Cornelia Marvin was born on December 26, 1873 in Monticello, Iowa, the second of five children of Charles and Cornelia Marvin. As her family moved, she attended school in Minnesota and Washington. After her mother died in 1892, Cornelia moved to Chicago in 1893 where she worked as a "mother's helper" and studied at the University of Chicago in her free time. She enrolled in the Armour Institute library school in 1894, earning a library certificate the next year.
Marvin worked as a reference librarian and instructor at the institute before moving on to work at several midwestern libraries as well as the Wisconsin Free Library Commission from 1897 to 1905. These experiences gave her expertise in establishing public libraries at a time when interest in subject was growing. The Progressive Era was in full swing and it placed high value in an educated and informed electorate.
Finding herself in a well-established library program in Wisconsin, Marvin accepted an offer to direct the new Oregon Library Commission in 1905. The appeal of establishing new libraries in Oregon was a powerful draw for a woman who by then combined a national professional reputation and a mission to expand the role of public libraries in society. Once the commission evolved into the Oregon State Library in 1913, she served as the first state librarian until her retirement in 1928. Marvin helped communities organize and establish tax support for public libraries. Once libraries were formed, the State Library provided direct services from Salem.
By any measure, Marvin was successful in her mission. There were three public libraries in Oregon when she arrived in 1905. By the time she retired, the state boasted 82 public libraries. Moreover, Marvin started the first program in the country to distribute free books by mail, which greatly benefited rural areas that were too small to support a public library. During her tenure, the library's holdings grew from 2,500 volumes to over 250,000 volumes. She also proved to be a tireless, sometimes scolding, advocate for library funding from the Oregon Legislature, repeatedly challenging legislators to provide adequate support.
Reflecting a tradition with teachers and librarians, Marvin resigned her position in 1928 to marry former Governor Walter Pierce. However, her commitment to libraries and to Progressive causes remained strong. She served on the State Board of Higher Education from 1931 to 1935. She was instrumental in her husband's successful run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1932. During the campaign the couple portrayed her positive reputation as an opportunity for voters to get a "two-for-the-price-of-one" deal in Congress. The couple worked closely together in that role until his defeat in 1942, when Walter Pierce was 81 years old. During that period, they both lived in Washington D.C. where she wrote most of his speeches, often in support of New Deal legislation.
The couple returned to Oregon in 1943 and retired near Salem. Walter Pierce died in 1953. Cornelia Marvin Pierce died on February 12, 1957.
(Sources: Oregon Encyclopedia | Reed College Finding Aid | Gunselman, Cheryl. "'Wheedling, Wangling, and Walloping' for Progress: The Public Service Career of Cornelia Marvin Pierce." Oregon Historical Quarterly 110:3 (Fall 2009), 362-389)