For the People

Oregon libraries respond to the evolving needs of their communities.

A medley of photos from Oregon libraries, depicting buildings in Josephine, Hood River, and Wasco Counties and smiling patrons and staff.

Oregon has a rich and extensive relationship with its public libraries. The state is home to 232 library branches, together serving around 1.75 million cardholders. 

Communities large and small in Oregon have worked to enhance public library services since the early 1980s by creating taxation districts, which are established through ballot measures. There are now thirty-one library districts in Oregon that provide funding for public library services through property taxes collected within the district boundaries. Each of the resulting library districts has its own priorities that address the specific needs and challenges of its local community. 

All public libraries in Oregon are required by law to offer “free and equal access to library and information services suitable for all ages to residents of a local government unit,” and to maintain regular open hours. But the conditions under which libraries meet these requirements vary tremendously. And Oregon libraries also serve many other functions, including providing free internet access and language classes, and even lending a variety of non-media objects.

The roles libraries have played in Oregon communities have developed over time and continue to evolve in response to wide-ranging challenges such as COVID, the housing crisis, and political controversy. 

One example of the ways libraries have changed in recent years is the discontinuation of late fees. A spokesperson for the Eugene Public Library stated, “Overdue fines disproportionately affect lower socioeconomic as well as BIPOC populations, not to mention creating negative library experiences for both patrons and staff. We are happy to share that 140 patrons who were blocked by fines and hadn’t come to the library since before the pandemic came back to our library in the first month [since the change], and more than 450 folks returned from May 1 through August 31, 2022.”

Libraries had to get creative during the pandemic, adopting a variety of means for people to access library materials while their buildings were closed. Many locations offered curbside and parking lot pickups, as well as walk-up windows and home drop-off. In Josephine County, the library district developed a “storybook walk” program in collaboration with local businesses in downtown Grants Pass. Librarians divided poems and short children’s stories into a series of panels, then placed the panels in storefront windows so that families could enjoy a do-it-yourself outdoor storytime while the library was shuttered. 

“It was super popular,” says Brandace Rojo, communications and partnership manager for Josephine Community Library District. “We continued to do it throughout the pandemic and even to this day. We’re just about to start our summer reading program and we’re doing a storybook walk again. We saw them pop up all over the country during the pandemic, and people love them.”

Hood River County Library responded to the pandemic by going mobile. County residents raised $184,000 to purchase a bookmobile to meet community members where they are. A grant of $75,000 from the State Library of Oregon allowed the library to purchase enough items to fill it. The bookmobile is a large, two-tone blue Mercedes Sprinter van, with “Hood River County Library District bookmobile” printed on its sides in both English and Spanish and images of an apple tree and a stack of books adorning the rear. The library system has three branches, in Hood River, Cascade Locks, and Parkdale, and the bookmobile now functions as a fourth. It primarily serves the unincorporated community of Odell, which does not have a library branch building of its own. 

Beyond books and other media, the bookmobile also offers packages of essential toiletries (shampoo, soap, sanitary and menstruation products, toothpaste, and the like), snacks, drinks, craft kits and materials for kids and adults, printing services that allow anyone to print up to twenty pages for free, and Wi-Fi that reaches three hundred feet beyond the vehicle, allowing anyone to sit nearby and use the internet. This summer, the library began partnering with the local school district to provide free meals to the families they serve—around seventy per week for now. 

The bookmobile is the latest in a series of efforts the library has made to reach people who might not come to a branch. The system had previously partnered with local farms and organizations such as Hood River Valley Parks and Rec to inform residents that they offer more than just books. Before the purchase of the bookmobile, library staff distributed materials out of the trunks of their cars and in public spaces like church basements and “pop-up libraries.” But this work came with its own set of challenges. 

“Financial barriers, physical barriers, and language barriers are a big part of folks not being able to make it in, especially the children that we’re serving,” says Yelitza Vargas-Boots, Hood River’s bilingual outreach librarian. “Educating the public on what libraries are and what services we provide was huge. So that was where we decided, ‘Okay, this is going to be our approach, to bring it to your community where you are.’ For the next five years, that’s our biggest mission: to continue to educate the community and empower them. Libraries are for the people; we want them to take ownership of libraries and everything we offer. It’s not just books anymore; it’s art, it’s self-expression. It’s a safe space full of resources.”

Access to technology is a need that many public libraries in Oregon are working to address. In some communities, such as Odell, public access to internet service is extremely limited, and people rely on the library in order to use computers or Wi-Fi. 

“We did a lot of on-the-ground research just to see where the higher-density communities are, keeping in mind that there’s a lot of migrant farmworker housing in the area,” Vargas-Boots says. “We partnered with apartment managers to go door to door, and since we’re not selling anything, we’re letting them know about our free services. Prior to this, I was visiting schools, just getting to know the families and kids doing after-school programming to get that trust going. I wanted the community to get to know the library, but more so myself as a person and what my job is. So now a lot of folks recognize me, and being multicultural and bilingual is really helpful, because I also come from a migrant household. I definitely know how to approach these communities with a lot of respect and just a humble posture.” 

Many libraries across Oregon are implementing the concept of a “library of things” in order to offer more than books and other media when it comes to their resources and programming. A library of things is a collection of items for loan that goes beyond the boundaries of traditionally defined library materials. It supports the sharing economy and local sustainability efforts, as less waste is created when patrons share items. The collection also offers community members an opportunity to save money; to experiment with a tool or instrument; and to try items out before deciding whether to make a purchase. The “things” on offer vary from library to library, and can include musical instruments, household appliances and kitchenware, games, and many other items.

At the Southern Wasco County Library, in Maupin (pop. 423), the library of things often operates on an honor system.
“I know most everyone in town, so I try to write down what’s been borrowed, but if something is missing I usually know where it’s gone to,” says Valerie Stephenson, director of the branch. When Stephenson and I spoke via Zoom on a Friday afternoon in June, she was the only person working in the library. At one point, she paused our interview to check out a power drill to one of her regulars, Bill. Bill seemed delighted by the interview, saying, “Where else can you check out a drill like this from a library? This library and the librarians here are truly the best around.” He chuckled and gave a friendly wave as he left. Stephenson told me that Bill is also a member of the library’s local cookbook club. She said she’s excited about a newly acquired djembe drum for the library’s collection, and noted that she’s not likely to forget who has checked out the town’s only djembe.

While Oregon libraries have been developing new services to meet the needs of their communities, they have also faced their own challenges. There was the pandemic, of course, which shuttered library buildings for months. Other hardships named by librarians I spoke to for this story include funding, staffing, growth and expansion, limited resources, and political challenges.

Roseburg Public Library is an example of a library working to survive financial challenges. In 2017, the Douglas County Board of Commisioners voted to close its library system—the main building in Roseburg and ten branches around the county—
citing a lack of funds. The library reopened as a department of the City of Roseburg in December 2018. Under the city, the library established policies and procedures, hired staff, and renovated the building in partnership with the Douglas Education Service District. (The branches in Canyonville, Drain, Glendale, Myrtle Creek, Oakland, Reedsport, Riddle, Sutherlin, Winston, and Yoncalla have also reopened as independent libraries with local support.)

Kris Wiley, director of Roseburg Public Library, says it was a heavy lift, with much credit going to the city council, city staff, and philanthropic organizations that helped fund the project. “We focus much of our efforts on youth services, and our youth services librarian develops and implements programs for toddlers, children, and teens,” Wiley says. “We secured a grant to purchase an outreach van, and over the past two summers have connected with youth at schools and special events. We love the opportunities community partners give us to take the library out of the physical building.”

The library building is about forty thousand square feet in size and is located on the north side of downtown Roseburg. It shares the building with the Douglas Education Service District, which occupies about a third of the space. The library takes up another third of the building, and the final third, including public meeting rooms, is shared space. The library houses about eighty thousand items and provides twelve internet workstations for adults, a teen room, and a children’s room.

“It is an incredible place,” says library patron Stacey Seeley. “My children love going to the library to pick new books and see the displays they have in the lobby. They know our librarians well and the librarians know us. The youth librarian knows my son so well that she would put books on hold on my account for him that she knew he would enjoy. And he enjoyed every book she picked out.”

Youth librarians in particular have been the target of political controversies across the nation in recent years. Book challenges and censorship have grown tremendously, especially in relation to books about race or racism and those with people of color or LGBTQ+ people as protagonists. Librarians across the country have come under attack for providing services and materials to diverse populations, even though it is their job and obligation to furnish a wide variety of materials that reflects the patrons they serve. Valerie Stephenson, of the Maupin library, says, “In South Wasco County we’ve been very lucky so far in that we haven’t had any challenges. But the possibility is ever present. Our library will always stand behind the First Amendment rights of all of our patrons and strive to offer equitable access to whatever they need. Nationally, and in Oregon, this is the biggest challenge we face right now in serving our communities.”

While Oregon hasn’t yet seen the level of challenges and censorship that other states have, our libraries have been affected. Last year, the board of trustees of Crook County Library in Prineville faced pressure from some community members to label children’s books with LGBTQ+ characters and remove them from the children’s section. The proposal was ultimately rejected, but the controversy caused friction within the community. Library staff declined to be interviewed for this story, stating, “At this time we are only giving out information about the Crook County Library that we create. During the past year rumors/gossip ran amuck about the Crook County Library. We are taking a break and creating our own narrative for a period of time.”

While most libraries across Oregon are still slowly recovering from the toll the pandemic took on their locations, some are using the quieter times to improve or pivot their spaces. The most ambitious of these projects comes from Multnomah County Library, which in November 2020 asked voters to approve a $387 million bond measure to fund building renovation and construction.

Multnomah County Library is a large and storied institution. It traces its origins to 1864, and it became the first taxpayer-supported free library in Oregon in 1902. Today it has nineteen branches and 2.7 million items in circulation. In the 2021–22 fiscal year, patrons checked out 16.5 million items; ninety-five thousand children participated in its summer reading program; and forty-one thousand people attended the library’s virtual and in-person events.

But not all branches are thriving equally. The 110-year-old Central Library location no longer draws as many patrons as it did before the pandemic, the Portland protests of 2020, and the spreading perception of downtown Portland’s decline. Before March 2020, the Central location averaged around fifty thousand visitors each month, but in the years since it has only averaged between twenty thousand and twenty-six thousand visitors.

“I think about this a lot—what will bring people in and what won’t,” says Shelly Jarman, Central Regional Manager for Multnomah County Library. “It’s really hard to untangle, because so much happened at once that impacted the way people move through their lives that it’s hard to say it was this or that. Downtown in general is just not where it once was, pre-pandemic. A lot of businesses are still boarded up, and there’s not that level of tourism that was there, as far as I can see. In the last year we’ve seen that a lot of people are going back into the office and more people commuting by bike to work, which has brought some people back in. We’ve just seen so much going on downtown, and certainly an increase in drug use, particularly in public spaces—and I do think that impacts the way people move through the streets and where they want to spend time.” 

In March 2023, Central Library closed for a major renovation project, paid for by funds from the 2020 bond. Library leadership hopes the renovation will create more open floor space with clearer sightlines; a safer space for the Friends of the Library’s small on-site retail store; and more space for community resource counselors to be able to meet with people in private. There are tentative plans for the building to reopen this winter, but no firm date has been set. (In summer 2023, seven of the library’s branches were closed for construction.)

Like other Multnomah County branches, Central Library is heavily focused on literacy, digital literacy, and cultural and language programming. Staff have been slowly rebuilding programming, from storytime events to outreach within the community and partnerships with organizations such as the Portland Opera. When the renovation is complete, the library will still have unique amenities, including a rare book room and a gallery on the third floor that hosts educational and artistic exhibitions.

During construction, the library is operating a small Community Technology Space on the ground floor of a parking garage a block away from Central Library, offering sixteen computers for public use. Jarman says, “We knew temporarily closing the Central location would be difficult, because for many people, they rely on it for not only technology needs, but also bathrooms, water access, and a place to go when temperatures rise or dip. All of these things that aren’t necessarily connected to a library are actually essential for a lot of people, especially downtown.”

Portland resident Tish Tolentino says using the library helped with her mental health both as a child and now, as an adult. “I’ve always lived in a multigenerational household. My local library was the place where I could have my own tiny space to do homework, be with my closest friends, and just experience calm and silence. I loved it there because I could hear myself think, and it gave me the privacy I craved away from my family even though I loved them.” 

Tolentino doesn’t do her homework at the Gregory Heights branch library anymore, but she says she still finds calm there. “I just go down every aisle with a content[edness] and calm that I can’t find anywhere else currently. There’s so much noise everywhere, but the library continues to be a place that provides that peace for me. It’s the best type of bookstore! It’s quiet, there’s so many book options, and it’s free.”

The work of libraries continues to evolve across the country, as the needs of the communities they serve expand beyond books and meeting space. In Oregon, from remote rural areas to our largest cities, librarians go above and beyond their expected roles, even in the face of funding shortages and political challenges. For many people, libraries have remained a stable source of shelter in an ever-evolving world. 

Gabe Giesige, administrator of Multnomah County’s Belmont Library, says the system is up to the challenge: “We’re back!” he says. “It’s been a slow, halting return, but we’re ready and excited to both bring people into our buildings and meet people in our communities to remind them of all the great things their local library can offer them.” 


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