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Lovin' Our Libraries, Guest Blog by Kate Lasky (Josephine Community Libraries)
Oregonians love libraries.
You can tell because we check out over 60 million items a year, second only in use across the nation to the state of Ohio (IMLS, 2009).
In fact, one of the nation’s most esteemed, five-star, libraries is the Multnomah County Library with 19 branches—a fully staffed, thriving library system serving its diverse community with everything from traditional collections of bound books to eBooks in multiple languages to children’s Summer Reading Programs with over 100,000 participating youth. So, it’s surprising that three library systems in Oregon closed in recent years, making national news headlines. But, what wasn’t covered in the national news is even more surprising—that citizens reopened all of them.
Hood River County, Jackson County, and Josephine County libraries all closed between 2007 and 2010. How could this happen? Libraries are the cornerstone of democracy. They provide free and open access to information of all kinds, they’re vital to children’s early literacy, and, in Oregon, they are in higher-than-usual demand.
At my library, we are signing up an average of 350 new library cardholders a month, that’s a 25% increase every year. So, how does an entire library system close, especially in such a library-friendly state? The short answer is lack of funds, mixed with lack of foresight; but, the long answer includes the story of how they reopened, every last one.
All of these counties are very different from one another, except for one important thing; the county governments experienced a drastic decrease in revenue from the lack of timber sales due to environmental protections that began in the 1980s. Add to that the ever-increasing cost of doing business, the 2009 economic downturn, and the failure of Oregon’s serial levy system to consistently fund county departments, and you have county commissioners forced to make tough decisions, weighing such concerns as whether to fund public safety or public education. But, regardless of funding, citizens would have nothing of it.
In Jackson County, after outraged residents marched and protested the closure of their libraries, the commissioners outsourced management to a for-profit firm on contract, LSSI, at a significantly lower cost.
In Hood River, citizens rallied twice to pass a library district measure, a very stable funding model.
And, in Josephine, citizens chartered a nonprofit, Josephine Community Libraries, Inc., to operate their libraries with the support of a considerable amount of volunteers and optional donations by individual and business members (plus a healthy amount of fundraising). Of all three models, the library district is by far the preferred—but the point is that regardless of funding, these libraries are open by citizens for citizens, for the children who need them today, the adults who value them, and the seniors who want to leave a behind a treasure for generations to come.
These libraries are a testament to citizen commitment, not to the democratic process, but to what it ensures—free access to information, literacy, arts, and culture. Governments may close libraries in Oregon, but citizens will reopen them. I guess libraries are like the phoenix, in their destruction a new one will emerge, as perennial as the human spirit.
Kate Lasky, Josephine Community Libraries