Thoughts on Sustainability
Column Editor: Scott Alan Smith (Langlois Public Library, Langlois, Oregon; Phone: 541-348-2066)
In my last column I provided an overview of the circumstances surrounding the Langlois Public Library and my first year of service here. These circumstances are hardly unusual; I suspect more than a few readers will have thought to themselves, “well, what’s so notable about that?” My point in describing some of the day-to-day aspects of managing a small rural public library was to set the stage for a more encompassing discussion of the sustainability of such libraries, and libraries in general.
One of the first things I did upon arrival here was to join the Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL). The organization consists of people involved in such institutions and has proven to be an invaluable resource for fielding questions ranging from board relations, programming, security systems, recommendations for equipment, policies and procedures, insurance, and on and on. Many small libraries operate with limited staff; directors in such libraries perform most if not all of the work necessary to operate a library, from staffing the circulation and reference desks and other traditional library functions, to ordering supplies, processing payroll, and changing the light bulbs.
One fundamental question confronting many of us is the basic issue: how do we keep this going?
The Langlois Public Library is a tax-supported public institution. We get $.7707 in property tax for every $1,000 of assessed value of all property owners in our district (which is an enviable millage for a district; unfortunately our district is the size of a postage stamp). We benefit from grants, donations, Friends’ group fundraisers (book sales, craft fairs, silent auctions, etc.), and other supplemental funding. We partner whenever possible with our sister libraries in Agness, Gold Beach, and Port Orford. We provide outreach through area schools, support community events, and open our space to local and regional groups seeking meeting rooms, facilities suitable for presentations, and the convenience of a local venue. We deliver educational and entertainment programming to a village otherwise unserved by such resources. We are the only community commons accessible to our patrons.
The Library enjoys broad support; many of our patrons are deeply committed to the Library and want very much to see it thrive and flourish far into the future. The Friends group devotes long hours to fundraising events throughout the year, and provides welcome additional money to purchase materials for the collection and new equipment, and to underwrite expanded programming opportunities. Dedicated volunteers help sustain longer opening hours and perform essential maintenance and upkeep on the facility.
Our service experience mirrors that of national trends: during economic downturns library use surges. We have many patrons who cannot afford internet access, cable television, or books, and who need basic services such as faxing, scanning, and photocopying. Many visit us daily; we are usually busy.
Regrettably, our current foundations may not be enough to guarantee our long-term sustainability. Much of our budget consists of fixed costs: utilities, supplies, systems fees, and the like. These costs generally increase annually, whereas tax receipts do not. The local economy, long dependent on two moribund industries — fishing and timber — promises little likelihood of recovery. As the gap between costs and taxes collected widens, the strain of offsetting the difference with donations, grants, and other sources of funding becomes increasingly challenging. Unless we can craft an effective solution to address the fiscal realities facing us this library district will not survive, nor will the others in the county.
This scenario plays out across the state; indeed, throughout the nation. Oregon has already suffered entire county library systems forced to close (e.g., Hood River County; Jackson County). Although these counties have succeeded in re-opening their libraries, it has come at great cost — to taxpayers, to patrons, and to staff. Some, like Jackson County, must again put a ballot measure before taxpayers this year; failure to pass may mean closing once again.
Curry County, Oregon, does not have a unified county library system; each library is an independent tax district. Although most libraries in the county share an integrated library system and seek to pool resources for programming and collections, each of us performs a whole range of administrative tasks separately. This independence is a point of pride for many of our residents, but ultimately such a view is simply too naïve and insular. Our ongoing collective health will rely upon coming to understand such independence as a critical liability.
For one thing, such redundancy consumes too many scant resources, diverting scarce budget dollars and staffing that could be more effectively deployed if we had a centralized county system. In practice our separate districts offer little real benefit. Invariably inconsistencies arise in service policies, cataloging, donor relations, grant writing, and general operational philosophies. At the end of the day, such independence is a luxury we can no longer afford.
Curry County also has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the poorest counties in the state. In 2013 we failed to pass a ballot measure to sustain funding of 911 and other emergency services, and the fate of law enforcement in the county after July 1, 2014 remains in jeopardy. How likely are future library initiatives to fare in such a climate?
I am convinced our future depends upon nurturing a new model for this county, and indeed upon moving beyond the already established foundations of regional library support to something more grounded, more stable, and ultimately more unassailable than what has gone before. If we cannot fashion a measured solution to the basic question of how do we keep this thing going, the citizens of Curry County will be without library services.
That libraries need to do a better job of marketing is not news. That we need to incorporate advocacy as an ongoing, daily facet of our service delivery is not news. How we accomplish this is a more opaque question.
For us, the first steps will be to disband the independent districts and form a single county system. Far easier said than done. The political canyon that exists just between Langlois and Port Orford, thirteen miles apart, is enormous. In recent years the two schools in Langlois were closed and merged with Port Orford; this has left a bitter taste in the mouths of Langlois residents, and that toxic legacy will make it very difficult to accept the idea of combining just these two districts. Port Orford’s tax rate is lower; persuading their voters to approve a new district with a higher rate may prove impossible. Add to this the idea that north county, already convinced that the officials in the county seat of Gold Beach ignore or conveniently forget this neck of the woods, might ever be persuaded to join forces with the rest of the county, and — well, you get the picture.
This will require a ballot measure. Voters will have to approve it. Talk with many here, and they’ll tell you it’s impossible. The challenge for the likes of me is to demonstrate that if they don’t, everyone suffers.
As noted earlier, simply forming a county system isn’t a guarantee of success. Just because Hood River and Jackson Counties re-opened doesn’t assure survivability. We need to grow beyond being a unified system, and beyond understanding ourselves to be libraries in the traditional, historical sense. We need to re-invent ourselves yet again.
Do not misunderstand me. I remain committed to the core values of librarianship. I spent thirty years as a book vendor and serials agent before becoming a librarian, and I still have to pause when someone asks me what I do for a living without answering, “I’m a bookman.” To change into what we must re-shape ourselves to be is not to abandon what we have been or where we come from, but to reaffirm those values while embracing new ones.
Cynics might also read personal ambition into this, but they are mistaken. My goal is not to build a fiefdom within this obscure little corner of the state — the country — the world — with Langlois as its center. My goal is to ensure that Langlois continues to have a library at all; one that reflects the interests, concerns, and virtues of its odd, quirky, and fundamentally wonderful little constituency.
My job is to secure this Library’s funding and support. My job is to steer this district to its future. Ultimately, my job may be to put myself out of a job. Sustainability is about the institution, not the individual — and besides, getting there is a journey unlikely to be achieved in my lifetime. In my next column I’ll talk more about what I think the coming versions of the Langlois Public Library might just look like.
Leah was appointed Executive Director of the Charleston Conference in 2017, and has served in various roles with the Charleston Information Group, LLC, since 2004. Prior to working for the conference, she was Assistant Director of Graduate Admissions for the College of Charleston for four years. She lives in a small town near Columbia, SC, with her husband and two kids where they raise a menagerie of farm animals.