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West Salem Branch (Salem Public Library)
On Oct. 17, 1957 the doors were opened and the West Salem Library was born. It began in 3 small rooms on the 1st floor of the old West Salem City Hall when the Salem City Council appropriated $6,450 to cover cost of salaries, furniture, and redecorating. An additional $4,000 to cover the cost of books had to come from private sources. Members of the Salem Jaycee's built the book shelves and did the painting, West Salem PTA members built tables, and the West Salem Lions Club installed new floor tile.

The first opening hours were 27 hrs per week and stayed about the same for the first 30 years. The first year, 12,564 books were checked out--half of that by children. That was an interesting building, with the old West Salem Jail and Fire Department water well located in the basement and a stage and open floor upstairs on the second floor, which was said to be used for occasional dances in years gone by. In addition, Chemeketa Community College--then called Salem Technical/Vocational School--started some of its first classes upstairs when they found their first location to be too small. So, Chemeketa Community College shared it's humble beginnings with the West Salem Library. In 1964 the Willamette River flooded and water came into the library basement 4 feet high. A small boat was launched to get around in there to save as many books as possible. For many years following the flood the four-foot high water mark around the walls could still be seen.

In 1973 when the two rooms being used as office space by other City of Salem departments were vacated, the library staff quickly moved right in with shelves and books--never bothering to ask the City fathers if they could have the space. The library director at that time, Claude Settlemire, just shrugged his shoulders at the staff’s audacity and said, "Well, I guess possession is 9/10ths of the law!". Staff never got into trouble. Over the years during tight budget times there was always proposals to close the West Salem Library. But because of such strong community support that never happened. In fact, in 1976 when the West Salem Library was to be closed because of City budget shortfalls, there were so many West Salem residents that showed up at the City Council budget meeting and such strong community pressure to keep it open, that the budget committee did vote to keep it open and found the money to do so by eliminating proposed raises for all City of Salem Department heads--including the Library Director! The City Department Heads never forgot it!

In 1987, after 30 years in the old City Hall building, the library moved into a 5,400 sq ft facility in the Oak Hills Shopping Center in West Salem. That developed into a model branch program, and librarians from all across the state visited the branch to see how it was set up and run. The first year in that location, circulation of materials shot up 100% and increased every year until reaching almost 168,000 in 1991. The West Salem Branch became the fifth busiest library among all 17 public libraries in Polk, Marion, and Yamhill counties. In 1991, Measure 5, the property tax limitation came along and fortunes of the branch took a turn for the worse. The City Council put the branch on the cut list because of the budget crunch the City was facing. As fortune would have it, during one of the City’s community forums to discuss the city budget proposal, including shutting down the branch library, the parent of a child at Walker Middle School proposed the branch be moved into the middle school. The City liked the idea, the school liked the idea, so in June of 1991 the branch moved into the Walker Middle School and combined with the school library. In the mornings the school staff ran the library and in the afternoons the public library staff ran the library. This administrative arrangement worked surprisingly well for the four years the library was in Walker.

Then in 1995 Orville Roth donated land immediately behind and adjacent to the West Salem Roth’s IGA grocery store upon which to build a new library. With large donations from West Salem residents, a federal grant through the Oregon State Library, and City of Salem general fund money, the new 6,000 square foot building was built. On September 25, 1995 the new branch library celebrated its grand opening ceremony and doors opened the next day for business.

In just a little over four months later in February of 1996, the Willamette River flooded. On very short notice, volunteers from the West Salem community rolled up their sleeves, boxed up books and equipment, and loaded them into two large moving vans, which moved to higher ground. The flood waters reached about two or three feet from the floor level of the library! So from February 7-10, the branch was temporarily shut down.

Compiled and written by Cliff Smith, Retired Extension Services Manager for the Salem Public Library, August 8, 2001


West Salem Branch of the Salem Public Library
West Salem Branch of the Salem Public Library
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