It’s been just over a year since Douglas County voters turned down a library district that aimed at saving the former Douglas County Library System, and restoring it to 2008 funding levels.
Since then, nine of the branch libraries have reopened as city or community libraries. Just two of the 11 former library branches remain closed, Roseburg and Drain.
Drain supporters hope to convince voters to approve a local library tax district in May. Reedsport also has a local library tax district on the ballot in May. Voters in both towns went against the trend in November 2016, voting in favor of the countywide library district.
Robert Heilman, Douglas Community Library Association board member and supporter of the 2016 library district proposal, said because the district “went down in flames” the Myrtle Creek, Canyonville and Glendale libraries are open fewer hours than they were right before the county pulled funding.
“None of these libraries can look you in the eye and say, ‘Oh yeah we’re going to be open a year from now, for sure.’ They don’t know. We hope so, and there’s a good chance,” said Heilman, who is a board member of the Douglas Community Library Association and the Douglas County Library Foundation.
After Josephine County lost its library funding, volunteer libraries there managed to “limp along” for several years before finally passing a tax district last May, Heilman said.
“We are now the only county in Southern Oregon that does not have a tax base for its libraries,” Heilman said.
Drain and Reedsport aren’t waiting around. Sufficient signatures have already been gathered to place both Drain’s North Douglas Library District and Reedsport’s Lower Umpqua Library District on the May ballot, Douglas County Clerk Patricia Hitt confirmed Monday.
The boundaries for the North Douglas Library District extend beyond the Drain city limits, to include the whole school district, which stretches west toward Elkton, south toward Yoncalla, and includes Curtin at the northern edge of the county line.
The Lower Umpqua Library District would have the same boundaries as the Lower Umpqua Hospital District. That includes the communities of Reedsport, Gardiner and Winchester Bay.
Both the Drain and Reedsport proposals still have some hurdles to jump through, including getting district boundaries approved by the Douglas County Planning Department and holding public hearings, Hitt said.
Once those hurdles are past, it’s up to the voters. North Douglas is asking for a 44 cents per thousand property tax, the same amount sought in last year’s countywide district vote. Reedsport’s proposal is slightly more modest. It’s asking for 39 cents per thousand.
Valarie Johns, president of the Friends of the Mildred Whipple Library in Drain, said with just five active members, the group was so small it felt a volunteer-run library wouldn’t be a viable option.
They held town halls and conducted a survey, which convinced them the locals wanted a full-service library and would be willing to pay taxes for it. They were able to gather more than 300 signatures in two days, more than enough to get the library district on the May ballot, Johns said.
Johns said the 44 cents amount would allow Drain to offer a lot more library than it had in 2016 under the county system. Whereas it had been operating three days and 16 hours per week, with the district tax it could be open four days and 24 hours per week. Drain’s would be a “first-class library,” with all the technology and services of a public library, and with a 30-hour-per-week librarian and two 12-hour-a-week assistants, Johns said.
“We just decided if we’re going to do it, and put all this effort in, we ought to do it right,” she said.
Johns said she doesn’t see a volunteer library as sustainable long term, because volunteers get burned out.
“We’re really excited, and we’ve been working hard, and hopefully this will be the start of a trend to get libraries back. I just think they’re so important and so valuable for our communities,” she said.
Rita Radford, director of library services at the Riddle City Library, said so far, the volunteer system is working for the Riddle Library. She said even though the countywide library district didn’t pass, “everything is falling into place without it.”
Radford said Riddle hasn’t looked into forming its own tax district. The library there is still going strong, with about 40 volunteers, and the Friends of the Riddle City Library may soon be able to pay Radford a small salary for the 16 hours a week she works there, she said.
“We’ve lost a few, but not many, and there’s new ones to replace them,” she said. “We just had more that filled out applications just last week. We’re very happy about that.”
Radford said the library continues to maintain the same hours, and may be able to increase them. It has received grants to purchase books, and is holding a new book drive now, so there will soon be new books on the shelves, she said.
Rick Troxel, chairman of the Sutherlin Library Board, said the library there, which opened almost immediately after the April 1 closure of the smaller county library branches, has remained open four days and 24 hours every week, without “missing a beat.” It’s kept going with 40 volunteers, and the city has announced it’s willing to hire a temporary part-time library operations manager to take on organizing volunteers and other duties.
He said the library is an integral part of the community, and both the Sutherlin City Council and the library volunteers know it.
“We’re real happy with how it’s going,” he said.
Troxel said the library’s still going strong despite the departure of Jean Galleher, who had been described by volunteers as the driving force behind the library’s success before she moved out of town recently. Troxel said it has taken three board members to make up for Galleher’s absence, but they have kept things rolling.
He said they’re moving forward with a strategic plan. They’ll also try to figure out whether the city or the library foundation could do more financially to help the library. After that, it’s possible they’d consider putting forward a district tax proposal, but it’s uncertain how Sutherlin voters might view a local tax district. The Sutherlin City Council opted out of having its residents vote on the countywide tax. However, a large library bond was approved 10 or 15 years ago, Troxel said.
While the smaller libraries map out their strategies, the biggest library, in Roseburg, has remained closed since May 31. Progress is being made, though. The city of Roseburg and the Douglas County Board of Commissioners met Monday morning, and a deed is being prepared to transfer ownership of the library building in Roseburg from the county to the city, Roseburg City Manager Lance Colley said.
He said the meeting was very positive, and he expects the process to move forward very quickly. Meanwhile, talks continue with the Education Service District, which wants to occupy part of the building. Colley said they’re developing a timeline with architects to renovate the building prior to its reopening.
The city also plans to hire library staff and create a library board.
“We’re halfway there when we get the deed, and the county commissioners were very supportive. They want us to be able to reopen and provide library services, too, so we’re confident that will move forward very quickly,” Colley said.
The Douglas Community Library Association hopes to operate a hub from the Roseburg Library. Heilman said the Douglas County Library Foundation is giving the DCLA funds to pay for library software that will allow libraries in the county to exchange books. DCLA also plans to send books between the libraries, and provide software for patrons to download books.