US POLITICS

In Oregon, A Struggling County Just Shut Down Its Last Public Library

Residents in Douglas County are now without an institution considered fundamental to American life after rejecting a modest tax levy to save it

US POLITICS
Outside the public library in Drain, Oregon — Shane Dixon Kavanaugh
Jun 06, 2017 at 12:59 PM ET

ROSEBURG, Ore. — A wave of sadness swept over Pinky England as she watched her two daughters dutifully stuff the borrowed books, CDs, and DVDs into the return bin at the Douglas County public library on Wednesday morning. It would likely be a long while before they did so again, if ever. 

Last fall, voters in this struggling Oregon timber county soundly rejected a tax measure to keep all of its libraries from closing down. After 10 of the system’s outposts shuttered this spring, only the central branch in Roseburg, home to about a one-fifth of the county’s 107,000 residents, remained open. But it too would lock its doors in only a few short hours.

“We have Google, but it’s not the same thing,” said England, 28, who home schools her two children, ages 7 and 9, and discovered libraries to be a safe environment to ask questions and learn as a little girl. “Maybe we’ll start sifting through the piles at Goodwill for materials? I don’t know.”

Just three hours south of Portland, where residents enjoy the fruits afforded by a tech and real estate boom, this rural community of loggers and agricultural workers is preparing to do without a publicly-funded institution considered by many to be as fundamental to American life as schools, paved roads, and the local police. In some ways, the demise of the public library system in Douglas County, which is roughly the size of Connecticut, is the outcome of a perfect storm of factors confronting towns and cities across the U.S. — the slow death of an industry; an exodus of young people and influx of retirees; an explosion of anti-tax fervor; and shifting perceptions on what government and people are willing to pay for today.

But outside of southern Oregon, where public libraries in the past have sometimes closed and later reopened, a wholesale shutdown is unheard of, national observers say. “The magnitude of this closure is like nothing we’ve seen,” Julie Todaro, the president of the American Libraries Association, told Vocativ.

The loss may also be immeasurable for an area that’s battled high rates of poverty and the dwindling economic opportunities. Douglas is among the most impoverished counties in Oregon, recent census figures show, and nearly 26 percent of residents received food stamps in 2014. Its per capita income rate of $22,591 is roughly a fifth smaller than the $27,684 state average.

For many here, the their libraries were a vibrant symbol of community and civic pride, whether it be as a public events space, a place to look for work or learn to read, or a source of free and reliable information in the age of fake news.

“It’s kind of backwards,” said Harold Hayes, who has served as the director of the Douglas County library system since 2014. “When we think of education, innovation, and progress, we tend not to think of them as going away.”

‘We didn’t have a choice’

For decades, logging on public lands bankrolled the timber-rich regions of southern and western Oregon. The federal government, which controls vast swaths of the territory, paid Douglas and its neighboring counties for the trees harvested from the area’s old growth forests. As the demand for wood products surged during and after World War II, a steady flow of cash allowed these rural communities to pave roads, build bridges, and construct elegant courthouses.

Places like Douglas County, which, at its height, had hundreds of lumber mills humming around the clock, could afford grand civic gestures for their communities.

“We were once called the ‘Timber Capital of the World,'” said Marilyn Woodrich, 91, who moved with her husband to Roseburg in 1950. Three years after the couple, originally from Chicago, laid down roots in timber country, Douglas County formed an expansive public library system that would eventually grow to 11 branches.

Over time, however, the flood of money started to dry up. Large-scale logging began to decline in Oregon and much of the West in the 1980s. Following the addition of the spotted owl to the Endangered Species Act in 1990, which closed off much of the state’s federal land to industry, counties went into free fall. Officials in Douglas County watched its neighbors cut law enforcement to the bone and temporarily close libraries as timber payments slowed to a trickle in recent years.

Douglas County began to see a funding crisis of its own as annual federal timber revenues plummeted from a high of $50 million a year to just several million dollars each year. The issues began to pile up. The county largely privatized its health care system and scaled back its land department. Public landfills and county parks, once free to residents, had to start charging fees. Soon, public libraries would fall into the budget crosshairs.

“We didn’t have a choice,” Douglas County Commissioner Gary Leif told Vocativ. “If folks don’t want us to cut down timber and don’t like libraries closing, they should tell us where to get the money from.”

Where’s the money?

Last fall, library supporters in the county devised a tax proposal on the local ballot that would have added about $6 a month to the bill of a median-priced home — comparable to the price of a fast-food meal, proponents argued. Even though Oregon has no sales tax and Douglas County residents pay one of the lowest property tax rates in the state, the measure sparked a furious backlash. Tea Party Republicans and anti-tax champions panned it, as did many of the retirees lured to the area’s low-cost living and conservative political culture. In letters to the local daily newspaper, some questioned the need for public libraries in the age of the internet and iPhones. Even one of Leif’s colleagues on the county commission publicly opposed the proposal.

In November, 55 percent of voters rejected the measure. In the same election, nearly two-thirds of county voters cast a ballot for Donald Trump, who lost to Hillary Clinton by more than 10 points statewide.

David Jacques, publisher of the Roseburg Beacon, a conservative weekly newspaper, told Vocativ that residents weren’t against public libraries, but a tax increase of any kind. “We’re an independent bunch,” he said. “We don’t have a high expectation of government services. Many of us would like to see them significantly scaled back.”

Even some self-described library lovers, such as 70-year-old Joanie Flynn, admitted that they couldn’t support a property tax increase that stood to financially squeeze those in their community who are struggling to scrape by.

“I don’t like the idea of spending other people’s money if they don’t have it,” Flynn told Vocativ.  “If you can only afford beer, you don’t go out and buy champagne.”

‘This is our home’

In the spring, the public library branches that have been open for more than 60 years began to shutter, one by one. “Closed until further notice,” reads the sign in a window of the Mildred Whipple Library in Drain, a town where the rusted remnants of an abandoned lumber mill sit near the outskirts.

Outside the branch in nearby Yoncalla, where the building locked its doors indefinitely in April, a plaque with bronze lettering bears the words: “To the past, present, and future generations of this community.”

Throughout the afternoon, a somber procession unfolded outside Roseburg’s branch. A man in a Shakespeare T-shirt shook his head in disbelief as he went to drop off a pair of John Steinbeck novels, a glossy book on interior design, and a hefty tomb about the new World Trade Center in New York. A woman stepped out of her car and made her way through the library’s sliding glass doors with vase full of pink roses and a balloon with the words, “Thank You.” Another person pressed her nose to the books she brought in a bag and inhaled slowly before depositing each one into the lobby’s metal return box.

“It’s all pretty emotionally draining,” said Hayes, thanking patrons and giving hugs. “We were a place that really helped people.”

Last year, patrons borrowed more than 450,000 materials from the system’s 11 libraries, statistics show. Roughly 13,000 children and young adults participated in its reading programs. More than 38,000 users logged on to browse the internet.

“The people who benefited most were children, the elderly, and the poor,” Hayes said.

He added: “What you’re seeing here is a great cause for concern, regardless of political affiliation. We’re seeing a real change in what government and society values. It might be the Douglas County library today. But what’s it going to be tomorrow?”

For Robert Leo Heilman, a former woodsman turned author and essayist, the library system shutdown is just another needless black eye. The county garnered statewide attention in 2015 when Roseburg Forest Products, a company synonymous with the community and its big timber roots, decided to move its corporate headquarters 70 miles north to Springfield, citing that it struggled to attract young and skilled workers.

That same year, tragedy struck Douglas County when a gunman fatally shot nine people at Umpqua Community College near Roseburg, an event that drew international headlines. The response by some residents was also newsworthy. When President Barack Obama flew out to console the families of the shooting victims, he was greeted by hundreds of angry protestors, who lined the streets waving signs saying “Obama-Free Zone,” “NOBAMA,” and even “Go Back To Kenya.”

“This is our home,” Heilman said. “But who the fuck wants to live in a place that can’t retain a professional class of workers, hurls vile invective at the president in a time of tragedy, and closes down its libraries?”

‘Closed’

County officials recognize the severity of the situation and are scrambling to find a way to keep some form of a library system intact. A Library Futures Task Force, which includes Leif, the county commissioner, has explored combining resources with school districts or creating “reading rooms” staffed by local volunteers. Last week, the task force voted to recommend the creation of a nonprofit to run a centralized hub to manage the county’s library collection and work with local branches, though it’s unclear how the organization would be funded.

As Roseburg’s library prepared to shut its doors, two volunteers sat behind the circulation desk in Sutherlin. One of them was Flynn, the library lover who couldn’t support the property tax hike. The other, Erika Wolfe, 19, said she had been coming to her city’s library since she was 7 years old and was devastated when she learned voters had rejected the proposed library tax district.

“I just started sobbing,” said Wolfe, adding that the books she borrowed from the library helped her battle depression as a teen. “This place was like my sanctuary. It was my second home.”

While surrounding areas are trying to cobble together services to blunt the loss of a library, many see these efforts, however spirited, to be insufficient when compared to a county-supported system. They are also likely to be unsustainable in the long term, according to local residents and experts. “They are one of the finest American traditions,” said MaryKay Dahlgreen, Oregon’s sate librarian.

That tradition, however, has an uncertain future in Douglas County. And the coming months and years do not look promising, as local officials are eyeing even deeper cuts to publicly-funded services and institutions, Leif said. The county’s museum, which displays some of the area’s storied timber history, is on the chopping block for next year. Within two years, there will likely not be enough money to staff the county sheriff’s office.

“Unless we can get back in the woods, we’re screwed,” said Leif, who joined around a dozen people who had gathered outside the library in Roseburg during its final hour. Someone brought a cardboard casket to symbolize the closure, while another man donned black clothing and a matching top hat. More than a couple of the onlookers began to cry.

At 6 p.m., Hayes, the library director, stood before the building’s sliding glass doors and locked them. A pair of staff members then placed two signs for all to see. “Library,” read the first sign. “Closed,” read the second.

“In many ways, we’ve just become too impoverished over the years,” Heilman, who was also present, said in a separate interview. “You’re talking about what amounts to the Appalachia of the West Coast.”