Returned

How Douglas County lost and regained its libraries

The Mildred Whipple Library in Drain, Oregon, reopens with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on October 10, 2018. Photo by Noah Thomas

Lolly Frost was worried.

By 2012, Lolly, then six years old, had been going to the Mildred Whipple Library in Drain, Oregon, since before she was born. “I grew up here and I would always use the library,” her mother, Joy Frost, said. “And then when Lolly came along, I started taking her.” Frost was on the library board and would come home and talk about how the library’s budget was constantly on the chopping block. “It would get [Lolly] fired up,” Frost said.

Lolly decided she would save the library. Her first idea included drawing fliers and selling chicken eggs, but in December 2012, she found a better way. “She got this little cookie factory for Christmas and she said she could save the libraries with cookies . . . and she started calling up people taking orders,” Frost said. Lolly didn’t charge for her cookies—she instead asked for donations to the library and together, she and her mother packed orders and delivered them around Drain in Douglas County. The effort raised nearly $5,000, and Lolly’s money saved the children’s program that year, but it couldn’t keep the library safe forever.

In January 2017, the Douglas County Commission voted to close its library system—the main building in Roseburg and its ten branches around the county—citing a lack of funds after voters rejected a November 2016 ballot measure that would have levied a tax of 44 cents per $1,000 of assessed home values. Some county residents blamed the loss of a federal safety net of funding from the Secure Rural Schools program, conjured almost two decades ago by the federal government as part of a solution to lost timber money. Others condemned the closing as a conspiracy fueled by a culture of small government and the desire for no new taxes. Carisa Cegavske, a reporter for Roseburg’s News-Review, one of the only media outlets in Douglas County, said, “I would say overall the feeling was negative that was borne out in the vote. We’re a very conservative county. Folks are very anti-tax and so it wasn’t received all that well overall.”

The commission had front-loaded the budget in 2015–16 in the hope that voters would approve the tax levy to keep the library system open. But when the measure died, so did the system, and one by one the libraries closed until the main branch in Roseburg shut its doors on May 31, 2017. It marked the end of a sixty-one-year effort by residents and local government alike to continue providing the community with a public library. Many municipalities have met similar fates as costs climb, revenue falls, and cuts empty the lifeblood of the community out onto Main Street.

Drop boxes were closed in June of 2017 after the county commission voted to shut down the eleven libraries in Douglas County. Photo by Caitlyn May

 

“Already in 2012, when I arrived, the county was really struggling,” Cegavske said. “The county commissioners were trying to find programs they could offload in one way or another or make them self-sufficient, which they did with the parks department and garbage service, but the trouble with the library is [that] you can’t really make a library self-sufficient, so to speak. If they charge their patrons, then it’s no longer a public library. It’s something else entirely.”

The idea of a public library was born on April 9, 1833, in the town of Peterborough, New Hampshire. Reverend Abiel Abbott had a proposal: he wanted to use tax dollars to fund a free public library, the first of its kind. The idea spread quickly along the East Coast and then westward. Kenneth Breisch, a professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in the history and design of American libraries, said, “New England was ground zero, but then the real impetus for the extension of libraries in small towns was, of course, Andrew Carnegie and his offer to construct library buildings.” To qualify for Carnegie library funds, towns had to tax themselves 10 percent of the cost of the building to ensure it would continue to be used as a library. Carnegie’s funding allowed both metropolitan and small rural communities access to information through public libraries. Libraries, Breisch said, “are the most democratic institution in America.”

In 2017, almost two centuries since the conception of the first public library, the singed breezes of an unusually warm summer in Douglas County gave way to the reds and oranges and yellows of a country autumn. Supporters in all eleven libraries—facing the impending death of the countywide system—were toiling away: cataloging books, driving hours to retrieve their repossessed public computers, and trying to make sense of the complicated process of managing tax money as newly elected officials. Many were now in charge of the libraries they tried to save, because when the 2016 levy—Ballot Measure 10-145—was grounded, public support soared and the libraries found their way through the politics to reopen on their own terms. The return of the public library in Douglas County (population 109,405) however, wasn’t a united effort, missing the support of the system it had had for more than six decades. The libraries’ reopenings were a new reality built on the false hope of sustainable volunteer forces, revealing the hushed conflicts that splintered services and, in some cases, called the future of Douglas County’s libraries into question.


In Douglas County, the timber industry has been living on borrowed time for more than a decade. The Oregon and California Railroad and Coos Bay Wagon Road Grant Lands Act of 1937 classified land in the two states as federal timber land and mandated sustained yield forest management. It also required that 50 percent of the receipts from the sale of timber be distributed to eighteen counties containing Oregon and California (O&C) land—including Douglas County. Between 1953 and 1981, counties received more than $340 million. In 1981 Douglas County created the Douglas County Library Foundation (DCLF) with a $2 million endowment aimed at assisting the eleven libraries. But as environmental concerns increased and the timber industry grew more regulated, payments decreased and Douglas County began operating under the protection of the safety net—funds set aside under the Secure Rural Schools program to ease the impact of decreasing timber funds.

“The funding had been a problem for a while,” said Robert Heilman, who has been involved with the Myrtle Creek library since the 1980s. So, Heilman added, “they formed a committee. They called it the Library Futures Committee and that committee was looking into a tax measure.”

A 2010 measure which also proposed a levy to fund the libraries never made it to the ballot after the group failed to get enough cities around the county to support it. “When it failed, we sent two committee members to [County Commissioner Doug] Robertson to ask what was up,” Heilman said. “His reply was that he didn’t want the feds to get the idea that people around here would be willing to raise their own taxes because that decreases his line of ‘we need to get this money from the feds because there’s no way to get any money around here.’” Robertson was the library liaison and had been a county commissioner for thirty years by 2010—the longest-serving commissioner in county history—and president of the Association of the O&C Counties. (Robertson did not respond to a request for interview for this story.)

With diminished funding from timber sales and no new sources coming, the cost of running the library kept rising, even with continued budget cuts. By 2006, the county was operating the library system on a limited budget. Only three full-time employees were budgeted for the library’s administration and the equivalent of eleven full-time branch employees were budgeted for the entire system. Personnel expenses had reached $2,272,246, up nearly $300,000 from the previous fiscal year and the system’s expenditures were soaring. In 2008, the cuts came, 10 percent a year through 2010. By the time the ballot measure failed six years later, the Drain Library’s hours had been cut back to twenty-four hours a week. In 2016, the county had set the 2017 budget at $1,354,398 which included a general fund contribution of just over $620,000. The county opted to spend the majority of the budget in the first half of the fiscal year, assuming Ballot Measure 10-145 would pass in the fall of 2016.

When all but three communities—Drain, Reedsport and Roseburg—voted against the measure, the system lost its chance at long-term funding.

Once the main library in Douglas County, the Roseburg Library was closed after the county commission voted to shutter the Douglas County Library System. Photo by Caitlyn May

 

The problem of passing the levy was also influenced by the politics in the county. In March 2016, there were 17,186 registered Democrats and 27,035 registered Republicans in Douglas County. When the library levy failed, it was nearly right down party lines, 45 percent to 55 percent. “You need to think of it as being very much like coal country in Appalachia,” Heilman said. “A single industry (timber) dominates the county not just economically, but politically as well, because with economic dominance comes political dominance.”

It was a line that was drawn during the campaign and one that saw accusations lobbed over it from either side in the effort to convince voters. The Democratic Party of Douglas County and the League of Women Voters Umpqua Valley endorsed the measure. The Republican Party denied a request from library supporters to present their case to its members and funded a candidate who used the donation to place billboards in town that promoted “Plan B.”

“Yeah, yeah I remember I heard a lot about Plan B—there never was a Plan B,” said Steve Ripley, member of the Douglas County Library Foundation. “We live in a rural area and rural areas tend to be Republican, but I have to give credit to Gary Leif.”

Leif took office in January 2017 as the third Douglas County Commissioner and became the liaison to the library. Some library supporters in the county say he stepped in and created the Library Futures Task Force. Others say library supporters went to the commission, hat in hand, for a solution after Measure 10-145 failed and Leif was assigned to help. The success of the task force has been jotted down in library supporters’ memories with a divided hand, similar to the division of support for the library around the county.

The board was made up of people representing towns from around the county where the levy had passed (Reedsport, Roseburg, and Drain) and where it had failed (Yoncalla, Winston, Oakland, Myrtle Creek, Riddle, Canyonville, and Glendale) and where it hadn’t even been allowed on the ballot (Sutherlin). There were city representatives, library supporters, and, in some cases, library opponents. They met for nine months arguing over who owned the 150,000 books in the countywide collection and how they would fund their operations or if they would continue on as a system no longer supported by the county. In the end, the only things that came out of the Libraries Futures Task Force were more confusion and the controversial Douglas Community Library Association (DCLA).

In the waning days of the Libraries Futures Task Force, the question of what would happen to the books was raised. Prior to the dissolution of the library system, all eleven libraries shared books. However, as plans for separate operations grew, each library had the opportunity to sign agreements with the county to take over ownership of the books housed in their communities with the understanding that they would no longer have free access to the entire collection. In order to keep a semblance of a system, some libraries contracted with the DCLA, which promised the ability to share books between libraries that had signed on. “A lot of that confusion with the DCLA came about during the task force days,” Heilman said. “At first, they thought the DCLA would manage the collection and the libraries said no.”

The DCLA went to each library and gave a presentation, citing the need to remain a county-wide resource. They would provide the outlet for the libraries to work under the same IT system, grant access to Library2Go—an e-reader program—and by signing the contract DCLA offered, libraries would be given free access to the books housed at other DCLA-signed libraries.

Currently, Canyonville, Myrtle Creek, Glendale, Oakland, Riddle, and Winston have signed on. Sutherlin and Yoncalla have representatives on the DCLA board but are not officially member libraries (Sutherlin has a legal question about the contract). Reedsport has yet to sign on, having passed its own levy. Roseburg has also passed a levy to fund its library.

“The city [of Roseburg] insisted on ownership of the inventory of books and it’s the largest library, so it had the largest inventory, and so far, Roseburg is saying that it will share books but if you don’t live in Roseburg, you have to pay a fee to get a library card. That’s a political decision and that’s part of the problem,” said Ripley.

Yoncalla’s city council was set to vote on whether or not to allow the library to enter into a contract with the DCLA at the start of November. Drain has also opted not to join the DCLA.

Anne Campbell was elected to Drain’s newly formed North Douglas Library District Board in May 2018. City voters had passed a levy—the same 44 cents per $1,000 that failed countywide two years prior—to fund the library and with the same vote, members of the grassroots support team working to reopen the library became public officials. Campbell was sitting on the board when the DCLA presented its case and when the board opted not to sign on. She was also with many of the same people canvassing throughout 2018 for the Drain levy and hoping for a different outcome than the devastating blow of the 2016 loss that closed the doors to the library her grandmother, Mildred Whipple, established. “We heard people say they didn’t vote yes the first time because they thought it was extra money for the library,” she said. “They didn’t understand that it was either a yes or no, open or close question this time around that they were actually going to close the doors.”

The fight to reopen the Mildred Whipple Library was spearheaded by Valarie Johns, a former librarian and member of the Friends of the Mildred Whipple Library group. Johns led the campaign to place a levy on the May 2018 ballot that formed a special tax district to fund the library. Photo by Noah Thomas

 

Valarie Johns was also elected to the North Douglas Library District Board and had previously worked as Drain’s librarian before leaving to take a job with more hours at Cottage Grove’s library (due to the continued cutback of hours implemented by Douglas County’s dwindling budget). Prior to the 2016 vote, Cottage Grove Community Library—approximately thirty minutes from Drain— had ten library card holders from Douglas County. After the final Douglas County library closed in June of 2017, it had seventy-three card holders.

“I was working at Cottage Grove Library when it [the library in Drain] closed and people were coming in to get library cards and were saying they didn’t realize it was going to close,” she said. “Some people thought it [the vote] was for school libraries, which, I don’t know how they thought that. There was a lot of confusion on what that was for.”

Part of that confusion may be because of another loss for Douglas County—a local news source.


During the unusually blistering days of summer 2018 there were no children crowded in the kids’ corner, only a cart of books meant for a summer reading program, untouched. The information desk still stands though the computer that held the software to catalog and check-out books is gone. The barcode scanner, gone. The printer, gone. There are empty holes at the cubbied-desks where wires used to tangle through for the public computers connecting them to the worldwide web somewhere out past the bridal shop and Ray’s grocery store, past First Street and Highway 38, just off Interstate 5 that stretches its way to California and Washington in either direction. Puzzle parts are scattered around a half-finished image assembled with the confidence of a hand that had every intention of returning to make the pieces fit and half dozen newspapers lay yellowing over wooden racks. One in particular offers the last explanation to be had before everything stopped: MARCH 7, 2017 “DOUGLAS COUNTY LIBRARIES TO CLOSE JUNE 1.”

Just past the information desk through a series of doors, the crooked corners and hallways of rooms vying for space in buildings meant to hold the past, not accommodate the future, there is a stack of boxes that rest on the heads of cabinets not quite brushing against the ceiling. There are newspapers there too, the most complete set of the weekly Drain Enterprises anywhere in the world, chronicling business openings and highway fatalities. When Enterprise Editor and Drain Mayor Sue Anderson grew ill and closed her one-woman First Street operation in 2015, there were no more headlines for Drain, in Drain. When the library closed its door on April 1, there was no local Page 1 to hold the wake.

A 2018 study by the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism reported that more than 1,300 communities have lost all of their local news coverage because of buy-outs, closeouts, and mergers.

“Our sense of community and democracy at all levels suffers when journalism is lost or diminished,” the study’s researchers wrote. “In an age of fake news and divisive politics, the fate of communities across the country, and of grassroots democracy itself, is linked to the vitality of local journalism.”

In March of 2007, Beacon Communications launched The Winston Reporter, the first local newspaper in Winston, Oregon, in more than a year. It joined the three newspapers that serve the eleven communities in the Douglas County Library System. The Winston Reporter is no longer in print.

Patti Akins owns a real estate business in Drain and, in 2018, launched a community newspaper, Community News, citing a steady decline in participation and information as a reason for the launch. “We don’t do the Christmas tree lighting anymore because no one comes because we can’t get the word out,” she said. “Even voter turnout is affected and I think part of it is that people don’t know. They just don’t know.”

Damian Radcliffe is a professor at the University of Oregon who published a report on the challenges that face small town newspapers, their successes in a changing print landscape, and how they are often the only news source for a community. “It’s hard to say that there’s a link between that causation between people didn’t know about [the vote] and there being a lack of a local newspaper because there’s no guarantee that, first of all that story would be covered by the paper,” he said. “You hope it would but there’s no guarantee of that and there’s no guarantee people would have read it. However, there is a legitimate question of, if there isn’t a paper, where else did this get picked up?”

The News-Review published more than a dozen stories before and after the closures but according to the paper’s editorial staff, they have only covered the library sporadically and haven’t returned to Drain since May of this year.

“I spent the whole damn summer sitting at tables at all the local fairs and things, the county fair, we paid for a booth there,” said Heilman who was tasked with getting word out about the levy. “It makes it more difficult when the town doesn’t have a news source but we went and talked to different groups like the chamber of commerce…We did what we could. Spent the whole summer hustling trying to get as much as we could.”

Up north, however, in locations like Drain and Yoncalla, outreach didn’t stretch as far and while emails and phone calls crossed the border between north and south Douglas County, tabling efforts were sparse. Calls from out-of-town news sources, however, were not. The New York Times covered the story, linking it to an “anti-tax” sentiment felt in places around the country since the 2016 presidential election. Then, the documentary crew arrived.

“The Douglas County story, we were following this one thing for a while,” said Lucie Faulknor, a producer on the film, Free for All, which explores the role of libraries in America. Work on the film started in 2008, prompted by the financial crash; the film is set to be released in 2019.

“A lot of libraries were closing when municipalities had to decide between fire and police and libraries, unfortunately, a lot of them had drastically reduced hours or were closed so we were aware funding was a problem and that people didn’t realize and, well, you know what happened,” she said.

The crew was onsite for the last day Myrtle Creek Library was operational under the county system in 2017.

Faulknor said there were no immediate plans to return to Douglas County.


After a city-wide vote, the Roseburg Library was granted a levy to reopen and function as a city-only library. Crews were hard at work to open the doors to a much smaller, but independent, library. The library, closed to the public during construction, will share space with the Educational Service District. Photo by Caitlyn May

 

When the doors to all the libraries were closed by the county, some swung back open through volunteer effort.

Sutherlin, which had opted not to take part in the 2016 ballot measure, is run by volunteers and never closed. Myrtle Creek was operational again within three months with the help of Robert Heilman, who drove his pickup to Roseburg to retrieve Myrtle Creek’s repossessed library computers from county officials, and volunteers who signed up to staff the library. Canyonville and Yoncalla also opened shop with volunteers and in the six weeks leading up to its grand opening, the Mildred Whipple Library saw more than one thousand volunteer hours clocked.

“They’re tired,” Heilman said in the waning days of summer. This sentiment was echoed by the library board in Drain, the administration in Winston, and the new librarian in Roseburg.

“It’s not sustainable,” Heilman said. “It’s not adequate. We’re not really meeting the need, you know? It’s not sustainable on the funding end or the volunteer end. There was a lot of enthusiasm the first year but it’s kind of dropping off now. In August, we had to close two different Saturdays because we couldn’t open the doors because there weren’t enough volunteers.”

They money is also running out. The city of Myrtle Creek allows the library to operate in the same building but the agreement it signed with the group removes the city from the operation all together. To pay for the yearly insurance costs, the library volunteers collect cans and bottles and rely on donations.

In fact, the only libraries in the county to have a steady, stable income are the ones that remained closed the longest after the shutdown: Roseburg, Reedsport, and Drain.

On October 10, 2018, the Mildred Whipple Library handed out brand new library cards to a crowd of approximately seventy people who came to support the library’s first official day of operation after being closed for twenty months. Photo by Noah Thomas

 

In October 2018, Roseburg was readying to open its doors for the first time since they closed in June the year before. The building was undergoing a renovation that would divide it between the city and the Douglas Education Service District and was being overseen by new librarian whose position was funded by the city.

There are no new taxes in Roseburg, but according to city manager Lance Colley, the new budget can support the library, and local donations and help from the Cow Creek Tribe and Meyer Memorial Trust supported its $750,000 renovation budget.

“The allocation from our general fund provides the baseline for our funding but will not be adequate to do everything we want to do at least for a few years,” Colley said. “So, we’re going to rely heavily on volunteers, our professional staff and other opportunities that we can do for fundraising to make sure we provide a high level of service for a limited duration to start with.”

The Roseburg City Library is set to be open twenty-four hours a week. Douglas County residents who live outside of Roseburg city limits can still obtain a library card—for $60.

Reedsport and Drain passed levies to fund their libraries and even though these communities are far ahead of the remaining Douglas communities in the race to have a stable community library, they have still submitted requests to old friends for help.

The Douglas County Library Foundation’s $2 million initial endowment was meant to help libraries purchase books, improve technology, and fund various other library-specific projects. According to Ripley, the DCLF typically distributes $40,000 to the libraries around the county. This year, requests total $82,000.

“They’re not all going to fly,” he said. “Reedsport wants $15,000 for a computer system, Roseburg is asking for $37,000 for book inventory and they probably need it. We have about $80,000 in the bank over the $2 million endowment but if we’re going to increase the endowment we still don’t want to spend all of that.” Fulfilling all those requests would not only require spending all the endowment’s earnings, but the endowment itself, which wouldn’t help it grow, said Ripley.


The Mildred Whipple Library reopened after a citywide levy to fund the facility passed by more than 70 percent in May 2018, the same levy that failed in the county in 2016. Photo by Noah Thomas

 

On October 10, 2018, there wasn’t a sign of the heat that had plagued Douglas County all summer. The group gathered outside the Mildred Whipple Library in Drain did so in sweatshirts and coats, some with scarves and others in sweaters. The black and white dog that belonged to a house down the road gave off visible puffs of breath as it panted and snaked and trotted its way through the crowd waiting for Mayor Justin Cobb to arrive. The Mayor, also, a first responder, had been delayed by an accident on Highway 38 and in his absence, board members for the North Douglas Library District Board chatted with the sixty or so community members who had waited twenty months to see their library open again.

When Cobb arrived, a cheer went up and for the next thirty minutes it hardly subsided as Anne Campbell took to the podium and recalled how the library had moved from church to city hall to the building Mildred Whipple helped fund. She introduced Lolly Frost, now a teen, as the official ribbon cutter and chronicled her second-grade year selling cookies. She cited the stats: the May 2018 levy asking Drain voters to tax themselves the same 44 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to reopen the library had passed by more than 75 percent. Twenty-one volunteers spent 743 hours in 30 days to clean and recatalog 6,000 books in the hopes of reissuing hundreds of library cards.

Campbell traced the history and resilience of the library, describing how in 1932, a group of young women led the effort to create a community library in the county, and how Mildred Whipple did the same in Drain in 1982, both efforts supported by the community. “When the county closed the library [in 2017], our community was devastated,” Campbell told the crowd. “Gone was the free access to computers, books, information and all of the activities. But once again, the citizens of Drain came through… Our campaign slogan was: ‘Mildred Whipple Library—link to the past, gateway to the future’ and that truly tells the story of this library and its connection to the community.”


About this process:

Running a small newsroom meant sorting through hundreds of emails a day and picking out the dozens of press releases from communities within a fifty-mile radius. It was sometime last year that I got a notice from the Friends of the Mildred Whipple Library—they wanted their library back.

When the Emerging Journalists, Community Stories fellowship opportunity landed in my email, I immediately thought of the folks in Drain. I didn’t have the resources at the small publication I worked at to pursue the story but with the fellowship and guidance from my mentor Les Zaitz, I could.

For five months or so, I stole hours between production and editorial responsibilities to drive around Douglas County. I spoke with library boards, library supporters, librarians and people who had voted for and against the library levy. It was their story to tell, I just wanted to write it down.

I transcribed hours of interviews, emailed back and forth with Les Zaitz about budgets, framing and story and in the end, hopefully presented the story of Douglas County’s libraries—one that’s sure to continue as they struggle to find a solid workforce and stable funding. —Caitlyn May

Comments

1 comments have been posted.

What a clear and thorough story about a very serious topic. Bravo, Caitlyn! And thank you Oregon Humanities for hosting this complete story.

Meri Walker | February 2019 | Talent, OR

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