April 19, 2018

Oregon County Aims To Replace Volunteer-Run Libraries with Publicly Funded Model

image courtesy of FacebookLike many library systems, the Josephine Community Library (JCL) in Josephine County, OR, is looking to secure funding from the community via a ballot initiative this November. Unlike most library systems, however, JCL doesn’t yet receive any funding from the government, instead relying entirely on private donations and volunteer labor to keep the lights on. But while the model has seen a degree of success, even winning awards in the state, a failure to pass a ballot initiative garnering taxpayer funding later this year could stymie the nonprofit’s efforts to continue providing library services to the public.

JCL got its start in 2007, after the county cut all public funding to the library and shut down the system’s four branches, which served a population of 82,000. While the county council helped find money in the budget to keep up the outside facades of the buildings, other public funding was cut off. The doors of the library did not stay shut for long, though. After shutting down in May 2007, the main branch of the library was back up and running by December 2008, operating under the oversight of JCL, a private nonprofit funded by donations and run by volunteers.By the end of 2009, all four branches of the system were up and running again.

The organization uses donations and grants to pay the bills and a bare bones staff of fourteen employees, including one part-time employee who holds an MLS. But the majority of the work at JCL is done by a group of 360 unpaid volunteers. The service has been so successful that it won a Governor’s Volunteer award from the state of Oregon.

Despite some concerns among librarians that celebrating a library so dependent on volunteers could devalue the skill of professional librarians, state librarian MarkyKay Dahlgreen said that few librarians have objected to the state honoring JCL, and even those who voiced concerns were impressed by the organization’s achievements. “There’s probably not a library in Oregon or anywhere else that doesn’t rely on its volunteers,” Dahlgreen told Library Journal, who also pointed out the dire circumstances at play left residents with few other options. The people of Josephine County were responding to an emergency.”

As successful as that emergency response has been, it remains a triage effort, and there’s an acknowledgement at all levels that JCL’s current model is not a sustainable option going forward. “Right now, people who come in have a good experience,” JCL executive director Kate Lasky said. “But you have a long line, and you can’t get in when you want to get in. We’re not open enough hours to meet demand. This model cannot open for enough hours.”

That’s why JCL is putting an initiative on the November ballot that would establish an independent library district with its own board in Josephine County, which would be funded by a 39 cent per $1,000 valuation property tax. That’s slimmed down from the fifty five cent per $1,000 tax that failed prior to the library shutdown in 2007. Lasky likes JCL’s odds this time around, pointing to the 300 library cards JCL issues every month as a sign of steadily growing value to voters around the county, coupled with an increased awareness of what it takes to provide that service. “We’ve been talking about the lack of funding every year,” Lasky told LJ. “There’s nobody here who thinks volunteerism can replace every form of service required for a large community. Our volunteers want more staff, and they want more librarians here.”

If the initiative passes, Lasky has a long list of things libraries in Josephine County could provide that they don’t now, from dedicated children’s librarians and increased support for local schools to tech and business resources that could help make entrepreneurs in the county more competitive. If the measure fails, she said, volunteers will keep doing what they can, but hours and services at the four branches will remain limited and eventually start to shrink for want of resources “We’re at a crossroads,” Lasky said of the effort to put a taxpayer-funded library district in place. “We’re dipping into reserves and can’t provide the services we need for these 82,000 residents. But our alternative is a closed library, and that’s something we won’t accept.”

Josephine County is not the only one in a similar predicament: Southern Oregon as a region has had a tough time keeping library doors open since the economic downturn. Neighboring Jackson County shuttered its 15 branches in 2007, only to reopen them next year under the management of library service outsourcing firm Library Systems & Services, LLC. Jackson County libraries are suffering from the same limited hours as their neighbors in Josephine County, however, and are asking voters to approve a new property tax to fund a new library district in that county as well, said Dahlgreen.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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  1. Perhaps it will pass and I hope it will. However, this is the same county that has among the lowest, if not the lowest, property taxes in the state. For years it received subsidies from the federal government because of declines in the timber industry. Even with that, they twice refused to pass a tax for law enforcement. There is one deputy patrolling the county. Armed locals are now providing law enforcement in many parts of that county. The Sheriff told local victims of domestic abuse that they should relocate to an area that has adequate law enforcement after there was nobody to respond to a 911 call in the evening, and a woman was raped by an ex-boyfriend who broke into her house. So I am not optimistic that they will vote to tax themselves for the library, unfortunately.

  2. Jennifer Roberts says:

    I am a board member and volunteer for Josephine Community Libraries. Carolyn makes a good point that passing a tax in Josephine County has, historically, been challenging. In fact, one reason volunteers worked to reopen the library quickly is that we didn’t want the children of Josephine County to suffer a library closure while the grown-ups argued about taxes. As State Librarian MaryKay Dahlgren points out in the article, we acted in an emergency situation.

    One of our main goals has been to show the people of Josephine County that libraries are transformational and that they provide critical services for children, businesses, teens, non-profits, job-seekers–pretty much every demographic there is. We are optimistic that making the case for library’s essential role in a healthy community will sway a sufficient portion of the population in order to pass a library district.