Public libraries are under threat as rural Oregon counties continue to cope with the loss of timber revenue. On Saturday, 10 Douglas County branch libraries will close their doors. Some hope to reopen as “reading rooms”. Community members are seeking long term funding to bring back their libraries.
The Reedsport Public Library is light and spacious. It’s a quiet afternoon. But librarian Sue Cousineau says this building is well-used.
Cousineau: “The Reedsport library is one of the most important places in Reedsport.”
Cousineau says the library recently underwent a renovation thanks to fund-raising and grants.
Cousineau: “Our library has a lot of windows, including a solarium. It’s just a very comfortable library and it’s just very pleasing to come into.”
Cousineau says people come here to check out books, use computers and hundreds of children participate in summer reading programs. But there won’t be a summer reading program here this year. Douglas County cannot afford to fund its library system anymore. With the loss of federal timber payments and a low property tax rate, thanks to voter passed measures 5 and 50, the county is taking in far less money than it needs to operate essential services. Douglas County Commissioner Gary Leif:
Leif: “We are on a clear path that in 3 ½ years, maybe less we’re going to be out of money. So what we have to do is figure out what is needed and what is necessary, and what we start charging for and what we can’t. And, unfortunately, the libraries was about a 3 million dollar hit.”
Leif says closing the libraries is the only option for the county. In the recent November election, a group tried to pass a special library funding district. But it failed 55 to 44 percent. The county’s branch libraries close April 1st. The main branch in Roseburg is open through May. Some cities hope to re-open soon under an agreement with the county.
Leif: “Unfortunately, it’s just a reading room model, which gives all of those libraries a way to keep themselves open on a volunteer basis.”
Leif is part of a task force that’s seeking long-term strategies for restoring library service. But he is leery of another county-wide ballot measure.
Leif: “But if it failed again, where would we be? So I would rather look at a model like Josephine County or possibly look at even a private vendor coming in and providing a service that may not be the perfect library system but at least it would let everybody stay open in a better model than a reading room.”
Reedsport plans to set up a reading room in its current library building.
Wright: “It’s not a good situation no matter how we look at it.”
Jonathan Wright is Reedsport City Manager.
Wright: “We will support the library however we can. Currently, the building is owned by the city. We maintain the services there. So, right now we’re looking at getting a volunteer coordinator and actually we have a young lady here that’s jumped forward and said she will take the responsibility.”
Wright says a dozen volunteers have also stepped up to help run the reading room. Joe Coyne is with the library advisory board and heads the Douglas county Library Foundation. He says the reading room will in no way replace a fully functioning library.
Coyne: “Without the wi-fi, without the people coming in without, people don’t come into the library to take a book off the shelf, sit down, read it, put it back and go home. It’s the magazines and the wi-fi that’s going to keep them here.”
The hope is to have computers and wi-fi available, but that’s still in the works. Coyne also wants to find a way for people to check out books. Even if it means going back to the old index card method. The community is raising money to fund the reading room, month to month.
State librarian MaryKay Dahlgreen says the mission of a public library is to provide a wide variety of information to everyone who seeks it, for free.
Dahlgreen: “It’s frankly one of the foundations of democracy to create a well-informed citizenry and I think now more than ever it’s important that there are resources out there that are very reliable.”
She says the reading room model might work as a stop-gap, but…
Dahlgreen: “I don’t think that model is sustainable at all.”
Dahgreen says public library funding has to come from public dollars. *Josephine County library supporters have placed a special library district measure on their May ballot. Dahlgreen says other Oregon counties have been through this. She points to Deschutes, Hood River and Curry County which have all found ways to bring their library systems back with public funding.
Dahlgreen: “The Douglas County library system, it’s heartbreaking, but I do deep in my heart, believe that they’ll figure out a way.”
Reedsport librarian Sue Cousineau is also optimistic.
Cousineau: “The Reedsport library will be here one way or another because the people in this area care so much about their library.”
Cousineau will stay on through April to help volunteers set up their reading room. Then, after 13 years running the Reedsport Library, she’ll be out of a job.