Every time I try to tell someone about my experience with our public library, they interrupt to tell me about how important a library has been to them. This past year I’ve been researching the history of public library services in Whitman County as part of nominating the Colfax branch of Whitman County Library for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. It turns out that libraries have always been important to local residents.

It began with one or two books that individual settlers brought by wagon when they arrived after the Civil War. The first school was established near Colfax in 1872 and, frankly, whatever books were lying around served as the first textbooks. A bit later, when purchasing books for neighborhood schools, residents prioritized dictionaries, which they felt would cover many topics, at least in brief. Shelves of books in the back of classrooms were the first libraries.

In 1878, the Baptist Church opened the Colfax Academy, later known as Colfax College, to provide a secondary education. William Inman established a law practice in 1879 and offered shelf space in his office in the Whitman County Courthouse for a lending library, which later moved to the council chambers and was open two nights a week for patrons.

Newspapers and railroads offered notable support for literacy, with the railroads charging reduced rates for the shipment of textbooks.

The Colfax Academy Library Association opened a subscription library in 1882 and by 1886 it featured 154 books. When professor and Mrs. F.N. English retired from the college, they left behind 1,400 books for community use.

Small bookstores were another source of books for rural residents, which carried them along with stationary, wallpaper and other goods. A.E. King’s bookstore in downtown Colfax, founded in 1895, was one of the largest and best known. An outdoor wall mural advertising the King bookstore was restored in recent years and can be viewed in downtown Colfax.

About 1900, literary societies and lecturers became popular, often supported by local churches. In 1904, Colfax had two small libraries, one of them a Christian Science reading room. In 1908, the First Baptist Church opened its own reading room.

From 1909-29, the Washington State Library sent out “Traveling Libraries” to locations around the state. Cartons of books were shipped out to anyone who would agree to manage them. After the recipient and nearby residents had a chance to read the books, they would be shipped back to Olympia and a new set would arrive.

Colfax declined to apply for a Carnegie Library. In 1907, William Goodyear, editor of the Colfax Gazette, declared that the community should not whitewash Andrew Carnegie’s crimes by accepting one of his libraries. It took another 20 years for Colfax to get a library of its own.

In the 1920s, the public school library, which was combined with a public library service, had 2,430 books and 484 patrons. By 1940, the collection had grown to 28,000 books. I am indebted to Barbara A. Ward and the Bunchgrass Historian for most of this history.

Continued enthusiasm for public libraries led to the construction of the Colfax Library in 1960. To design the library, Spokane master architect Warren C. Heylman was hired. While his playful designs left some to question his aesthetics, many of his projects received architectural accolades. The unusual neo-Expressionist architecture now has been recognized by the National Park Service with a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. People who weren’t even born in 1960 continue to benefit from the commitment of previous generations to their local public library.

Hallett is president of the Friends of Whitman County Library.

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