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Hidden treasure in downtown Portland

The Special Collections Room at Central Library is a place for serious research amid a trove of rarities, from 13th century Bibles to early-edition copies of Beatrix Potter's children's tales.

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A page from a rare 19th century silk book in the John Wilson Special Collections of Multnomah County Library. Photo: William C. Stack

What do Beatrix Potter, John James Audubon, and Charles Dickens have in common?  If you guessed the John Wilson Special Collections Room at the Central Branch of the Multnomah County Library, you would be right. 

Jim Carmin, the Special Collections Librarian, presides over a collection of more than 12,000 volumes of early books, manuscripts, and archives that are extremely diverse and represent an impressive array of knowledge. The collection, which is available to anyone who has a valid and current photo ID, holds rare treasures such as early 13th century Bibles, a cuneiform clay tablet that is more than 5,000 years old, and more than ninety editions of A Christmas Carol, as well as serial copies of several other Dickens novels.

Under Carmin’s leadership, the Special Collections Room has assembled an enviable collection of rare books. With the help of The Library Foundation and private donors, Carmin is constantly working to improve the collection. “The people of Portland have been very generous with donating rare books over the years, and the library has been the lucky recipient of that generosity,” he says.

Jim Carmin, John Wilson Special Collections Librarian since 1998. Photo: William C. Stack

You can make an appointment to see the Special Collections materials in person, and also access some of the collections’ holdings online by using the library website. Many photographs and other documents from the collection have been digitized, but many other materials still need to be digitized, according to Carmin.

You can visit the collections through July, and then not again until November. Central Branch will be closed for major renovations for three months beginning Aug. 1, as The Oregonian/Oregon Live reports. The renovations are funded by part of a $387 million library bond that voters approved in 2020.

Although it plays a rarefied role at Central Library, the Wilson Special Collections Room isn’t easy to find unless you already know where you’re going. It’s tucked away on the library’s mezzanine level, accessed from a staircase in the Periodicals Room. Entering, you notice immediately that this a special place, because of the ambiance of the room as well as the collection itself.  Blinds close off the room’s large windows to keep natural light out. The rare books are housed in custom-built cabinets, and the special items are housed in a safe located in the room. This is a place where serious research and discovery are conducted.  To add to the atmosphere, and in recognition of the room’s valuable holdings, many security cameras watch every visitor. There is also an alarm system, and security guards are close at hand.

A typical day for Carmin might consist of processing a photographic collection of 300 World War II Signal Corps images; assessing a potential gift from a donor; viewing music manuscripts; responding to emails regarding facilities and donor issues; contacting a New York City book dealer about a specific book on fly-fishing; gathering archival materials on Mary Isom, who was an early head librarian of the Multnomah County Library; and acquiring a rare printed publication written by the Black Panthers at the University of Oregon in 1969.

Prior to the pandemic, Carmin would have scholars in the special collections room conducting research for bachelor’s and master’s degrees, as well as school groups learning about the importance of using primary-source documents. He makes a point of emphasizing that the special collections room is for serious research rather than casual reading.  However, members of the public are welcome to visit the room, and Carmin is willing to conduct tours of the special collections room.

How does a person come to preside over such an unusual treasure trove? Carmin took a somewhat circuitous route to his position, but one that in an unusual way prepared him very well for the job. He attended Rochester Institute of Technology, where he studied photography, and later studied ceramic arts, receiving his bachelor’s degree at Ball State University. He began work on a Master’s in Fine Arts program at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, but didn’t finish it, deciding he didn’t want to become a potter or a ceramic arts teacher. He then worked as a jeweler, but found the environment stifling and, he says, racist.

From the collections: photos of musicians who performed in Portland, from left: John Philip Sousa (1921), opera singer Rosa Ponselle (1927 or ’29), Béla Bartok (1928).

Then he got an opportunity to work at a university reference library as a student worker. Finding it fascinating to work in a library, where people came to him with questions, he decided to pursue a library degree with the idea of using it to complement his art degree, and earned his Master in Library degree from Ball State. Soon after, he got a library job at the University of Oregon in the art library, and decided he also wanted to pursue a degree in art history. Carmin was working on his art history degree while he was also working full-time at the university’s art library. After several years of hard work, he earned his second master’s degree, in art history, from the U of O. 

During this time,  Carmin oversaw a new collection at the University of Oregon Art Library of contemporary artist-made books. In addition, he took writing and printmaking classes at the University of Oregon, and ended up staying 12 years.  After completing his degrees, he moved to Portland and worked for Blue Sky Gallery, the oldest nonprofit photo gallery in the United States. He also worked for Powell’s Books for a short time before getting a new position as reference librarian at Multnomah County Library.  He then applied for the position of John Wilson Special Collections Librarian. He got the job, and has been there ever since.

Inside the treasure room: The John Wilson Special Collections Room. Photo courtesy Multnomah County Library

A little background on the collection: Irish-born John Wilson was a private book collector who arrived in Oregon in 1849. When Wilson died in 1900, he stipulated that his private collection of 8,000 volumes be given to the Library Association of Portland (the predecessor of Multnomah County Library) with the added stipulation that the collection be accessible to everyone and the collection stay in the library. In addition, Wilson gave $2,500 to the library, which provided an impetus to start the construction of a new library building. Several prominent Portland businessmen, among them William Ladd, Henry Failing, and Henry Corbett, also contributed to these fundraising efforts. The new library, designed by the noted architect A.E. Doyle, opened in 1913.

The John Wilson Special Collections Room is divided into six core collections: book arts and the history of the book; children’s literature; natural history; Pacific Northwest history; literature, including among many others works of Charles Dickens and D.H. Lawrence; and Native American literature. Other items that show the breadth and depth of the Special Collections are a complete 20-volume set of photographer Edward Curtis’s The North American Indian (1907-1930); Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755); and souvenirs, photos, and pamphlets of Portland’s Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in 1905. 

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This collaboration between Mare Blocker and Marilyn Crosetto in the exhibition “Broadsides: a selection of poetry & other writings from the John Wilson Special Collections,” is an homage to the late Skagit Valley, Washington, printer Chris Stern. Photo courtesy Multnomah County Library.

In addition to his Special Collections Room duties, Carmin, along with other library personnel and members of the community, curates exhibits at the Central Branch Library. Many of the exhibits are from the archives and/or the Special Collections Room. Through July 31, Broadsides: a selection of poetry & other writings from the John Wilson Special Collections, an exhibit of 80 hand-printed placards and 18 “poetry in motion” placards, is on view in the Collins Gallery, on the third floor of the Central Library.

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Multnomah County Central Library
John Wilson Special Collections Room

  • Interested in visiting or conducting research in the Special Collections Room? You may contact Jim Carmin at the library by phone 503-988-6287 or via email at jimc@multcolib.org to arrange an appointment (at least 24 hours in advance).
  • Where is it? Inside the Central Branch Library, 810 SW 10th Avenue, downtown Portland. 
  • Who’s eligible? Members of the public, school groups, writers, researchers, and scholars are encouraged to contact Carmin at the library.
  • Note: Central Library will be closed for three months beginning Aug. 1, 2022, for major renovations.

William C. Stack has been an educator for 37 years, teaching history during that time with a focus on U.S. history and world history. He also worked for the Pew Charitable Trust. Mr. Stack earned his undergraduate degree in history and a master’s degree from the University of Portland. He earned two fellowships to study American history at Oxford University and was a recipient of a Fulbright Teacher Exchange award. Mr. Stack has written several articles and a book about various aspects of American and Pacific Northwest history: Historical Photos of Oregon (2010), John Adams (2011), George Flavel (2012) and Glenn Jackson (2014).

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One Response

  1. I really enjoyed reading this feature. What a wonderful treasure Mr. Carmin resides over! Thank you so much for sharing the story about Multnomah County Library’s John Wilson Special Collections Room.

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