New state librarian finding her way through stacks, Oregon government

Oregon’s new state librarian, Jennifer Patterson, among the stacks at the Salem institution. (Jaime Valdez/Portland Tribune)

SALEM — Jennifer Patterson loves libraries. She always has, she says.

Now, she’s Oregon’s state librarian — the person in charge of supporting every library in the state, as well as managing the State Library and helping legislators and state agencies with research, reference materials and anything else a library can provide.

“What I love about libraries is that they provide access,” Patterson said. “They’re all about providing access to everyone … and to anyone who is interested in either the entertainment value that libraries can bring, the educational impact they can bring, the career opportunities that libraries bring by providing access to information and resources.”

Officially, the only qualification for the job is experience and training in the library field. But in reality, it’s a role that is hard to prepare for because it is so unique.

If you go to the Salem Public Library, for instance, you’ll find families checking out books to read, older students studying or spending time with friends, adults using computers to apply for jobs or housing, and more.

The State Library, located across Court Street from the Capitol, has little of that activity. The stacks are filled with congressional reports, conference summaries and other such tomes — some of which date back to the Revolutionary War. There are conference rooms, and a small library with audiobooks and braille books, which see some public use. Patterson said she works with state officials and other libraries in a way that she never has before.

“I’m still getting my bearings,” Patterson said.

Gov. Kate Brown appointed Patterson to a position that had been vacant for more than a year, after MaryKay Dahlgreen was fired in March 2018. Patterson started May 13.

Patterson comes to Salem after a career split between Los Angeles, northern Colorado and the Seattle area. She’s never lived or worked in Oregon, but she is familiar with the state because her father and stepmother moved to Portland when she was a preteen.

“I would come out every summer,” Patterson said. “Once I moved to the Seattle area, I’d come down to Portland frequently for holidays and family events.”

Patterson grew up in Fort Collins, Colorado, about half an hour south of the Wyoming state line. She got her bachelor’s degree at the University of Northern Colorado.

Patterson started as an elementary school teacher after college but she found herself attracted more to working in the school library. Her focus continued to shift, as she worked as a children’s librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library and earning a master’s degree in library and information science from UCLA in 1999.

Patterson never ended up working in a school library, even after moving back to Colorado and then to the Seattle area, where she’s spent the past decade and a half. The closest she came was serving as an associate dean at Edmonds Community College north of Seattle, the last job she held before being appointed as Oregon’s state librarian.

Since her appointment, Patterson has gotten a crash course on Oregon, its government, its libraries and more. She has yet to replace the décor in her second-story office, simply adding to it with two pieces of artwork by her daughter, Maisie. She’s still finding her way around the labyrinthine building.

“There is so much hiding back here,” Patterson said.

The collection at the State Library in Salem includes historic references that are hard to find. (Jaime Valdez/Portland Tribune)

So far, she’s made a good impression.

Caren Agata was interim state librarian after Dahlgreen’s dismissal and has stayed on as a program manager.

Having done the work, Agata understands the job Patterson now holds.

“I think first and foremost, you have to understand librarianship and the field of library science,” Agata said.

The State Library also has a leadership role among Oregon’s libraries. It provides grants and trains librarians and library trustees.

“It also involves sharing our story and promoting what we do,” Agata said, adding, “People take libraries for granted, because they just assume they’ll be there.”

The search for a new state librarian took time, Agata said, but she thinks it has yielded a “wonderful, wonderful result.” Patterson is experienced, smart and “very steady,” she said, and she’s glad to be working with her.

“I would say that they hit a home run, ultimately,” Agata said.

Esther Moberg, president of the Oregon Library Association, is also getting to know Patterson.

“The Oregon Library Association is excited to have her on board at the State Library,” Moberg told Oregon Capital Bureau.

When Patterson finds any spare time — even as she worked at Edmonds Community College and applied to become state librarian last year, she was working on a master’s in public administration — she enjoys reading and hiking.

She divides her time between Salem and Kenmore, Wash., just outside Seattle. Her husband, Ryan Patterson, has a counseling practice and their daughter is in her senior year of high school. Patterson has been making the nearly five-hour drive up to Kenmore on Friday nights, returning to Salem for the workweek.

“We’ll revisit things after a while here,” said Patterson, who also has three cats and a dog at home in Washington.

Patterson is getting to know her new environs as well.

“I’ve had such a warm welcome from both the State Library employees but also the library community,” Patterson said. “The library community has been very welcoming. I’m really excited to see that and to start getting to work with the library community here.”

The Legislature changed the law in 2015 so that the governor appoints the state librarian. Before that, the State Library Board of Trustees appointed the librarian.

Patterson is one in a long line of state librarians in Oregon, which began with Cornelia Marvin in 1913. The State Library itself was built during the Great Depression as a public works project, like the Capitol.

As state officials and library managers, Patterson and Agata said they know they have to make a case for libraries in an age when information is readily available online and books can be downloaded to laptops, tablet computers and smartphones.

Patterson said that while she enjoys leafing through a book, she likes the convenience of e-books, and they make up much of her reading.

To that end, the State Library now conducts much of its training via webinar. It also maintains online databases and digital collections, although it takes “a lot of time and effort and dollars,” as Patterson put it, to digitize written publications.

 “Working in libraries is very fulfilling,” Patterson said. “You get the opportunity to see firsthand the impact that libraries can have. In all of the positions that I’ve had, I’ve had those type of opportunities to hear from people about what libraries mean to them, what they’ve been able to accomplish because of the services that libraries provide.”

Oregon’s new state librarian, Jennifer Preston, among the stacks at the Salem institution. (Jaime Valdez/Portland Tribune)

Reporter Mark Miller: [email protected]. Miller works for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, Pamplin Media Group, and Salem Reporter.


Cornelia Marvin, Oregon’s first state librarian, married a former governor and was never the state’s First Lady. An earlier version misstated that she was a First Lady. Jennifer Patterson earned a degree in public administration. An earlier version misstated her degree. Her last name was misspelled in the caption in an earlier version.