Rural libraries turning more to private sector for lifeline

Joe Crawford / Wikimedia Commons

A fundamental public institution diversifies to survive. 

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A quote on the Jackson County Library District website from poet Archibald MacLeish reads: “What is more important in a library than anything else—than everything else—is the fact that it exists.”

That couldn’t resonate more with rural libraries today in Oregon. Many are seeking creative ways to serve communities that don’t want to pay for their services.

Last year, when timber tax receipts dried up, Douglas County voters rejected a property tax increase that would have saved the public library system from extinction. All ten libraries closed.

The same thing happened a decade before in timber-dependent Jackson County. In 2006 and 2007, voters turned down two levies that would have funded their 15 public libraries.

“County commissioners, especially in rural conservative counties, believe libraries have overstayed their welcome, and should be defunded,” says Cathy Shaw, a Jackson County Library Board Member.

In Curry County, when the timber money fizzled, so did the library. Few Oregonians hate taxes as much as residents of Curry County, says Jeremy Skinner, a librarian for the Curry County Library System. Even when timber money was still flowing, he says, “the county government wasn’t very good about funding things like libraries.”

Sue Ludington, a librarian who advocates for rural law libraries, says these critical, but oft-overlooked, reservoirs of public legal information suffer from declining appropriations from county judicial departments.

“In many of those counties the funding isn’t sufficient,” Ludington says. “It’s hard to figure out what you would do with $2,000 a year.”

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Yet rather than throw up their hands, hardy library administrators have found ways to survive. In the process, they repainted the traditional picture of the public library.

Jackson County took the unusual step of contracting its public library operations to a private corporation. With the libraries in free fall in 2007, Maryland-based Library Systems & Services extended a parachute. The company operates more than 80 public libraries in six states.

Private management of public institutions is becoming the norm, rather than the exception. As rural counties hemorrhage public services, private management offers increased efficiency. Private contractors run public airports, state lotteries, child welfare programs and now, libraries.

Under private management, Jackson County’s 15 libraries are not just solvent, but vibrant. They boast an array of books, community events and services that were impossible under public management. The national contractor has access to large collections and talent pools. Cathy Shaw, a library board member, says the buildings are “gorgeous,” and the facilities are “well-loved, well-used, well-funded.”

“If you have a struggling library system and have minimal funding this is the way to go,” Shaw says. “If you have a robust system this is not.”

The publicly managed library district still owns and maintains the buildings, and funding still comes almost entirely from property taxes. The district can tax 52 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

The new arrangement, however, is more opaque than a publicly managed system. The library budget does not reveal how exactly Library Systems & Services spends its $5.3 million fee. Until August, library board members did not know how much librarians were paid.

“It has been very frustrating, the lack of transparency we experienced in the first few years,” says Susan Kiefer, the library board president. “We’ve had a lot of turnover. It has been in the past related to poor compensation and benefits.”

Todd Frager, chief financial and operating officer for Library Systems & Services, says the company does not discuss its business relationships with local governments in the media. He declined to say how much of Jackson County taxpayers’ money goes to profit, or how much librarians are paid.

Kiefer rests assured, however, that the problems with the company have been addressed. In 2015, a private equity firm, Argosy, took control of the business. Under new management, Library Systems & Services radically transformed its relationship with Jackson County Library administrators. The new executives, including Frager, immediately respond to concerns and information requests, says Kiefer.

At an August board meeting, Library Systems & Services reported staff had received 3% raises each year since 2015, and an additional $1 an hour in January. The company also promised to allocate $200,000 for additional staff.

“LS&S had a pretty awful reputation in library land and they did a lot to change that,” Kiefer says. “I think it’s possible now to get a decent deal from them.”

Back in 2007, library board members faced a choice between a privately run library, or no library at all. A decade later, they feel they made the right call, though it wasn’t their first choice. They’re still discussing whether to renew the company’s contract when it expires in 2020.

“If you have a struggling library system and have minimal funding this is the way to go,” Shaw says. “If you have a robust system this is not.”

Douglas County residents opted for a more grassroots approach. Volunteers revived nine libraries through fundraisers and donations, the Oregonian reported in June. An army of volunteers staffed reference desks, built collections and ran summer programs.

Elsewhere, librarians are trying to convince voters of their institutions’ value by changing the library’s traditional function of providing free books and Internet. In business terms, they’re shifting their value proposition.

The Curry County library, Skinner says, broadened its focus from reading, to programs tied generally to education and civic engagement. In some ways, it took on a role closer to that of a school. The library partnered with the Southwestern Oregon Workforce Investment Board, for example, to offer a program that helps underserved young people earn GEDs.

“I believe in literacy,” Skinner says, “but it’s not the only thing the library should be doing.”

“Even in a place that’s averse to taxes,” Skinner says, “if you’re doing something people think is critical to their lives, they’re not going to cut you out of the system.”

In the Washington and Lane County law library where Ludington works, more than half of the patrons are ordinary citizens seeking help for a personal legal problem. Often, the patrons lack the resources to hire a qualified attorney, so they hit the books on their own.

As online resources and subscriptions have grown too expensive for the budgets of some rural law libraries, Ludington says, they’re looking for alternatives to fill the gap in legal knowledge. Some are expanding their focus on education, and considering additional steps like Skype consultations.

The Klamath County law library offers education programs to the public on topics, including landlord-tenant and bankruptcy law. In Columbia County pro bono lawyers helped alleviate a overflow of patrons. Nowadays, Ludington says, “Libraries are not just places where books are being held.”

The hope is that a transfiguration will make libraries more attractive to tax phobic voters. If free books no longer qualify as a public service on the order of roads and schools, then libraries must offer another product to their patrons.

“Even in a place that’s averse to taxes,” Skinner says, “if you’re doing something people think is critical to their lives, they’re not going to cut you out of the system.”

As Macleish might say, the most important feature of a library is its existence, whatever form that takes.

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