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In the Internet age, are libraries obsolete?

Mindy Hays admits she's not much of a speller, and for most of her life hasn't been much of a reader.

"It's embarrassing," she said. "It really is."

After she became a mother, the 27-year-old Medford resident decided she wanted her two boys to grow up to be smart and develop other interests that would keep them away from drugs.

She took them to the library.

Soon her boys were checking out books and joining the library's summer reading program. Hays started reading Dr. Seuss to them. Then she struggled through the first two books of "The Chronicles of Narnia" by C.S. Lewis - the first novels she'd ever read - last summer.

Hays said her efforts helped inspire her children to become avid readers. But her proud accomplishment is now being overshadowed by plans to close all Jackson County libraries on April 6 because of a $23 million shortfall in the county budget.

Supported by her husband, Duane Schoenek, who works as a cable technician, her family can't afford to buy many books.

"I was looking forward to reading more novels," said Hays, who is working toward a general equivalency diploma and wants to improve her reading skills.

Hays is one of 40,000 library card owners who used one or more of Jackson County's 15 branches last year.

They include the elderly, children, teachers, the poor, those interested in genealogy, do-it-yourself mechanics, people who don't have computers or high-speed Internet access and shut-ins who get books delivered.

They want to read books, watch movies, try yoga, listen to books on tape. Or they just want to sip coffee while reading the morning newspaper.

But as more and more people rely on the Internet for their information, some Jackson County residents are questioning whether libraries should even exist.

Doug Forsyth thinks libraries are rapidly becoming obsolete and should be downsized as the Internet era takes over.

"We need to question how they'll function in the future," said the 59-year-old, semi-retired Ashland resident.

He said if people want libraries, they should be willing to pay for the services themselves and not put the burden on other taxpayers who never use them.

"We've got to stop thinking that to fix any problem we just throw money at it," said Forsyth. "In the end analysis, we are all responsible for ourselves."

He said the library should consider imposing user fees, and parents should be responsible for paying for their children who use the library. "If you can't feed them, don't breed them," he said.

While Forsyth wonders whether libraries are needed in the age of the Internet, Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, continues to invest heavily in libraries throughout the country. Most of the computers at library branches in Jackson County were funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which estimates 14 million people nationwide rely on these computers to further their education and to find employment, health and government information. Forty percent of Americans don't have Internet access at home, according to the foundation.

Local business leaders also see the value in libraries, both in helping attract new companies to the area and in providing an educated work force locally.

"I don't think anybody in the business community wants to see that building go dark, so to speak," said Brad Hicks, president of the Chamber of Medford/Jackson County, referring to the newly built downtown Medford branch. All 15 branches have been rebuilt or renovated, thanks to a $38.9 million bond measure passed by voters in 2000. State law does not allow any of the money to be used for operations.

Libraries provide a safe environment for children after school, said Hays, who worries that closing them will leave children vulnerable to trouble.

"I am really scared," she said. "If you look at all these kids out there and see them get involved in drugs and violence. I don't want my kids to go down that road."

Her 6-year-old son, Duane Schoenek III, now loves to read and came home recently with a math award from kindergarten. Her 4-year-old, Deven Schoenek, also has begun reading along with his brother.

Hays hasn't read much in her life, but other library users such as Stacey Huntington couldn't imagine life without reading.

The 44-year-old Grants Pass resident mines the resources available through both the Josephine and Jackson county libraries, checking out an estimated $300 to $400 worth of books and movies each month.

But with libraries closing in both counties, Huntington said, "I can't afford my reading habit."

Thirty-two counties in Oregon will see cutbacks in the next fiscal year after Congress failed to renew the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act, which provided $273 million annually to Oregon counties and schools. The act was a safety net for counties who relied heavily on timber receipts from logging on federal lands, which began to crash in the 1990s.

Josephine County hasn't set a date for closing its libraries. Josephine and Jackson counties currently share resources and materials along with Klamath County, whose library system is a special taxing district.

Huntington, an insurance agent who used to frequent the Medford branch when she worked in Jackson County, now prefers to order books through the Southern Oregon Library Information System online. Though she'd like to browse more, the Grants Pass library is open only 15 hours a week, giving her little time.

"Besides, it takes an hour to 45 minutes to pick up stuff," said Huntington, referring to the long lines because of the reduced hours.

Huntington and Hays have personal reasons for checking out books, but David Sours, a teacher at White Mountain Middle School in White City, has other motivations for using the library.

He said it is difficult to find enough good materials at the school library to keep his students interested in reading. Many read below grade level, said Sours, who searches far and wide for materials that keep his students opening books.

"They would rather eat nails than read," he said.

Sours personally checks out about 500 books a year from the county library system for his students.

Sours doesn't blame his students for their lack of interest in reading. Many of them come to the school with a variety of life experiences, including troubled homes.

He remembers one young girl who wasn't interested in books until she read David Pelzer's "A Child Called 'It,' " which recounts a harrowing story of child abuse.

Sours checks out about 200 children's books so that some of his students can go to Mountain View Elementary to help others as part of a buddy reading program.

When Sours was a teacher at McLoughlin Middle School, he said many of the students would go to the library after school. Although many didn't use the library for academic reasons, Sours said, "It is a safe place for them to go."

Without access to titles, Sours said it will be more difficult to find reading material for his students. "It will be hard to imagine that all those materials are locked up in mothballs," he said.

Sours said he doesn't expect county officials to give up public safety to help save the libraries. But he would be willing to volunteer or help in fundraising efforts to find a way to keep them open.

Hays also hopes county officials will find a solution. In the meantime, she's checked out the third book in "The Chronicles of Narnia."

Before the libraries close, she said, "I'm going to try to read all the books in the series."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.