Standing in downtown Astoria, looking at the present-day Astoria Public Library one may not immediately recognize the building for what it is. People shuffle in and out, carrying their recently borrowed books or chatting about the teen programs. Couples with large backpacks and cardboards signs fill the benches just outside. Tourists hold unwieldy maps while staring up at the white and gray example of Brutalist architecture before them.
Taking up a quarter of a city block, the building itself, designed by architects Ernest and Ebba Brown, is rectangular, sharp, and – some have wagered – unattractive. Those that voted for its erection and felt the need firsthand, however, saw it differently.
October 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Astor Library and Veterans Memorial building, and although the Astoria Library has existed in some form since 1892, the current structure was purposefully built from a growing need for more than just a place to house a collection of books.
From the backroom of a shop on Commercial Street to the ground floor of the Elks Building, the collection was afforded little rest. Citizens grew tired of shifting the library from one disused building to the next, so they voted in 1964 to go ahead with construction and utilize available funds from the Astor Family, the Veterans Memorial Library Fund, as well as some federal funds. Construction took just under three years, and the building was dedicated on October 8, 1967. Former Mayor Harry Steinbock presented then-librarian, Bruce R. Berney, with a symbolic key to the new library during the dedication.
The completed venture marked more than just a new library building for Astoria and the surrounding area – it solidified the idea of a true sense of place in the minds of the citizens. The community saw their efforts grow as children came to the expanded story times, students had greater access to reference materials, and families gained a renewed affection for reading to one another.
Patrons were not the only ones who benefited from the brick and mortar finalization of the library; a stipulation of the committee in charge of the Veterans Memorial Fund saw to it that the Clatsop County veterans were properly honored. Not only is the Veterans Memorial in the building’s name, but the building also boasts a dedicated wing named the Flag Room that bears a plaque commemorating the veterans in the area.
Since its inception the library has seen many changes. In the 1970s, cassette tapes were added to the collection as well as framed artwork and 8mm films. Opening and closing hours fluctuated, as did the daily number of patrons. During his time as the librarian, Berney attempted to conquer and catalog the range of city papers, historical documents, and other ephemera amassed over the years. He succeeded in forming Astoriana – a collection devoted entirely to Astoria history. The collection, renamed in July of this year as the Bruce Berney Archives, is home to countless volumes ranging from family scrapbooks to Astoria High School yearbooks.
While the inside of the library continued to develop and change, the outside remained firmly the same. In 1997 Berney retired and without its Astor Library steward, the community’s vigor for the concrete building as a haven for all things learned began to wane. “I never thought it was very friendly looking,” Gail Mayor, a library patron since 1996, said of the building, “there’s no light.” Lighting seemed always to be a common issue with the building. While popular at the time, the signature gun-slit windows tend to date the structure and give little light. Architects renovating the city hall building in 2010 offered a remodeled version of the library – one that included an entire bay of windows, but public opinions, as well as the opinions of officials, differed vastly and renovation was tabled.
In May of 2017, after almost a decade of down votes, hang-ups, and other priorities, the Astoria Oregon Public Library Foundation received a unanimous vote from the City Council, allowing them to begin raising money for a two-year renovation of the Astoria Library and Veterans Memorial, expected to conclude in 2020. “I think it’s the right choice. People worked really hard to get this library, and I think if we can keep it then we should,” Gail said of the decision to renovate the existing structure. Now that the community has elected to keep the library in its current building, patrons and staff can begin looking toward the next 50 years.