Downtown Portland has two popular stops for visiting book lovers. The first is, of course, Powell’s City of Books, a full city block stacked with shelves to get lost in. The other is Central Library, the downtown branch of Multnomah County’s public library system. Multnomah County libraries rank among the highest in the nation with respect to the circulation of books and other materials. Central Library houses expansive reading rooms, dramatic staircases, and special collections in addition to public meeting spaces and technology resources. Staff host regular storytimes, English classes, and computer help sessions, as well as classes on web development and word processing, legal clinics on US citizenship, author lectures, and arts events—like a recent preview of Portland Opera’s production of La Bohème. And that’s just at the downtown branch—eighteen other branches boast used book sales, cultural festivals, gardening and sustainability classes, hip-hop theatre art, and more.
Meanwhile, south on I-5, Douglas County recently announced the closure of its eleven library branches, eliminating access for many of the county’s approximately 107,000 residents. The closure comes on the heels of a defeated ballot measure last November that would have implemented a property tax increase in order to fund the library system. Ten branches have already closed as of April 1, while the main branch in the county seat of Roseburg is struggling to put a funding plan in place that will allow it to stay open through the end of the fiscal year. In early April, the Oregonian reported that last year Douglas County libraries circulated 450,000 items. In comparison, Multnomah County shows 19.2 million items circulated from 2015 to 2016. That contrast looks even starker when placed in the greater context of Douglas County, where an upcoming major item on the budgetary chopping block is the sheriff’s department. How do you make an argument for library spending in a county that has already eliminated health services and land management, and where law enforcement will be severely cut in the next three years?
But neither budget problems nor library closures are new to the area. Changes in federal payments related to protected forests have crippled the local budgets in Douglas County, which encompasses a substantial piece of Umpqua National Forest, as well as neighboring counties. Ten years ago, Jackson and Josephine counties, directly south of Douglas, shuttered their public library systems due to lack of timber payment funding. Jackson County reopened a special library district in 2014, contracting with a for-profit management service, and Josephine County established a nonprofit, largely volunteer-staffed organization that has had limited and ultimately unsustainable success—most library branches are open less than twenty hours per week, and supporters are pushing for another ballot initiative this year that would establish a system similar to that in Jackson County. All three counties have failed repeatedly over the last decade to pass tax measures that would fund libraries and sheriff’s departments alike.
As timber payments dry up and voters refuse property tax increases, questions about the future of Oregon libraries loom large. It’s all very well for the approximately 26,000 people who visit Multnomah County libraries, in person or online, every single day. But in Josephine County, if it’s Sunday or Monday and you need a book or computer access, you’re out of luck. And in Douglas County, the library website has a section directing residents to “out of area library resource information.” Multnomah County is first on that list of Oregon libraries offering nonresident library cards and services for a fee of $180 per year, but it’s an hour and a half drive up the interstate to get to a physical library. Is it better than nothing? Probably, but it certainly isn’t readily accessible. I don’t know how many Portland metro area residents live within spitting distance of a library, but I know that I can make it to two different counties’ branches from my house in less than ten minutes.
For children and adults alike, access to library resources is educational, inspirational, and necessary—sometimes making the crucial difference between employment and joblessness, school preparedness and dropping out, or simply between community and isolation. These are critical tools in the human endeavor of sustaining and improving oneself, as well as defining one’s place in the world. The world is a better place when Roseburg and Grants Pass, as well as Portland, have these tools available to residents, and we are consciously and determinedly advocating for real solutions to the obstacles in their way.