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Closure hurts our economy, reputation

The closure of our libraries will certainly have a direct impact on many of our citizens, from home schoolers who will no longer be able to continue their studies, to the elderly with limited mobility who have books delivered to their homes by volunteers, to the children of the poor, who do homework on library computers after school since they may have neither computers or Internet connections in their homes.

The closure of our libraries will also dampen economic growth in our valley, which is increasingly dependent upon the in-migration of educated and wealthy retirees. The growth of medical services, real estate, construction and financial services that now drives our local economy would not have occurred if we had not had the cultural amenities of Shakespeare, Britt, Southern Oregon University and our fine system of public libraries.

Central Point, which had the fourth fastest growth rate among Oregon cities in the past decade, increased the percentage of its adult citizens having bachelor's degrees from 17 to 25 percent during the same period. That might not have happened if Central Point had lacked the intellectual infrastructure of good schools and a good library.

The closure of our libraries has brought us notoriety throughout the United States. The event was covered in both the San Francisco Chronicle, and National Public Radio.

The most poignant e-mail I received was from a resident of Slidell, La., which was almost destroyed from storm surges from Katrina.

"Slidell had two libraries, one on the north side, one on the south. The south branch was a total loss, the north branch reopened two weeks after the storm with telephone service when nobody had phone service. Cell towers were down, landlines were down. It was two months before we had phone service again and people who were still in town used the library's phones at no charge. The library moved 57 computer terminals to the north branch so people could communicate with friends and relatives, apply to FEMA and the Red Cross, etc. And the library had air conditioning when no one else had.

"The library literally saved our lives. Perhaps this is why your library system's problems make me so sad/upset."

The closure of a public institution does have a long-term impact on a community's reputation. The brief closure of Eagle Point's schools in the late 1980s had an impact on both the school district and community for well over a decade. Long-term closure of our libraries could have a similar impact on our county.

Although our reputation has been sullied, we still have an opportunity to reclaim it by passing the May library levy.

The levy will provide guaranteed stable funding for three years, allowing both the county and the library supporters to develop a plan for permanent funding. All three of our commissioners have gone on record to dedicate every penny that is produced by the levy to the library system.

Other funding sources, from reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools legislation tied to the Emergency Military Appropriations Bill, to plans to change ownership of all or part of the O&C lands to private or state ownership, to the development of inter-jurisdictional agreements to sustain or improve individual libraries, could take months to years to come to fruition.

None could occur soon enough to prevent the loss of our libraries' employees, and their collective knowledge of both patron needs and inner library function. Loss of the "intellectual capital" that underlies the system would be comparable to a computer losing its operating system. In both cases, what is left is an empty shell.

Our libraries are important, and worthy of a short-term sacrifice by all of us to keep them open until we can develop a political consensus on long-term solutions.

Please support the May levy. Much of what we are as a community is at stake.

Dave Gilmour is a Jackson County Commissioner.