About a year ago, I posted about shutting down libraries. A newspaper columnist suggested on his Twitter account that they were no longer necessary, and no one goes there anymore. 110,000 other Twitter users put him in his place.
I also examined a librarian’s opinion that shutting down some public libraries might not be all bad. It would serve as a wakeup call to others. He suggested too many libraries lack good customer service, relationships with funding bodies, advocacy for libraries, or vision of what modern libraries ought to be.
And Douglas County, Oregon had just provided a test case. In 2016, voters considered a tax initiative to keep its library system. Proponents said the increase would amount to about $6, the price of a fast-food meal. A solid majority, 55%, voted against it. So one by one, all eleven branches closed. It became the only county in the country not to offer public library services.
How is that working?
About Douglas County
Douglas County is about the same size as Connecticut but has barely more than 100,000 residents.
The local economy always depended on the logging industry, which has declined drastically. Other businesses, such as grocery stores, drug stores, and gas stations have closed, further eroding the tax base. In response, the county has reduced its public employee workforce by 60%. It has started charging fees to use the landfill and parks and suspended recycling service. It has seen the privatization of its healthcare system. Douglas County is even wondering if it can still afford to maintain its sheriff’s office.
Although the state of Orgon leans Democratic, southwest Oregon is staunchly Republican and supported Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election by a margin of two to one. The Republican party is not just the party of the rich!
The national election brought out the anti-tax sentiment of one of the poorest counties in the state. Douglas County has one of Oregon’s lowest property tax rates, but also about the lowest per capita income. At least one property owner hotly disputed that the library levy would add only $6 to his taxes. He estimated $360.
Some libraries reopen
A solid majority of voters may not want higher taxes, but a perhaps different solid majority wants library services. Grassroots efforts have led to the reopening of nine of the 11 libraries in the former county system. I have found some description of six.
All of these efforts were complicated by the fact that the county still owned the buildings and everything in them. Each town library has had to negotiate the rights to use them.
Reopening of libraries does not mean restoration of all the services of the defunct library system. That would require both more money and more manpower than the new libraries can muster.
Tax-funded town libraries
Three of the towns, Roseburg, Reedsport, and Drain, voted to open town libraries with tax dollars. That means they will have professional staff and longer hours.
Roseburg, the largest town in the county, was home to the main branch. It has chosen not to participate in interlibrary loan, meaning explicitly that it will not share resources with other newly reopened libraries in the county. It will charge $60 for a library card for anyone who does not live within the city limits, although students in city schools will get free library cards in any case.
The librarian in Reedsport couldn’t get access to the database of patrons and library cards and had to start to rebuild it from scratch.
Town libraries run by volunteers
Other libraries decided to open with volunteer help only.
The town of Riddle, for example, decided it could afford to pay for utilities and upkeep of its library building. But not any staff or library services. The library reopened with an all-volunteer staff in June 2017. It took steps to become a nonprofit company. It now operates 15 hours a week, spread over three days. The Riddle Library uses the kind of manual checkout system, with book cards and a ledger, that libraries abandoned decades ago.
Myrtle Creek has reopened its library for 20 hours a week with an all-volunteer staff. Glendale’s volunteers keep that library open 12 hours a week, but already three have quit.
Attracting volunteers for the beginning of a project can be much easier than keeping them or replacing the ones who leave. Illness and burnout can both take a toll. Running a library is complicated, which is why library directors must have professional library degrees. And how can a handful of volunteers keep a library open for anything like adequate hours?
Eventually, if Douglas County wants the level of library services it once enjoyed, it will have to fund it with increased property taxes.
County officials have made it clear that they will not seek to reopen a county-wide system. In fact, one commissioner who opposed the tax increase claims some of his constituents are angry that any libraries reopened at all. Although he says he favors library services, he sees no reason why the county ought to fund them.
If the volunteers can’t maintain adequate service, he may find out.
Anti‑tax fervor closed their libraries. Now residents are trying to go it alone / Kirk Johnson, New York Times. October 17, 2018
An Oregon county closed all its public libraries. These rural, DIY book lovers revived them / Shane Dixon Kavanaugh, Oregon Live. June 30, 2018