Jo Nash fought back angry tears when she left Jackson County's Central Library in Medford a few minutes before it closed at 5 p.m. Friday.
Nash was returning a book for what she hopes will not be the last time. But for now, all of Jackson County's 15 branches will remain shuttered indefinitely because of a budget shortfall, the largest such shutdown in the nation's history.
"It has to open back up — we can't not have libraries," said the longtime patron. "We don't need to go back to the dark ages. We don't need to go back to where those who can afford to buy a book can read and those who can't, can't. We don't need to go back there.
"This isn't just a library where you go to find a book to read," she added. "This is a center for people to gather and discuss ideas. This is a place for people to search out information on the Internet. This is a community center. We just cannot let it die."
Her sentiments were echoed by many of the roughly 150 people of all ages gathered for the final day of the main library, constructed three years ago. Some just wanted to walk through the spacious library one last time. Some were bringing books back.
"The books have been coming in at a really good clip," said county Library Director Ted Stark as patrons continued to file out. "If someone doesn't return a book, the fines will continue to accrue at 20 cents per day per item."
Those with books still out will receive a telephone call on Monday informing them their book is overdue, he said. Six people will be staffing the library system to take care of the fines and other matters, he said.
"If someone gets too many fines, we will turn them over to a collection agency," he said. "But we don't want to fine anybody. We just want our materials back."
Carl Cintron, 56, of Medford, who originally hails from New York City, brought back some books he had checked out.
"It's a valuable resource," he said. —This is where people come to grow and learn about each other."
The libraries were closed by county commissioners after Congress failed to renew federal timber subsidies last September, causing a $23 million shortfall in the budget. Sheriff's patrols and road maintenance are also being cut.
Supporters have placed an $8.3 million annual levy on the May 15 ballot that would reopen the libraries.
Cintron figures the shutdown was the result of poor planning by county leaders.
"I come here often," he said. "This is my television. I guess I'll rely more on my computer now. But I hope this will be a short-lived situation. These doors should remain open if for no other reason than the betterment of our youth."
Joe and Karen Henry of Medford brought their two children, ages 10 and 6.
"We came here to say goodbye," Karen Henry said, noting the couple homeschools their children and are frequent library users. "It feels like a death."
"China has libraries. Third-world countries have libraries. Prisons have libraries," her husband said. "Now we don't have libraries."
The family has been collecting books and have talked to other homeschool parents about swapping books, he said.
Aja Rayburn, 7, thought for a moment about what closing the library meant to her.
"It's sad," Aja said. "It gives kids a place to do their homework and do research. I check out mostly kids' books."
Her interest in books comes naturally. Her parents, Scott and Dana Rayburn, are longtime library users and supporters.
"Libraries have always been important to me," Dana Rayburn said. "I was raised in them. They are sacred to me.
"It's a sin we are building libraries in Iraq and closing ours," she said.
Torrey Jakubcin was celebrating his 14th birthday at the Medford library on Friday.
But the faithful library patron said he didn't feel much like celebrating.
"This is horrible," he said. "I'm not sure what I'll do now. I just finished a term paper on California condors. I wouldn't have been able to do it without the library."
When the computer locked the doors at 5 p.m., Stark posted a closed sign on the main door.
"I never thought I'd have to do this," he said. "I've been through my share of economic downturns and budget problems. But we've never closed the libraries before."
After Stark stepped away, Medford City Council member John Statler stepped up and loudly shook the locked doors.
"I want the knowledge!" he shouted. "Who's keeping me from knowing what I need to know?"
After cheering his point, the library patrons fell dead silent in front of the closed library.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.