from person to person for weeks, every word being pored over. Families had no TV or radio so they would sit around and read to one another, always the Bible but also any other book they could get their hands on. I would venture to say that Shakespeare and poems were more read and understood then than today; probably more acted out as well as it was no odd thing for kids to pick out characters of a play and act them out on their own just for fun. And this leads us to the creation of the first Libraries, Carnegie had nothing on these western women except money!
To understand the first Libraries you must understand the nature of travel in the west. There was no steam train in the early days, all travel was done by wagon. When a team of draft animals is the motor of your vehicle you must be careful of weight; very careful. Nothing, unless it is strictly needed is brought along. The people who did not listen to this advice learned the hard way. Often their lives ended tragically, overloaded oxen giving out in the middle of nowhere. Books are heavy, as we all know from our school days, so they were left behind; often sold to buy seeds or tools. The only book to consistently make the journey west was the family Bible. If possible another book that would stand up to rereading was brought along like; Pilgrims Progress, Deer slayer, a collection of poems or some of Shakespeare’s works.
When families settled down and became established there was more time for reading and educating the children; to do this books were needed. Unlike today communities really depended on each other and helped each other out. You always knew your neighbors even if they were fifty miles away. So the general pattern of building a library went something like this. Books would first be swapped back and forth. Then one of the ladies would have an idea that it would be better to leave the book at Martha’s house in town, since the other lady would be going in next week. This would save miles of running back and forth for a book. Then Martha when the ladies got together to exchange books, gossip and tea at her house would say that so-and-so has the latest Owen Wister book and “my wasn’t it wonderful!”. Well Josephine simply must have that book! But she never gets over to Red Butte thirty miles away and could Martha ask to borrow it for her? Well I am sure you see where this is going! Martha will be running a regular errand service before long. So to save her from having to catch people when they come into town she suggests “why don’t we start a book club?”. Everyone likes this idea except perhaps Martha’s husband who has to build book shelves and live with his house full of books. But he is eventually convinced that he is doing it for the good of the community. Everyone pools their books and is happy for a while. However the collection would begin to grow slowly but surely. People as they could afford to bought more books from freighters bringing supplies west. Eventually the railroad came in, cutting the price of shipping down by more than half, since shipping was the main expense of a book, more people could afford them. When there got to be more books than Martha’s husband could stand he would say something like this “These infernal books have to go!” and Martha would sweetly answer “Oh what a lovely idea honey! Are you going to talk about it at the next cattleman’s meeting?” he gives her a blank stare, she continues undaunted “Well you don’t want to buy all the materials for the new library by yourself! I do declare! Aren’t you the most noble-hearted man in town! I will of course talk it over with the book club but since it was your idea I thought you could bring it up to your friends. Maybe they could have some of their hired help come in to erect the building! Just think dear they will remember you for generations to come “The man who built the first library in Red Butte county!” By the time she finished he really thought he had come up with the idea and before long there was a new library in town.
Libraries like this sprung up in booming communities throughout the west. In my example above I blame ladies, not because I personally assume men to be more concerned with the essential problems of life such as the price of beef per pound or the amount of snowfall in the high country, but because in most historical accounts women really were the ones responsible for the creation of libraries. Sometimes the library would have its origins not in our fictional Martha’s house but on a shelf in the general store, hotel, or if they had one the school house or church.
The picture on this page is of the first library in our San Luis Valley. It is in the town of Monte Vista and like the library in our example it was started by a book club and eventually outgrew the member’s home it was housed in. The stone of its walls were hand mined from a nearby stone quarry and were hauled buy wagon to the present location. This Martha’s husband must have had some pull in the community! It was built in 1885.
The first public library in California opened 1874 and not only could it boast that it was the first; it also boasted the celebrated Ina Coolbrith as their librarian. She said latter that she was more proud of being the first public librarian of California than of being the first woman author there. She went on to say when asked what she would do with a million dollars, that she would use it to open schools and public libraries. The famous poet in her twenty years as librarian shaped countless Californian youth; among others Jack London and Isadora Duncan. Jack London gives her credit for encouraging his interest in literature that eventually led to his becoming an author.
Our library was built in the same spirit and just about the same way as the ones of yesteryear. The library shares the building with our Print Shop display just like it could have in the old west. It contains not only volumes that are correct to the period but also books pertinent to the history of the west; with many hard to find volumes available for public study. Not everyone can keep up with the kids as they run from spot to spot trying to see everything so the library is a good place to set down and do a little quiet research on your own.