On April 1, the people of Oregon’s Douglas County will see ten of their 11 libraries close. The last, the main, will soon follow. This decision by the county Board of Commissioners, announced January 9, is a sad outcome to a long battle to keep the system open. For those who live there, it will mean a devastating loss of a key cultural hub along with the access to information, expertise, technology, stories, voices from around the world, a book-rich environment, and all the skill development, inspiration, and aspiration these resources offer. It’s a loss the community at large should not take lightly.
This closure comes in spite of a relatively strong outlook for U.S. libraries. The news from LJ’s 2017 Budget Survey (“Keeping Up”) and the results of the 2016 referenda (“Measured Success”) are worth pausing for a moment to celebrate. Nationally, library support is strong. Budgets are inching up, and there was approval for the bulk of library ballots, with a full 86 percent of operating measures and 68 percent of building referenda passing last year. Time and time again, we see communities recognize the value of libraries, choosing to invest with wins at the polls and with more budget dollars. This happens locale by locale and voter by voter, usually after careful planning and lots of hard work.
This is what support looks like. As a field, we should tout this success and be clear when we talk about libraries that, on the whole, they are thriving—despite the persistent noise about their supposed demise or any misunderstanding of what they offer. The narrative that libraries are flourishing is a true one.
Still, it’s not necessarily the story of each library, and we must also be thoughtful about and creative for those that are struggling in the face of losses or funding dips. Our library network is strengthened when all libraries are at their best and vital libraries are part of the ecosystem wherever one lives. Where measures don’t pass, or budgets drop, we can be sure library leaders are actively striving to create a better outcome next time, despite disappointment. However, a library closure should have alarm bells ringing for all of us. They are ringing for me.
Some might say, after all, it’s just one system. No. This is not business as usual, and the complete elimination of a library is a loss not only to the community it serves but to the network of libraries as well. While we can absorb and rebuild from one such defeat, too many will weaken that fabric. We only need to look to the UK to see the danger of losing sight of the value of investing in libraries.
No funding situation is simple, and the drama of dwindling dollars for Douglas County owing to falling timber revenues has been developing for years. Last fall, when a proposal to create an independent tax district for the system failed, the situation became dire, resulting in January’s decision. As EveryLibrary’s John Chrastka told LJ, it’s “a perfect storm there of a shrinking subsidy base without a new taxing district, and an attitude that ‘any tax is a bad tax.’ ”
This particular perfect storm has been roiling for rural areas in the United States for a long time. Yet rural libraries are some of the scrappiest I know, fighting for hours and resources and carving spatial wonders out of minimal square footage. These libraries deliver every hour they are open. Could they be so much more? Probably. Do they have enough support? Not even close. Do they make a difference? At every level of the population. They particularly have a significant, long-term impact on the children they serve. They can be an all-too-rare link to a needed skill, an essential piece of information, or a vision of an unimagined future. They can provide an unmatched place to convene and converse about the questions of the day. When a community gives up its library, it gives up on itself.
I mourn for Douglas County, but even against these odds, I hold out hope for its residents. They are now being challenged in a new way to confront what a library signifies to them. Instead of giving up, I hope they will reinvest and claim for their future all that strong libraries bring.