Idaho women led the way in creating libraries

The Columbian Club’s traveling library from 1899.
The Columbian Club’s traveling library from 1899. Provided by the Idaho State Historical Society

Idaho’s first public library opened on the second floor of Boise City’s small Main Street fire station in February 1886. There were other libraries in town of various kinds, but this was the first one housed in a city-owned building and open to the public.

Territorial Secretary E.J. Curtis spent a busy July that year cataloguing the books in the Territorial Law Library and alphabetizing them by state. He told the Statesman that he had engaged a man with a hickory club to keep watch and conk any man who mixed up and disturbed the arrangement of the books.

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union established its own free public reading room on Main Street on Dec. 5, 1888. Mrs. H.W Quivey said in the Statesman that the donation of chairs, tables, a stove, firewood, lamps, oil, books, periodicals, papers or cash would be gratefully accepted.

A Literary Society and a Shakespearian Club were organized in Boise in November 1889. Most adult members of each group had been exposed to the works of William Shakespeare in elementary school.

By the end of January 1890, as Idaho began the countdown to the achievement of statehood, the Idaho Statesman proudly told its readers, “There is not a public reading room between Omaha and Portland as frequently and generally used as that of Boise City. No less than 2,472 enjoyed the privileges of the reading room between Oct. 1 and Jan. 24. On one day 54 came.” The paper called it “a noble work of the women of Boise” and “Boise’s Pride.”

In March, on the occasion of a concert to raise money for the reading room, the opera house was filled “by the good people of Boise who are ever ready to lend generous encouragement to every good work undertaken by the ladies of the city.”

On April 1, 1890, the library, still called the “free reading room,” moved into Peter Sonna’s brick building west of his hardware store and opera house at Ninth and Main. The Statesman noted that, “The ladies will need more shelving and if anyone has such to spare they will gratefully accept the donation.”

The paper was pleased to report later that week that, “Boys are often seen there who act in as orderly a manner as though they were in church, as they should do, though they are often boisterous and loud upon the streets.”

Other libraries and reading rooms active in Boise in 1894 were those at the high school and the YMCA. In November that year a group of prominent citizens asked the City Council to give them space in the new castle-like city hall at Eighth and Idaho for a circulating library. Mrs. Calvin Cobb, wife of the editor of the Statesman, told the council that the furniture the women of the Columbian Club had donated for the Idaho building at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair would be available for use in the room. The council turned over a front room on the first floor to the right of the front door for the purpose.

By January 1897, under the management of the women of the Columbian Club, the collection had grown to 1,475 books, 489 of them added in the past year. Some 1,300 Boiseans had visited the library in December alone and had checked out 852 books for reading at home. The club had ambitious plans to create a traveling library that would ship boxes of books for readers of all ages to the most remote towns in Idaho at no charge. This would take money, and the club set out to raise it.

On Jan. 27, 1897, the Columbian Club sponsored a grand ball at the Natatorium for the benefit of the library. The Statesman announced that streetcars would run every 20 minutes to accommodate the crowds at what was expected to be the most important social event of the year. Mayor and Mrs. Walter E. Pierce led the grand march of the 75 couples in attendance. Floor managers wore the Columbian Club colors of sage green and gold, and the hall was decorated in red and white.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.