The most significant election news on November 6 happened in Multnomah County, Portland, OR. After a nearly 30-year struggle, the voters in Multnomah County decided by an overwhelming margin to create a permanent library district starting July 1, 2013.
I know library budget news can sometimes make eyes glaze; it often seems like the same story in a different place with different (shrinking) numbers. But this is an exciting victory for a large and important library system. The Multnomah ballot victory is similar in many respects to the passage of Measure L in March 2011 for the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL).
The people of Multnomah demonstrated overwhelmingly (Measure 26-143 passed with 63 percent of the vote) that the steady erosion of library services was a major concern of theirs. Not only do they want to stop the degradation, which this year meant reducing services 14 percent and cutting hours to 44 per week, but they want, via this stable, long-term funding source, to restore the library and make it stronger, more vital.
It may shock the tenth-rate myrmidons of the tax-cutting legions that to protect and nurture a beneficent, first-rate civic institution like the public library, the citizens of Multnomah voted to raise their taxes ($49 a year). The permanent library district will guarantee the library steady revenue (up to $1.24 per $1,000 of assessed value), which is money it can plan on without fear that it may shrink or be diverted to other programs.
This permanent district will liberate the library’s funding from its reliance on a three-year local option library levy and the Multnomah County general fund. More important, it frees the library’s staff (and by extension its services) from the often futile budgetary activities and debates that stunt the library’s wings.
“It gives us the ability to be more strategic about planning for the future,” says Vailey Oehlke, director of libraries in Multnomah County. “What’s fabulous is that we are now in a position where we can restore services and think creatively about what we need to do for the future.
“We’ve been in a hunker-down mentality and that is very limiting in our sense of the future and of what’s possible and of what can be, but now, suddenly, the doors are open, and it’s a wonderful changing of the conversation,” she says.
Permanent library districts are not new. The triumph in Multnomah brings the total in that state alone to 26. But their creation, particularly when employee rights are protected (AFSCME Local 88 supported the ballot measure), is crucial to rationalizing the operations of library systems, especially in a time when public libraries already confront a plenitude of deep disruptions. And when it happens to a major system like Multnomah, which the LJ Index of Public Library Service in November named as one of its five-star libraries, then all should celebrate because good things are going to happen.
On October 15, for example, LAPL was able to restore Monday and Wednesday evening and Friday morning hours to all 73 city libraries—a 15 percent increase in hours over 2011. Just one of the many restorative measures taking place over four years thanks to the revenue guaranteed by Measure L. Multnomah will benefit in the same way.
With precise and timely explanations on its clean website (a lesson for other libraries) and a broad coalition of supporters—including county commissioners, the library foundation, Friends of the Library, Local 88 leadership and members, private citizens, and library staff—Multnomah has affirmed not only the value of its public library but also the worth of collective political action in the defense of any library.
Michael Kelley, Editor-in-Chief