"History of the Great Falls Public Library"

By Kathy Mora, 2004

Since Ben Franklin founded the Free library of Philadelphia in 1731 – the first public library in the nation – libraries have flourished throughout the country. Libraries have long been viewed as a mark of a civilized people and land; nevertheless, even at a time when many in the eastern states still viewed Montana as a rough and uncultured area, libraries began to thrive here as well. It was scarcely sixty years after Lewis & Clark first traversed and documented the area that the first library was established in Helena in 1868.

Great Falls was not to be far behind. Just one year after Montana had attained its statehood, the first public library in Great Falls was founded. Paris Gibson, widely recognized for his planning and development of the city, played a lesser known role in the library’s establishment.

From its creation, the Great Falls library exhibited signs of being a progressive organization. Although the physical space of the library has changed several times over the years, the progressive and forward thinking that helped establish the first library has been evident throughout intervening years. The basic tenet that “the comfort, convenience and legitimate desires of all patrons, whether clad in overalls or mink coats, should receive pleasant, sympathetic and intelligent consideration by every member of the library personnel” (Smith et al. 1938), still holds true over a hundred years later.

From Gibson to Google: A History of the Great Falls Public Library

The Valeria Library

Valeria Library
The Valeria, as it appeared around 1910. (Photo: Great Falls Public Library)

Montana Gained its statehood on November 8, 1889 and was still widely known to the states in the east as a relatively uncivilized area. However, a scant two weeks before, a letter to the editor appeared in the Great Falls Tribune:

“Now that the winter months are at hand and the nights are cool, some place of resort should be provided for the young men of the city that will be free from the temptations of city life…Many young men are living in rooms which have no convenience for fire and they must spend their evenings and leisure hours somewhere. Let us have a reading room and public library”

Signed “one of the young men” (“Reading”, 1889, n.p.)

Paris Gibson, a Minnesota businessman, had first arrived in Montana in 1879 and landed at Fort Benton, making his start in sheep ranching. Some years later, he became the driving force in the planning and development of Great Falls as one of the leading cities of the state. It was not until one of his later trips to the region that he brought his wife, Valeria, with him. Gibson, although originally from Maine, was a successful businessman in Minneapolis where he and Valeria had married. The couple had been instrumental in establishing the public library in that city (Roeder 1992).

After the letter appeared in the Tribune, Valeria Gibson was motivated to establish library service to the citizens of Great Falls. She had previously organized the Valeria Library and Art Association as a local, private cultural society.

The already established association was incorporated as a stock company in November 1889 just as Montana was becoming the 41st state in the union. Paris Gibson, with a donation of $500 and Robert Vaughn, by donating $250, were two of the largest investors, with others donating smaller amounts. Original stock in the Association was valued at $5.00 per share. Stockholders were allowed to check out two books at a time upon payment of $1.00 per month. Non-stockholders could check out one book upon payment of a $2.00 deposit and fee of 25 cents per week. (“History” 1959).

The Water-Power and Townsite Company donated two city lots to the Association and plans were made for the construction of a library building. The land was located at the corner of 2nd Avenue North and 3rd Street (211 North 3rd Street being the official address), which has remained the location of each subsequent library.

In the meantime, the Association found temporary quarters over a tailoring establishment and opened for business on January 20, 1890.  The collection consisted of approximately 800 volumes, many of them personal items of Mrs. Gibson’s in addition to donations by Association members and friends of Mrs. Gibson in Minneapolis. By 1900, the collection would grow to 6500 books (Brown 1981).

The new structure, “a neat and tasty building”, was completed late in 1890 at a cost of $5000.00. The rooms of the new building were “well lighted by a sufficiency of windows, those in front having neat transoms” (“Valeria Public Library” 1894). Those same transoms would be rediscovered and displayed in the current library almost a century later.

The building was christened the Valeria Library and the collection moved into its new quarters. In 1892, the City of Great Falls took over the operation and funding of the library and it was renamed the Valeria Free Library. City government taking on the operations and financial responsibility of the library was a novel concept at the time. In 1910, a city ordinance changed the name yet again and established the library as a “free public library in the City of Great Falls, Montana, for the use of the citizens thereof to be known as the Great Falls Public Library and the same shall be maintained forever by said city” (City of Great Falls 1910). Thereafter, all citizens of the city were freely allowed to borrow books.

As with most libraries, there was a card catalog system in place to assist library users in finding materials, but the library also published the Finding List in 1895. The softbound book was a listing of materials contained in the library and could be purchased and taken home for 25 cents. Mort (1981, p.B1) described the booklist as including “a cosmopolitan collection of books Great Falls had no cause to be ashamed of”.

In addition to listing books by author, title or subject, the Finding List also outlined the ruled for proper behavior in the library (lest you were tempted to forget), which included in part:

  • “The Library is entirely free in all of its departments.
  • Any person of good deportment may use the Reading Room.
  • Any resident of Great Falls, of the requisite age, may draw books from the library by filing a guaranty…” (Valeria Public Library 1895)

Although the Valeria Free Library ceased operation in 1903 when the Carnegie library was constructed next door, the building continued to be used for other purposed. In the 1920’s, it was used as the headquarters of the American Legion and during World War II as headquarters of the Victory Book Program (a program that collected books to send to soldiers overseas). The building was also headquarters for the county library, in addition to being used for overflow library storage until 1961 when it was demolished after being declared unsafe.

The Carnegie Years

Carnegie Years

The Great Falls Carnegie Library as it appeared sometime around 1910 (Photo: Great Falls Public Library)

By 1902, the Valeria’s collection had outgrown the original building and members of the community were hoping to build new quarters for the library. The community looked to philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in the hopes of receiving funds to construct the new library. Carnegie, a multimillionaire who had started out as a poor Scottish immigrant, believed that people who accumulated great wealth had a moral obligation to give their fortune away to benefit society. In doing so, he was responsible for the building of more than 2500 libraries worldwide by donating over $56 million dollars in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Lorenzen, 2002).

After no small amount of debate on the amount to request of Carnegie, community members opted to write to the philanthropist and ask for $50,000:

"Dear Sir:

An enterprising and one of the youngest cities of the great west desires to participate in your magnificence by asking of you a benediction in the sum of fifty thousand (50,000) dollars for library building purposes…”

(Curtis, Crutcher, & Matteson 1902)

The letter included detailed descriptions of the city and its economy, in efforts to convince Carnegie to donate the funds. After a wait of several months, the city was informed that Carnegie would in fact fund a new library, although in the amount of $30,000 and not the original sum requested. With an additional $5000 donated by the city, plans for the new library moved forward.

Helena architect, C.S. Haire, was hired and developed the design of the new building in classic Greek style. Haire had previously designed the Miles City and Dillon Carnegie libraries and the Parmly Billing Memorial Library.

Although the library was due to be completed by March 1903 it wasn’t until October of the same year, and after numerous delays, that it actually opened for use. The building’s spacious quarters included a workroom where books would be “received, stored, unpacked, cataloged, fumigated, etc.”(“Great Falls Public Library” 1903, p.6).

A full children’s room was opened in the basement of the library in 1911. Given that the first children’s reading room in the country had opened in Brookline, Massachusetts only 10 years before, the Great Falls library was considered a pioneer in children’s library service in the state (“History” 1959).

Prior to the opening of the children’s room, the head librarian, Jennie M. Connor, had taken a course in children’s services at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh – the only library in the United States that offered the course at the time. After returning to Great Falls, Connor instructed Josephine Trigg, who studied under her as an apprentice without pay for six months. Trigg later stated that “unusual vision was shown in opening a children’s library here” (“Miss Trigg” 1941, p.5).

Josephine Trigg was a close friend of Charlie and Nancy Russell, both of whom visited the library often. Charlie Russell especially liked to visit the library during the Christmas holidays and Trigg suggested to him that he paint a scene to go with the Christmas décor of the Children’s room. Agreeing, Russell painted “The Night Before Christmas” and gave it to the Children’s Room. The painting was unsigned and undated, chich caused Trigg some concern given Russell’s widespread reputation, but Russell insisted that he had “made it just for fun” (Kilroy 1965).

Christmas Program
Children gather for a Christmas program in the basement of Great Falls’ Carnegie Library sometime after 1911 (Photo: Great Falls Public Library)

Library Services Expand

The library’s collections continued to grow and to meet community demand a separate collection of 250 books was set up at the West Side Bank in 1920. In 1923, the collection was moved to the West Side fire station. By 1940, the collection had grown to almost 1500 books and the West Side Library was opened in the West Side Community Hall (located at 600 1st Avenue Southwest) and staffed with a part-time librarian. The West Side Library was closed and taken over for use as office space by the Army in 1942 and did not reopen for library service until early 1945. In 1947, still another collection was established, this time in the Bill Holt Recreation Building (located at 6th Avenue South and 15th Street) to serve the Bill Holt and Parkdale housing areas.

In August of 1943, the Cascade County Library was established and was briefly housed in the old Valeria Library. The library started with a small number of books that had been donated by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), but eventually grew to a collection of over 20,000 books and also included records (LPs), filmstrips, record players and film projectors. The county library served mainly rural areas, including schools and their teachers. The county library also provided bookmobile service, funded through the Works Progress Administration County Library Project, to Cascade, Pondera, Teton and Judith Basin Counties (“Mrs. Amy Patterson”, 1960, p. 13).

County library headquarters were later moved to a site on Commercial Avenue (located at the Great Northern railroad tracks between 9th and 10th Avenues South and running diagonally to 2nd Street South) and then to quarters in the Shrine Club adjacent to the public library building. The move to the Shrine Club location was precipitated by the county collect ion being combined with the public library in 1959 (“Mrs. Amy Patterson”, 1960, p. 13).

The public library began providing bookmobile service to the city of Great Falls in 1956. Great excitement accompanied the $15,000 purchase of the city’s first bookmobile and the service was viewed as “the modern day approximation of the general store” (“National Library Week”, 1958, p. 25).

Bookmobile service in the city was a continuance of years of rural library service, including the Cascade County Library WPA bookmobile and bookmobile services in other communities around the state. An early form of bookmobile service began in 1921 when the general manager of the Anaconda Company’s Lumber Division had given the Missoula County librarian permission to leave books at the company’s headquarters and camps in Bonner, in addition to a hotel where many of the company’s crews stayed. Within a year, the service had proven such a success that the general manager arranged for construction of a special railroad car to carry books, magazines and newspapers to the company’s camps throughout the western part of the state (Harper 1897, pp.20-24).

Planning for a New Library

Along with the growth of the city and its population, the library’s collections continued to grow and to seriously strain the capacity of the Carnegie building. A small annex to the building had been added in 1932 and in 1953 remodeling was completed on the front entrance and workroom of the main library in order to accommodate the growing collection and shrinking public and staff areas. The library, which had been spacious and filled with light when built, was now cramped and dark. Books and shelving, stacked to the ceilings, covered windows to take advantage of every bit of space. Alma Jacobs, the Carnegie’s head librarian, would become a driving force in the pursuit of public approval for a new library building.

Alma JacobsRevered Great Falls Librarian, Alma Jacobs, poses on the second floor of the newly completed public library in 1967 (Photo: Great Falls Public Library)

In 1954, after working as a catalog librarian for 8 years, Alma Jacobs was named head librarian of Great Falls Public Library. At a time when the city was strictly segregated, Jacobs, an African American, became one of the city’s most respected women through her untiring and determined work for the library. A longtime friend of Jacobs, Dorothy Bohn stated, “it was due to her that people mellowed here in Great Falls” (Ivanova, 1997a, p1M).

Jacob’s chief concern was library service to the community and downplayed the subject of her race stating, “I resent being thought of as a Negro librarian. I would rather concentrate on being a good librarian” (Ehlers, 1967, p.2). Alma Jacobs would head the Great Falls Public Library until 1973 when she resigned to head the Montana State Library in Helena.

Informal studies on the need for a new library were being done as early as 1946. By the late 1950’s the need for more space was becoming critical (in 1903, the Carnegie library comfortably housed under 10,000 items, but by 1952 the same building was home to over 60,000 items) and Frederick Wezeman, Professor of Library Sciences at University of Minnesota, was asked to prepare recommendations for the city. His proposal included several possible sites for a new library:

  • Across 2nd Avenue North from the Carnegie, between 3rd and 4th Streets; the site was home to a service station at the time.
  • On the same site as the current library, with the addition of the Shrine Club land to the east.
  • On the same site as the current library, with the addition of two lots across the alley to the north. Two houses occupied the lots at the time. (Wezeman 1957)

In addition, the Milwaukee Depot, which had been given to the city of Great Falls by the railroad, was also suggested as a possible site by the local newspaper (Milwaukee Depot”, 1958, p.6).

In desperate need of room for expansion, the land and buildings adjacent to the Carnegie, owned by the Shrine Club, were leased in late 1958 and later purchased in the summer of 1963. The space was used to house offices and work space for bookmobile and extension services and was referred to as the library annex (“Library Board Agrees”, 1963, p.10).

While the move alleviated some immediate concerns, library staff and community members knew it was only a temporary solution. In a letter to Alma Jacobs, guest library speaker Margaret Scherf hoped that “your plans for a new building are a great success, and that soon the haunted storage annex will be no more” (Scherf 1958). But the voters of Great Falls were not ready to finance a new library and by the mid 1960’s there were 10,000 books stored in the annex and 20,000 more items, including newspapers and periodicals, stored in an airplane hangar on Gore hill.

A Modern Library

Modern Library

Alma Jacobs, library board members and various groups throughout the city campaigned tirelessly for a new library, but voters rejected bond requests for the needed funds in 1959 and again in 1963. Although several studies completed over the years had shown the increasingly crucial need for expanded library facilities, it was not until 1965 that the voters of Great Falls approved a bond in the amount of $900,000 for doing so (the new library building was estimated to cost $1.2 million, with the remainder to be provided by federal funds).

A bond to fund a new swimming pool and the issue of instating daylight savings time for the city shared the 1965 ballot with the library bond issue. A survey taken prior to the vote showed that while 66% of respondents said they would vote for a new library, 75% said they would vote against switching to daylight savings time (Franklin 1965). Given that the issue of daylight savings was a contentious issue, it was expected that many voters would go to the polls, a potential benefit for the library bond.

Jacobs and other library staff immediately set to work creating a preliminary document outlining requirements for the new building, keeping in mind that the “trend toward a shorter work week with more leisure time and more need and use of the library should be considered in planning the size of the building” and additionally that “there should be room for 50 or 60 staff members” (Jacobs, et al. 1965). The long years and months of planning and campaigning paid off when the library bond issue was finally passed that spring, although by a small margin (the swimming pool bond passed as well, but daylight savings time was rejected).

The Carnegie library was closed on Sept. 4, 1965 while its contents were moved to the Hub-Thisted Building at 322 Central Avenue (former location of Thisted Men’s Clothing). The library reopened for business in its temporary quarters on Sept. 15 1965. The building would be home to the library for two years while construction of the new building took place. Demolition of the Carnegie began in early November and was completed in one week, paving the way for construction of the new building.

Given the long process of getting voters to finally pass a library gond, officials were anxious to reassure the public that funds were being used wisely. Branson Stevenson, a well-known Montana artist, stated the new building should be “strictly functional, without any chrome or unnecessary frills” echoing an earlier library staff comment that “it should not be a monumental building, but should be functional in design” (Great Falls Public Library 1958).

The new modern library building was completed in the fall of 1967 and was dedicated on November 12 of that year. With the closing of the West Side Branch the following fall, the library’s collections would be brought together under one roof for the first time in many years.

The following spring, the lot across 3rd Alley North (originally envisioned as an additional parking lot) was purchased for the development of a library park. The park provided a restful area filled with trees to “impart pleasure to all who behold them” (Roeder, 1992) echoing Paris Gibson’s belief in the value of a community filled with trees and greenery. A plaza and fountain area at the front of the library was completed in 1969.

A New Era

In the following decades, Great Falls Public Library continued (and still continues) to expand its collections and services to the community. Increasingly, the demand for library materials and services has led to the development and increasing importance of various cooperative efforts between libraries and communities throughout the state. Following that trend, Great Falls Public Library began contracting in the 1970’s with surrounding counties to provide library services, including interlibrary loan and bookmobile service.

In 1998, Great Falls Public Library entered into a joint services agreement that allowed patrons from Great Falls and Helena to check out materials from either library. At the time, the two libraries were using the same library automation software and the pilot project was meant to be of a year’s duration. Now in the early 2000’s, they no longer share the same computer software, but the service is still in place and has served as an early model for a statewide library network.

Early in the 1980’s, computer technology was being investigated for use in conducting library business providing it could “be harnessed to business and education applications” (Dyrland 1983). In preparation, a physical inventory of all library materials began in 1986 and initial cost estimates from potential computer system vendors were gathered.

In 1989, major renovation of the library took place including asbestos removal, carpet replacement, and enlargement and remodeling of the children’s room. In addition, a computer vendor had been selected and a new computer system was installed. The library had entered the computer age.

The library’s first bookmobile had started operating in 1956 and had been replaced with a new vehicle in 1976. The bookmobile was the only way for many rural areas to have access to library services, but by the mid-1990’s the bookmobile was in a constant state of disrepair and was increasingly difficult to repair and find parts for. It was unknown how long bookmobile service could continue, given that the library did not have funds to replace the untrustworthy vehicle. In 1998, after an article in the Great Falls Tribune concerning the aging vehicle, the library received an anonymous donation of approximately $140,000 for replacement of the bookmobile. A new bookmobile was ordered and built according to library specifications and was delivered from North Carolina in October of 1999. The addition of a computer on board helped streamline loaning of materials.

Throughout its history, the library had received donations of materials and money toe help in providing library service. In 1996, the library received the first of funds from the Dorothy Lampen Thomson estate. Although she resided out of state, Thomson’s parents had lived in the Great Falls area in the early 1900’s and Thomson wished to give back to the community. Over the next few years and with additional bequests from the estate, the trust would total approximately $1.5 million. The funds were received and invested by the Great Falls Public Library Foundation, a non-profit corporation that had been established in 1968.

Even in the days of the Valeria, the loaning of materials carried the risk of non-return of those same items, but loss of library books was reaching epic proportions by 1999. After determining that there was approximately $66,000 in arrears on library accounts, the library contracted with a collection agency in fall of that year to help in recovering missing materials. Although it was feared that working with a collection agency might alienate some library users, director Jim Heckel clarified that “it’s the book we’re after…we’re not after you” (Ivanova 1997c, p.M1). While the dilemma of materials not being returned will always exist, use of a collection agency by the library had alleviated some of the problem while still maintaining the good will of the community.

In 1997, after suggestions from a local businessman, library officials discussed the use of vending machines in the library. Although vending machines and food kiosks existed in many academic libraries, public libraries typically did not even allow food or drink through the doors. Numerous library staff and board members proved vocal objecting to the idea, although some library users were also aghast. A library board member complained that she had already found cheese between the pages of books. Director Jim Heckel was “less worked about cheese in the Chaucer than soda pop in the rug” (Ivanova, 1997b, p.M1). Installation of the machines proceeded and did not prove to generate the envisioned problems, while at the same time providing a small amount of revenue to the library.

As the library moved from building to building, many items had been lost or forgotten. In the early 1980’s, Joy Hamlett, library Readers’ Advisor, discovered the Valeria Library’s original stained glass windows – packed, stored and forgotten in an obscure corner of the building. Hamlett was instrumental in leading an effort to have them restored through grand funds (“Grnt”, 1981, p.1A). The cleaned and restored windows now hang in the Montana Room on the third floor of the library, an enduring link to the first library of the city.

In the last decade of the 20th century, the library still had an abundance of space available for its collections. In July of 1991, a major portion of the third floor of the building was leased to the Cascade County Historical Society Archives. In addition to providing for staffing of the library’s Montana Room, the arrangement has served to strengthen both collections and to provide more convenient public access to research materials. The Archives are expected to eventually move into the Historical Society building proper (located at 422 Second Avenue South), resulting in the consolidation of that society’s collections. The vacated library space will be needed given that the continued growth of the library’s collections and services are again beginning to strain the available space.

With the advent of the Internet, libraries began offering yet another service to their patrons – Internet access for research and recreation. In the summer of 1995, Great Falls Public Library began offering dial-up Internet service to the public from one computer station. In the fall of that year, there were no waiting lines to use the service even though, according to local Dan Bennet, “ A chipmunk could operate it …Even an attorney” (Kotynski, 1995, p. 1D).

As the popularity of the Internet increased exponentially, the library discontinued dial-up and switched to broadband access, while continuing to add public access stations in an effort to meet demand. Although the longstanding function of the library – locating and serving information to its community – is still in place, the Internet, by becoming integral to the library’s services, has changed the ways in which that information is provided. Library users are able to use a variety of online subscription databases in addition to a myriad of other resources for research purposes. The library’s online catalog offers library users instant access to materials and to their own library records. And, of course, users can still lookup library materials by subject, author or title from within the library or from their home – the newest “edition” of the Valeria’s Finding List.


 Since the founding of the Valeria Art and Library Association in the late 19th century and continuing to the present day, library service had played a significant in the Great Falls community – from providing a place for young men in a frontier town to broaden their minds to helping to broaden the minds of a city populace through acceptance of a woman of color; from the pioneering of children’s services in the state to serving isolated members of the community through bookmobile service; from the contributions of Paris and Valeria Gibson to the ubiquity of Google. More than a century later, the library continues to provide information opportunities to all, regardless of whether they are “clad in overalls or mink”.


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