Northwest Library history

Library service in West Portland began in 1864 when a small group of citizens established a subscription library and reading room under the name, “Library Association of Portland.” The group initially rented rooms in the Benjamin Stark Building on First Street, then moved into the second floor of a bank building at First and Stark streets before finally building a library on Stark Street between 6th and 7th avenues. The library moved into this new building in June 1893, where it shared space with the Portland Art Museum for the next 12 years.

On March 10, 1902, the library became a tax-supported free public library, open to all residents of Portland. In 1903, services were extended to all residents of Multnomah County. Library service first spread to outlying areas and neighborhoods of Portland, where travel to the downtown Central Library was a difficult journey — especially during rainy seasons —for those not living near the railroad or river.

In October 1912, the Library Association of Portland president reported that Central Library served all of the west side and a portion of the east side, because it was accessible to all residents in those districts.

Central Library moved to its current location at S.W. 10th Avenue and S.W. Taylor Street in September 1913. The three-story, 120,000-square-foot, Georgian Revival-style building boasted more space for books, lectures, programs and displays.

In 1939, Friendly House — a library deposit station sponsored by the Neighborhood Association and maintained by two Works Progress Administration recreational workers — opened a reading room for three months in a church at N.W. 16th Avenue and N.W. Savier Street. Very few books circulated, but the reading room helped to meet the needs of 10 to 12 boys between the ages of 18 and 20, who had previously spent their time playing cards.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the population in numerous urban Portland neighborhoods — including Northwest Portland — declined as residents moved to the suburbs. Many houses were demolished to make room for Interstate 405 freeway and new commercial developments.

In the 1980s and 1990s, neighborhood revitalization began as small shops and services moved in along N.W. 21st and 23rd avenues. Developers renovated older apartments to preserve their historical character. Refurbished industrial buildings in the nearby Pearl District and Cultural District found new life as multi-use living and working spaces.

In 1993, Multnomah County voters approved a bond measure that included $24.8 million for preserving and preparing Central Library for the 21st century. Improvements included necessary seismic reinforcement, upgraded electrical circuitry to support state-of-the-art computer technology and an energy-efficient climate control system.

In November 1997, voters passed a five-year operating levy for Multnomah County Library. This levy would provide a new library in Northwest Portland by funding the lease of space, book purchases and ongoing operations.

On July 27, 2000, the Multnomah County Commission approved the leasing of space for the new neighborhood library in the historic building at N.W. 23rd Avenue and N.W. Thurman Street. The building had housed a pharmacy when it opened in 1928, and a potter’s workshop occupied it in the 1960s and early 1970s. Harris Wine Cellars operated a wine retail store and café in the building from about 1978–1999.

Planning and construction for the new library took about a year. Changes included structural upgrades to meet current seismic and Americans with Disabilities Act standards; improved data and telecommunications infrastructure to support Internet-capable computer stations; and an interior redesign to accommodate a meeting room for library programs, community meetings and events.

Northwest Library opened on October 30, 2001.

Fact sheet

  • Area: 5,000 square feet
  • Book capacity: 20,000 volumes
  • Renovation architects: Holst Architecture, P.C. (exterior) and Thomas Hacker and Associates, Inc. (interior)
  • Contractor: Northwest General Contractors, Inc.
  • First librarian: David Miles
  • Opening: October 30, 2001

Read the histories of all neighborhood libraries, and explore historic library photos.