Public libraries offer a little taste of civilization in even the most remote places. Often, no matter how far removed you are from urban centers or busy trading locations, non-fast food restaurants or buildings over two stories, walking into a public library can give you a glimpse at a wider world.
Some people think the internet is like that, but the internet has become a cesspool of conspiracy, hate, and feel good animated gifs. Besides, it rarely offers free access to contemporary books.
That’s why it’s always sad to see public libraries close, especially in rural areas. It doesn’t happen often en masse, but it’s happening now in rural Oregon, where ten branches of the county library system have just closed.
Granted, some of these libraries serve very small towns like Drain, population 1,151, or Glendale, population 874, but the county is 5,134 square miles, so it’s not like driving over to the county seat is a short trip, even if the main library at the county seat wasn’t closing in a couple of months as well, leaving the country library-free.
Some of the towns are hoping for slightly better days than having a closed library, but the going doesn’t look easy.
Most of the towns or small cities are gathering together volunteers hoping to reopen the libraries in some capacity, as reading rooms, wi-fi hot spots, and perhaps, someday, even circulating libraries.
One city, Riddle, plans “to have computers and Wi Fi available, and are working on obtaining a secure system for checking out books, one that might be shared between several cities and allow for networking and inter-library loans between city branches,” a hopefully attained ambition out of proportion to its population of 1,185.
It’s an uphill battle, with disparate actors trying to reinvent the wheel without the benefit of any cooperation from other towns. Why is this happening?
It’s because voters around there voted against a property tax increase to pay for the libraries. The county had been having budget problems ever since the federal government stopped sending pork its way in 2014.
The county also voted 71% for President Trump, presumably because they wanted to “make America great again.” America was great back before public libraries, but also when the federal government sent more money to a county than it paid in federal taxes. Ahh, the glory days.
And now industrious citizens are trying to salvage what little public reading culture they have left, with volunteer storytimes and the hope that at least people can read the books the libraries already own, even if it seems unlikely they’ll ever be buying books again, or circulating them, or getting access to books outside their small collections without some collective county plan.
It would be interesting to know how many free riders will be using these volunteer libraries, if they manage to reopen. How many people who didn’t vote for a property tax increase, but will still use the libraries for some purpose.
Hopefully none, but that’s not what the tragedy of the commons predicts. People who believe there are no public goods don’t seem to mind using them whenever possible.
When Andrew Carnegie began donating money to build public libraries, he stipulated that the money would only go to communities that agreed to continue funding their libraries. He knew that just handing money to a community to build something good for the public was useless if the public wasn’t interested in supporting it.
The Douglas County Library System was founded in 1955, after what looks like a boom period when the population more than doubled over a decade. And after 62 years it’s shutting down, perhaps never to reopen.
For all those people who want and need public libraries, for whom libraries are a lifeline to information and literacy, well, I guess they’ll have to move someplace else. The people have spoken, and that’s just not the kind of thing they want.