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Kicked off the highway

and Andrew Scot Bolsinger

The vote was decisive: 31,162 in favor and 44,004 against. Congress spoke with equal conviction. next April the doors to all Jackson County libraries, including our own Ashland Library, will be locked, lights out and the building silent. Library services will be terminated and the thousands of local residents who avail themselves of this community resource will have to go elsewhere.

A memo circulated among library employees about library funding last week stated, "Without new sources of revenue, there will be no money to continue library operations. The Commissioners have decided that all 15 libraries will close this spring. The exact date has yet to be determined. Very rough estimates are that we will close before April."

The fateful vote in November's election killed ballot measure 15-66, which was slated to fund the Jackson County public libraries at present levels for five years, beginning July 1, 2007. The proposal was to collect $.66 per $1,000 of property value as assessed by the County Assessor.

Library officials crafted the measure as a hopeful hedgefund against the likelihood that Public Law 106-393, a primary source of funding for public services such as libraries would not be extended by Congress. As expected, the federal timber funds were not renewed &

Jackson County has received $23 million annually &

forcing layoffs and cutbacks in many county departments. None will be hit harder than the library system.

Ironically, the defeat of 15-66 follows a May 2000 voter-approved bond measure that provided funds to rebuild 14 of 15 libraries in Jackson County.

The picture of modern libraries devoid of life contrasts sharply with the current portrait of Ashland's library today, a place that despite the whispers, bustles with energy and vitality.

The original building, called the Carnegie Library, was built in 1912. The addition was built in 2002. It's about as user friendly and inviting as any public building could be. Within its walls are 120,000 books; 15 staff members; and 38 volunteers who donate 192 hours of their time, all of which voters and Congress suggest no longer justifies the cost.

A shift?

Has there been a shift in how the public perceives the importance of libraries in the life of the community? With the geometric growth of the Internet, the ubiquitous PC, and wi-fi laptops, perhaps libraries find it ever more difficult to find a justifiable niche in the life of the community. Are libraries a relic of the past, broken down on the side of the information highway?

Jackson County library staff insist their relevance has only grown in recent years, continuing to be a unique and interesting place. Not just timber and wood, but an island of sorts, created specifically for inquiry, learning, research, community gatherings, reading groups, and a place to merely sit down and quietly read for the sheer joy of it. For some even a refuge.

And the library is not just a repository of books &

though there are, of course, aisles of stacked books and magazines and newspapers.

Ashland's library serves, staff contends, is as an onramp to the ever widening stream of data on the information highway. Viewed in the aggregate, a library represents a community resource that is so multifaceted as to almost defy description.

More than 600 people walk through the Ashland Library door each day, according to Anne Billeter, Children's, Young Adult, and South Region Manager.

"Children come to explore the moon and spaceships, dragons and dinosaurs, thumb art and Michelangelo. Thus far this year some 565 kids in Ashland have read 7,490 books. In Jackson County, 5,290 kids read 63,609 books for Summer Reading. Everyone can find life-changing and life-enhancing ideas and information at the library."

Scores of children come to Babies in the Library, Third Tuesday at the Library, preschool story time, Summer Reading, Harry Potter parties, and booktalks. Children can call Dial-a-Story (774-6439) and hear a story read to them by a volunteer.

There's a Mom's Support Group, Head Start storytime, and early literacy activities for pre-walking babies, plus toddler and preschool storytime.

The library extends far beyond children. Patrons check out books, make 150 hold requests for books daily, read magazines, listen to books on cassette, view book videotapes and DVDs, and listen to CD's. Ashlanders checked out 23,000 items in October, a 5 percent increase over the previous October. Some access the 20 Internet computers; use one of the database computers to write resumes, stories, or articles; others peruse the 13 daily newspapers; many sit in the comfortable chairs and read and think or meet with friends.

For answers to esoteric questions, scores call or e-mail the Ashland reference librarians: What's the current population of Turkey? How I do I build a straw-bale house? Using L-NET, librarians can be reached 24/7, answering such niche questions as, How much steel is there in the Golden Gate Bridge?

Extensive services

To walk inside the Ashland library is to be greeted by a hushed silence. Never total, of course, for their are people coming and going, soft conversations held at the check-out desk, the rustle of paper mixing with the soft tread of shoes. Light streams in through rows of ceiling to floor windows which look out toward the passing traffic and the mountains beyond.

The library is comprised of lower, main and upper floors. The lower floor is the lower floor of the Carnegie. It has two meeting rooms, the Gresham Room and the Guanajuato Room. The main floor is the upper floor of the Carnegie, which is the Children's department and the lower floor of the addition, which includes adult fiction, magazines and newspapers, large print books, new books, audio books, Friends of the Library book sale area, the checkout desk, and the volunteer staffed welcome desk. The upper floor (the upper level of the addition) includes reference services and collection, adult nonfiction, and Spanish-language collection, backfiles of magazines and newspaper, videos and DVD's, a Study Room, and Teen Services and collection.

There are, of course, countless workshops, classes, programs and events, Author Nights, and community forums held throughout the year. The library hosts Books and Old Lace Mystery Group, Chautauqua Poets and Writers Conference, and The "Elastic Mind" Book Discussion Group.

Some 6,000 sixth, seventh and eighth graders each year are encouraged to read books for fun, ideas, and information by hearing book talks by Jackson County Librarians John Sexton and Kim Wolfe.

"There are magic moments a plenty, here," said Perii Haushchild-Owen, Ashland Children's Librarian. "You see, the library doesn't end with books. Books are just the starting point. To children, and parenthetically to their parents, it's about new things to see, new things to discover, new things do and new things to learn. All rolled-up in one magical place called the Ashland Children's Library."

The magic, for many extends outside the walls. Homebound library patrons receive visits from Jackson County Library Services Outreach to the Homebound staff and volunteers. Some 2,666 items were delivered to homebound readers in October.

Children in Child Care receive visits from JCLS Outreach to Child Care staff and volunteers, with 40 new books and storytime each month.

Local resident Chuck Colburn, who sat researching an automotive problem, said that the Ashland library had one of the best automotive repair sections anywhere, but something else draws him back each time.

"Actually, I just like being in a library," he said. "Best thing I learned in high school was how to use the library. Met a couple of librarians who took great joy in showing me how to use the place." He looked around, then said, "This library would do me for the rest of my life."

Barring a sudden change, the picture that Colburn surveyed around him will in April will be replaced with one of a large, dark, imposing figure of what once was.