When the Public Library Association holds its 2022 conference in Portland March 23-25, those overseeing the event will include Stephanie Chase, an association board member and the executive director of the Libraries of Eastern Oregon.
About one-third of libraries in eastern Oregon are staffed with just one person. Still, Chase’s organization, a consortium of 40 libraries covering 15 counties, offers access to a bigger collection of materials than people living in the sparsely populated region could have previously dreamed of, including the 66,000 ebooks and audiobooks accessible on a smartphone through OverDrive’s Libby app .
A large majority of US public libraries – 77% – serve rural populations of 25,000 and less. And 25% of public libraries serve populations of less than 2,500.
Small and rural libraries, Chase said, were the first to offer adjusted services during the COVID-19 pandemic. As more people requested ebooks and audiobooks, the eastern Oregon libraries increased their investment in digital access to books.
“Because we cover such a vast geographic range,” noted Chase, “COVID has not had as much impact as it may have. We’ve needed to work virtually for some time. ”
Libraries of Eastern Oregon works in tandem with the Sage Library System, a consortium of 77 libraries in eastern and central Oregon, to provide a unified catalog for school, academic, and public libraries. Sage also drives books across LEO’s 15 counties.
In addition to geography, Oregon’s rural libraries face another challenge: skepticism of equity work.
Some Libraries of Eastern Oregon staff have taken complaints about Spanish-language story times and materials that serve the area’s growing Spanish-speaking populations. And the director of Baker County’s library, Perry Stokes, has received “direct and indirect complaints from community members about our effort to correct the lack of inclusion of LGBTQ items in our collection.”
In the 2021-22 fiscal year, Libraries of Eastern Oregon received a grant to fund equity work through six 15-person conversation groups: two in Grants Pass and one each in La Grande, Ontario, Pendleton and Prineville. The groups convene library staff, board members and key volunteers to discuss and implement an equity, diversity, inclusion and antiracism toolkit authored by the Oregon Library Association’s EDI committee. The project was funded in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services through the Library Services and Technology Act, administered by the State Library of Oregon.
The toolkit teaches how to identify conscious and unconscious bias in library settings, for example, and understand BIPOC workplace perspectives. It also trains in how to audit a library collection for how it represents and addresses BIPOC patrons.
Yet another challenge for rural Oregon libraries is public wariness of taxes and government spending. Several libraries have shuttered when taxpayers rejected levies to fund them.
In 2007, Josephine County, directly south of Roseburg, defunded its four libraries. For the next 10 years, those libraries were staffed by 360 volunteers. Small donations from 2,000 people and three separate campaigns to create permanent, stable funding through the formation of a library district that can levy taxes finally led to the reopening of Josephine Community Library in Grants Pass in January 2018. The library is open 32 hours weekly. Josephine’s other three library branches in Illinois Valley, Williams, and Wolf Creek are open between 15 and 22 hours a week.
A long decade of struggle lay ahead for the city of Roseburg, too, when its library was shut May 31, 2017. Douglas County voters denied 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 – on the verge of retirement after 35 years of public service – took the approval as a mandate to reopen his city library.
“Our library is 30,000 square feet. You can not rely on volunteer labor to run that, ”said Colley, noting that“ seven or eight ”other Douglas County libraries operate today exclusively on volunteer labor for very limited hours. At least two Douglas County libraries have been lights-out since 2017.
Colley proposed that Roseburg’s library share space with Douglas County’s Educational Services Department, which had been scouting a new location. Blocking off 10,000 square feet of the library for the department and making some renovations was the first step in site sharing.
Even with the educational services department on board, there remained a 66% funding gap. Colley pulled in an astonishing $ 750,000 in five months, turning to local philanthropists and winning several five-figure state grants.
“Roseburg is one of the most philanthropic communities anywhere in Oregon, led by the Ford Family Foundation,” Colley said. CHI Mercy Health, the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, The Collins Foundation, and the Bruce Family Foundation also stepped up .
Less than one year after raising the funds, the Roseburg Public Library celebrated a grand opening. Librarians from across the state who’d helped Colley refashion the former county library into a city-funded one came to celebrate.
Fifteen months later, COVID shut the library along with everything else. Library director Kris Wiley increased access to digital lending and her team provided frequent curbside services. The library handed out 500 grab-and-go craft kits to kids and streamed virtual story hours via Facebook in English and Spanish. The library loaned 48,128 items in 2020-2021 – a whopping 62% of its full collection.
At a time people were isolated, Roseburg Public Library tallied 131,861 visits in 2020-21 alone. Service like that would have been impossible with a volunteer staff.
An earlier version of this post incorrectly described the membership of Libraries of Eastern Oregon and the funding received by the Libraries of Eastern Oregon to further its equity work.