Multnomah County Library history

Thanks to the support of Multnomah County voters in 2020, Multnomah County Library is making history with major transformations. Learn more about the library’s building projects and explore the library’s history in more detail through the Oregon Encyclopedia’s entry for the Library Association of Portland.



2023 In December, the library launched its extensively redesigned website, Incorporating patron input, the site includes equity-focused improvements and culturally relevant content for the local Black and Indigenous communities. 

2022  An intense construction period began. Learn more about the library’s most recent building projects.  

2021 The library fully reopened for indoor service between June and August. 

2020  Voters approved a bond measure that will dramatically increase community library space, and build a brand new East County Library. 

2020  In March, all Multnomah County libraries closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Libraries began a phased reopening for sidewalk service in June and July. Patrons were not allowed inside library buildings. Sidewalk service included pick up of reserved materials outside. Libraries served patrons through virtual services, including offering online programs and video storytimes. 

2014 In September, the library celebrated its 150-year anniversary. The library held a block party on SW Taylor St., next to Central Library, to celebrate.

2013 The library hired its first Somali-speaking bilingual staff member. About 75 library staff serve in bilingual Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Russian and Somali positions systemwide. 

2012 In February, the library began replacing the children’s game computers with iPads loaded with various educational games. On November 6, voters approved formation of the Multnomah County Library District to fund library services. Library district funding took effect July 1, 2013. The Library District creates stable library funding, eliminating the need for frequent levy campaigns. 

2009  The library introduced a laptop lending program. Small, laptop computers were provided for patrons to borrow and use inside library buildings.  

2005  The bilingual and bicultural program expands to include bilingual staff serving theRussian, Mandarin, Cantonese and Vietnamese communities. The program was later rebranded as “We Speak Your Language.”  

1998  The library established an outreach program to bring services to Multnomah County’s growing Hispanic and Latino community. The library began to designate bilingual and bicultural staff positions in libraries across the county.  

1997 School Corps, a group of outreach librarians who work directly with educators and students in Multnomah County schools is launched.

1996-early 2000s All library buildings are renovated, expanded or rebuilt. At the same time, technology access was improved in every library.

1996  Voters passed a general obligation bond measure to improve technology in all Multnomah County libraries and renovate deteriorating libraries.

1994-1997 Central Library underwent a significant seismic retrofit and renovation. 

1990  After 126 years, the Library Association of Portland transferred ownership of the library's buildings, books and other holdings to the people of Multnomah County, to be governed by the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners. 

1973  The library began deliveries of materials to homebound patrons, senior housing facilities, community centers and other locations. 

1971  Rocky Butte Jail opened, with a new inmate library organized and run by Multnomah County Library outreach staff.

1950s  The library began to replace deposit stations and smaller locations with larger branch libraries.

1943  Construction began at Vanport City, later becoming the country’s only public library in a war housing project. Vanport Library became a branch of the Library Association of Portland in 1944-45. The building was later destroyed in the 1948 Vanport Flood.

1920s - 1930s Baby clinics were offered at some libraries, including at Arleta Library and  St. Johns Library.

An old photograph of a baby clinic inside a library, people sitting in chairs, a woman with her baby at the front of the room, the doctor is inspecting the baby on a table.

Inside Arleta Library’s baby clinic. A doctor is caring for a baby on a table. Women and babies are sitting in chairs in the background.


1918  All Multnomah County Libraries closed November 1-16 in an effort to help stop the influenza pandemic. 

1913 Central Library opened, replacing the Stark Street Library.

1908  Many neighborhood libraries were founded as local efforts in this era. One example is The Women’s Club in Troutdale, which ran a subscription library for many years before it became part of the public library. Multnomah County Library formally opened the Troutdale Reading Room on April 7.

1907 After Multnomah County established free library services, it focused on creating an “extension service” to bring library service to communities around the county, thanks to efforts by local volunteers. Most operated in storefronts. In 1907, new buildings opened for the Albina Library and the East Portland Library. Sellwood Reading Room  (a volunteer library run by neighborhood residents) became a Multnomah County Library branch.

1905  The Sellwood Reading Room opened as the first public library facility in Multnomah County outside of the main library in downtown Portland. 

1903  Deposit stations provided small collections of library books in 11 locations outside the main library in downtown Portland. Deposit stations were either entirely unstaffed or staffed by volunteers from the neighborhood. 

An old photograph of a deposit station, a bookshelf inside a store.

A deposit station in a store near bags of corn and tires.


1903 The Library Law, previously passed in 1901, expanded to include county governments to support public library services. Multnomah County was now able to access free library services. The elected Multnomah County commissioners became members of the library board.

1902  On March 10, The Library Association of Portland became a tax-supported free public library, open to all residents of Portland. The library absorbed the Portland Public Library, a free library in Portland operating out of City Hall. At this time, the library introduced deposit stations in rural areas, a bookmobile service and new libraries in public schools. Explore this history through this Historical Sketch of the Library Association of Portland.

1901 Mary Frances Isom was hired. She later became the head librarian (equivalent to the Director of Libraries today). The Oregon legislature passed The Library Law, a law allowing incorporated cities to levy taxes to finance libraries. Women’s groups had long lobbied for this legislation.

1900 Portland businessman John Wilson died, and left a bequest to The Library Association of Portland in his will, with the condition that the library become free and open to all. 

1893  The Stark Street Library opened. Before the Stark Street Library opened, the Library Association of Portland was housed in commercial, multipurpose buildings. 

1891 The Portland Public Library opened with free service to all. Founders included former members of the Library Association of Portland. 

1870s The library operated a weather data gathering station.

1864  A small group of Portland businessmen met to establish a subscription library and reading room, organizing under the name "Library Association of Portland." Only members who paid dues could use the library. A more detailed account is found in the Oregon Encyclopedia’s entry for the Library Association of Portland.