When Ronnie Budge began working for the Jackson County Library System in 1974, it was headquartered in the Carnegie building next to Alba Park in Medford.

When Ronnie Budge began working for the Jackson County Library System in 1974, it was headquartered in the Carnegie building next to Alba Park in Medford.

"It was way undersized and it was last expanded in the 1950s," said Budge, who spent 33 years working for the library system, including 22 years as director before retiring in 2007.

Bursting at the seams, the library had to get rid of books as it acquired more because it was out of space. Then came computers, and room had to be found for them.

But Medford's library wasn't the only county branch in need of expansion. The Prospect branch was in an old log-weighing station, and the Jacksonville library had been built before Abraham Lincoln was president, according to Scott Rayburn, who served on the Jackson County Library Advisory Committee for 15 years and was chairman for 10.

"It was difficult to provide what the public deserved. Libraries are a lot more than checking out books," said Budge.

Kids need a place to linger after school and work on homework, people need access to books and reference materials, and many people need access to public computers.

"I wasn't sure how much the public cared about that," said Budge.

But she and others were determined to find out, eventually crafting a $38.9 million bond measure passed by 59 percent of voters on May 16, 2000, to build or expand all 15 libraries in the county.

"Running the library was one thing. Our challenge at the time was that we were facing infrastructure that was in an advanced state of decay," said Rayburn.

More than just an expansion, the libraries needed to be innovative at a time of great change. Budge believed the branch libraries needed to be community centers that reflected the surrounding area.

Community meeting rooms were designed and incorporated into the designs, and Budge helped organize a partnership with Rogue Community College to include the college's library within the Medford branch.

"It was an interesting situation. So many of the libraries were in such bad condition, it seemed fairly obvious that they needed an update, but nobody likes to spend money," said Alison Baker Rilling, who was chairwoman of the Jackson County Friends of the Library and chair of the bond measure campaign. "Many people were sure libraries were going to disappear."

"We had a lot of hills to overcome," Rayburn recalled. "Every expert who looked at our proposal said, 'This is impossible, it will never happen.' Sure enough, by 8:01 p.m. (on election day), we had reached the magic number. It was one of the most powerful evenings in my life."

"I had never been involved in anything like that before, it was actually a whole lot of work, but it was also a lot of fun," said Pat Ashley, who helped campaign for the bond measure and also sits on the RCC board of directors.

"We were the first library in Oregon to be built as a joint library for the public and the college," said Budge.

"Then Southern Oregon University went on with RCC to build the Higher Education Center. I think it's the real wave of how we have to go. I'm a believer. I'm trying to make everyone else a believer too," said Ashley.

Budge's vision of the branches as community centers is what shaped the look of each individual branch, and it's what she's most proud of, she says.

"We hired architects with library consultants who held meetings with the public in all 15 communities. As it turned out, every library is different, even though they all serve the same purpose," said Budge.

"Eagle Point is Eagle Point's library, it's not a box just plopped down. They designed it, and they built it," said Rayburn.

The library foundation raised additional money for enhancements, such as the artwork that appears in most libraries.

"Having art as an integral part of the buildings makes for a better experience," said Budge, citing accoutrements such as display cases for art, picture rails on the walls, a totem pole at the Rogue River branch, murals of wildlife in the Applegate branch, inscriptions that appear on the outside of the Medford branch, and the bronze doors and wooden bench in the Children's Department.

"Sometimes we do it right," Rayburn said. "This is one of those times. This is not just a nice building, we did everything right. It all fell into place because enough people had enough passion and skill to make it happen."

Reach reporter Mandy Valencia at 541-776-4486 or avalencia@mailtribune.com.