Library not to blame for funding crisis

The Jackson County Library was once before in dire straits. In 1984 there were 14 branch libraries operated by the full-time equivalent of 13 staff members, no book budget, no Saturday hours, no courier service, no unified catalog. In November 1984 the Jackson County voters said "Yes, we're willing to be taxed for better library services for three years."

Jackson County voters passed a new library levy each time the previous one was set to expire, until Measures 47 and 50 made the final three-year levy a permanent part of the county's tax base, with no requirement that the funds be used for libraries. The Jackson County Library has lived within the budget it would have had if the last serial levy had remained dedicated to library services.

What a difference those years of adequate funding made. In 2007 there were: 15 branch libraries, one in each Jackson County community; membership in the SOLIS consortium with access to nearly 1.5 million items by placing a hold in the unified catalog; computer and Internet access at every branch library; courier delivery of holds five days a week; professional reference services; online databases accessible from home and work; preschool story times for children; summer reading programs for children and for teens; special collections of age-appropriate materials for children and for teens in each branch library; services to the homebound; services to children in child care; book talks to children in grades six through eight; grant-funded programs such as Jackson County Reads, Babies in the Library, and Storyteller @ Your Library; library materials in a variety of formats, including newspapers, magazines, books, books on CD, books on cassette, videotapes, DVDs, large-print books, and downloadable audio books.

The Jackson County Library did not mismanage funds. In fact, in 2004 its proposed budget was cut 10 percent and staff and hours were reduced in every branch library. The county, not the library, lost federal funding. The county, not the library, decided to close the library when the taxpayers said they didn't want to increase their property taxes (especially when they really believed O&C funds would be renewed by Congress.)

In May 2000, Jackson County voters said, "Yes, we agree to be taxed to rebuild our libraries." Since then, as each new library building has opened its use has skyrocketed, yet the libraries are operated with fewer staff than in 2000. How? Through effective building design, greater use of volunteers, enhanced use of technology and increased availability of self-help tools such as express checkout, self pickup of holds, and the availability of wireless access to the Internet. Use also increased as the new buildings' community meeting rooms provided a place for community organizations to meet, for library programming for all ages, for study groups, tutors and forums.

The Jackson County Library would be facing the present funding crisis even if it were still in the 15 old library buildings. The new library buildings are not the cause of the funding crisis.

Why 15? Because 15 communities independently decided a library was an important part of their community. Everyone knows about Ashland and Medford's 1911 and 1912 Carnegie libraries. Rogue River, Eagle Point and Talent started in the 1920s, White City started in the closet of a Laundromat, Applegate began in the corner of a store. Each branch grew out of a perceived need and a dedication to meeting that need in each community.

In 1970 the cities and the county recognized the benefits of developing a unified county library system that would provide equal service to Jackson County residents wherever they live. The efficiencies achieved by centralizing many functions, combined with the commitment to providing just the right service for each community, resulted in a library system that was recognized throughout the state as a leader in library services, and which provided library services at a lower cost per capita than other Oregon libraries.

The taxpayers have said no to additional taxes. Let's not dismantle a great library system until all of the options have been considered.

Let's not blame the library for a county funding crisis. Let's hear from the county's Blue Ribbon Task Force. Let's learn about all of the possibilities and find a way to keep our library system intact.

We owe it to ourselves, to our children and to our grandchildren. Our libraries were vital and vibrant participants in our communities, contributors to our cultural and economic wealth, a symptom of wellness we can ill afford to lose.

Anne Billeter of Medford was Jackson County Library manager of children's and young adult services and of the south region branches (Ashland, Phoenix and Talent).

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