Securing the Historical Record

A Network of War Historians
State Librarian Cornelia Marvin
Busy State Librarian Cornelia Marvin didn't hesitate to chastise those who weren't pulling their weight in the effort to gather the personal service histories of those who served in World War I. (Photo courtesy Oregon State Library)
The State Council of Defense for Oregon appointed State Librarian Cornelia Marvin to the unpaid role of state historian in 1918. Her primary goal was to document the personal military service histories of the over 35,000 Oregonians in active service during World War I. She also sought to document a wide range of activities on the home front.
Marvin set about her work with unusual energy. She soon organized a network of county and local war historians. But progress was slower than Marvin had hoped and, feeling "very much distressed," she sent a letter to county historians: [capital letters] "IF YOU DO NOT INTEND TO SERVE AS HISTORIAN FOR YOUR COUNTY, AND CANNOT UNDERTAKE THIS WORK AT ONCE, WILL YOU NOT BE KIND ENOUGH TO LET ME HEAR FROM YOU...?"

School Districts Tapped

Realizing the effort was faltering, Marvin changed strategy in early 1919. The county and local historians were to continue gathering general information, but the job of collecting personal military service histories of Oregonians would shift to schoolteachers. This seemed logical since an extensive network of schools already existed throughout the state. As an added benefit, many school districts asked their students to write compositions describing "school war activities." Scattered complaints from school superintendents cropped up, but the new strategy worked reasonably well, if not as quickly as hoped.

"Records Desired"

Despite the spotty nature of the work of county and local historians, Marvin maintained the ambitious goal of gathering a comprehensive war history for the state. Among other records, she sought the following in a letter:

The Historical Legacy

While Marvin hoped a rich array of records would flow in from schools and county historians, in the end she accepted much less. Submissions with descriptions of home front activities remained uneven at best. Still, the great effort put into collecting information on the personal histories of the soldiers, sailors, and marines paid off. Local schools forwarded completed information forms for nearly 36,000 out of the 44,000 Oregonians who actively served during World War I. While some of the forms contain only the barest of information, others were replete with attached photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, poetry, and related items.


(Oregon State Defense Council Records, State Historian's Correspondence, Box 1, Folder 14, Nov. 16, 1918 letter to county war historians from Cornelia Marvin, State Historian)