Rural Oregon Libraries Persevered in the Face of Geographic, Financial, and Other Challenges

When the Public Library Association holds its 2022 conference in Portland March 23-25, those overseeing the event will include Stephanie Chase, member of the association’s board of directors and executive director of the Eastern Oregon Libraries.

About a third of libraries in eastern Oregon have only one person. Yet Chase’s organization, a consortium of 15 rural county libraries, provides access to a larger collection of materials than people living in the sparsely populated region could have dreamed of before, including the 66,000 e-books and audiobooks accessible on a smartphone via OverDrive. Libby application.

A large majority of US public libraries – 77% – serve rural populations of 25,000 or less. And 25% of public libraries serve populations of less than 2,500 people.

Small and rural libraries, Chase said, have been the first to offer responsive services during the COVID-19 pandemic. As more people demanded e-books and audiobooks, libraries in eastern Oregon increased their investments in digital book access.

“Because we cover such a wide geographic range,” Chase noted, “COVID hasn’t had as much of an impact as it could have. We’ve needed to work virtually for a while.

Eastern Oregon Libraries work in tandem with the Sage Library System, a consortium of 77 libraries in eastern and central Oregon, to provide a unified catalog for school, college, and public libraries. Sage also drives books in LEO’s 15 counties.

In addition to geography, rural Oregon libraries face another challenge: skepticism toward equity work.

Some library workers in eastern Oregon have received complaints about Spanish story times and materials that serve the region’s growing Spanish-speaking populations. And Baker County Library Director Perry Stokes has received “direct and indirect complaints from members of the community regarding our efforts to address the lack of inclusion of LGBTQ items in our collection.”

Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) are “Core Values” of the US and Oregon Library Associations. In fiscal year 2021-22, OLA awarded libraries in eastern Oregon an EDI grant to fund six 15-person conversation groups: two in Grants Pass and one each in La Grande, Ontario. , Pendleton and Prineville. The groups bring together library staff, board members, and key volunteers to discuss and implement an EDI and Anti-Racism Toolkit authored by the Oregon Library Association’s EDI Committee.

The toolkit teaches how to identify conscious and unconscious biases in libraries, for example, and understand perspectives from the BIPOC workplace. It also trains in the audit of a library collection to know how it represents and speaks to BIPOC customers.

Another challenge for rural Oregon libraries is public distrust of taxes and government spending. Several libraries closed when taxpayers rejected levies to fund them.

In 2007, Josephine County, directly south of Roseburg, canceled funding for its four libraries. For the next 10 years, these libraries were staffed with 360 volunteers. Small donations of 2,000 people and three separate campaigns to create permanent, stable funding through the formation of a taxable library district eventually led to the reopening of Josephine Community Library in Grants Pass in January 2018. The library is open 32 hours a week. The other three branches of Josephine’s Library in Illinois Valley, Williams, and Wolf Creek are open between 3 and 10 p.m. per week.

A decade-long struggle also awaited the town of Roseburg, when its library was closed on May 31, 2017. Douglas County voters refused a $70 per household tax measure in November 2016 that would have supported the county’s 11 libraries. .

But voters in Roseburg, the county seat, had approved the levy, and City Manager Lance Colley – set to retire after 35 years of public service – took the approval as a mandate to reopen the library in his city.

“Our library is 30,000 square feet. You can’t rely on volunteer labor to handle that,” Colley said, noting that “seven or eight” other libraries in Douglas County now operate exclusively on volunteer labor during very limited hours. At least two Douglas County libraries have been extinct since 2017.

Colley proposed that the Roseburg Library share space with the Douglas County Department of Educational Services, which was looking for a new location. Blocking off 10,000 square feet of the library for the department and doing some renovations was the first step in sharing the site.

Even with the Department of Educational Services on board, there remained a 66% funding shortfall. Colley raised $750,000 in five months, reaching out to local philanthropists and winning multiple five-figure state grants.

“Roseburg is one of Oregon’s most philanthropic communities, led by the Ford Family Foundation“, said Colley. CHI Mercy Healththe Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe of Indians, The Collins Foundationand the Bruce Family Foundation have also stepped up their efforts.

Less than a year after raising the funds, the Roseburg Public Library celebrated a grand opening. Librarians from across the state who had helped Colley turn the old county library into a city-funded library came out to celebrate.

Fifteen months later, COVID shut down the library along with everything else. Library manager Kris Wiley increased access to digital lending and her team provided frequent curbside services. The library distributed 500 craft kits to take home to children and broadcast virtual storytimes via Facebook in English and Spanish. The library loaned out 48,128 items in 2020-21, or 62% of its full collection.

At a time when people were isolated, the Roseburg Public Library saw 131,861 visits in 2020-21 alone. Such a service would have been impossible with volunteer staff.

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