Two small town libraries in Oregon are thriving by making big changes in funding, delivery, and technology.
Oregon’s unemployment is cresting — we hope — at 10 percent. Over 500,000 Oregonians are on food stamps, and 22,000 families now rely on government assistance. Though the immediate future looks dire, two rural Oregon libraries are innovating and think they see a way through.
These times, in fact, may actually be good for libraries. Beth Scarth, head librarian in Sandy, Oregon, reports, “In our current economic downturn, more and more people are turning to libraries to get DVD’s , magazines, and books. We love that.” Rather than buying so many books and CDs as in the past, new patrons are finding seemingly endless supplies of such materials waiting to be checked out at no cost.
Both Scarth and David Patterson of Prineville, 120 miles east, in the high desert of Central Oregon, are facing facts and making changes. They already report increased numbers of library patrons and project balanced, hopeful outcomes in the months ahead. Here’s how.
But as of July 2009, Sandy City Library will become independent. Local voters agreed to establish a library district funded from property tax revenues (@ .40 per $1000 assessed value) in perpetuity. Proponents of the change believe that the local library will gain stability, and they like that Sandy will no longer have to seek approval for library expenditures. Under the new structure, Sandy City will also incorporate the Hoodland Library, near Mt Hood. Beth Scarth will oversee programs and operations of the newly created district.
Scarth said that presently Sandy’s library receives little state money except for the children’s Ready to Read program. Over the next few years, all libraries will receive $1 million for capital improvements (building, remodeling, new supplies) from Clackamas County. Sandy’s new district will receive a portion of these funds in 2011.
Beth expects no problems with the newly established funding system, yet she acknowledges, “If more people lose their homes and property values decline, we may have problems in the future.” Right now, she says, “We see more people supporting our library and those in our network.”With a background in biology and chemistry, Scarth first served as a library board member after moving to Sandy, earning a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) in 2004 through University of Seattle. She now says an M.B.A. degree would have been just as valuable since so much of a head librarian’s work involves strategic planning, budgeting and staffing. At a recent librarians’ conference she heard something that stuck with her: “This career is not a choose-your-own adventure.” Instead, she says, librarians must look to communities to see what they want and need.
SandyCity Library offers reading programs for pre-schoolers during the school year and a 7-week summer reading program for children K-8. It also hosts adult reading groups, staffed by volunteers.
One major role libraries must serve, Scarth says, is teaching rural residents more about using the Internet and other information technologies. While the library isn’t a parent or censor, patrons who use the public computers must sign in and agree not to access pornography or other inappropriate materials at the library. (Because the library’s computer monitors are clustered together, some monitoring is easy enough.)
Scarth considers the Sandy library’s current downtown location – near schools, shopping and restaurants – excellent, and has no interest in moving. The police department now occupies the southwest corner of the building but when it moves in the next two years, the library will expand into the space.
Libraries are evolving, into…”I don’t know what,” Scarth says. “It is important to change with people, with the times.
“How do we help people find and use information? Libraries are really into a paradigm shift, which surprises some people who are used to a more traditional system from the past. We don’t want to make too many rules for our patrons. If they have questions we are here to answer and help.”
Crook County Library director, David Patterson (MLIS), arrived in Prineville, Oregon, about one year ago having completed a 5-year stint as director at the Mountain Home Air Force base near Boise, Idaho. “I’d been an academic librarian for seven years in Seattle, Washington,” said Patterson,” and I wanted to focus on a rural library. I was looking for a job with variety and challenge. I wanted new challenges rather than sitting in an office all day. I love being out among people.”
Crook County Library, with Prineville the county seat, is funded through a percentage of property tax collection, based on assessed valuation. With the current recession, Patterson’s desire to “meet new challenges” has proven to be a prophetic goal. “By the close of 2008, we reduced our staff by 10 percent,” he said. “We’ve also experienced a four percent cut in materials, services and office supplies. So the obstacle of diminishing finances must be overcome with private funding.”
One proud example is Prineville Library’s Teen Room. “People in Prineville wanted a place for teens to have fun,” Patterson said, “so, in eight months, we raised $55,000 for the project. All private donations. Not one penny of tax money was used. The contractor is donating his labor.”
Quick to pass credit on to staff and previous leadership, Patterson said, “I came into a successful program at this library. There is strong support here for the library. Actually,” he said, “our library is referred to as the Gem of the County! We are a focal point of activity.”
Especially with the financial downturn, “we are seen as the primary source to help people get information to solve problems in unemployment and loss of income,” said Patterson. He and his staff work together to help people search the Internet for employment, write resumes, determine the educational requirements for various jobs, and carry out many other types of research.
Since the economy of Crook County (pop. 25,000) is primarily based in agri-business, a loss of income can also mean the loss of a home and all property. Many of the patrons of this library are ranchers or farmers, and losing a business means losing a place to live—not just a job. “We are seeing families homeless for the first time in their lives,” Patterson said.
Realizing that the financial bottom has probably not been reached yet, Patterson faces whatever future lies ahead with optimism. “I must find innovative ways to expand with private money. We use every dollar of taxpayer money circumspectly and with accountability,” he said. “We do not use tax money for program development. For that we use private donations. We are constantly scanning the horizon for funding resources.”Crook County being primarily an agricultural community, there are many thousands of acres with relatively few homes. In some cases this means quite a commute for some loyal library patrons who must travel 2-3 hours round trip for each visit. In an attempt at curtailing some of the travel costs for patrons, Patterson has a bookmobile to reach outlying areas and bring a fresh supply of paperbacks for the exchange program. It’s another example of making supplies available to as many people as possible in Crook County.
Living up to the reputation as a community that works together and provides help when needed, a local donor gave the library a full, comprehensive reference library, accessible 24/7 via the Internet.
“We have many skilled, professional people living in our area,” Patterson said. “Now to make all those skills and talents available to those who do not, we are establishing a catalog of names to provide assistance. Once completed, people in need of help — perhaps carpentry, business, or electrical — they can find a name, give them a call and get the help.”
Patterson sees the reality of rural life. “We don’t have people doing it for us—we must find our own solutions with each other’s help,” he said. “Lack of taxpayer dollars is never an excuse to not perform. Just as in any potential roadblock in life, we must find a way to make it work. Problems he force us to be innovative.”
Patterson considers librarians “the information gate keepers. We must provide leadership in technology so our members may connect to and navigate the Internet for their benefit. Investing in rural libraries will create great change everywhere.”