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Libraries: A popular 'staycation'

by: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN Lines were long and computers all occupied on a recent summer afternoon at the Ledding Library in downtown Milwaukie.

Good luck finding an empty seat in front of a computer at Ledding Library, where Milwaukie is not alone among Clackamas County libraries seeing dramatic increases in use.

After Damascus joined its library district, Clackamas Corner saw an impressive 12-percent circulation growth over the past two years.

You can certainly blame the economic downturn for the trend, and Ledding Circulation Department Supervisor Nancy Wittig has noticed that more people have stayed home reading this year rather than spend money on traveling or other expenses. Milwaukie's library broke 700,000 circulated items for the past year through June for the first time, an 8-percent increase over the previous fiscal year.

'It's certainly not that people are coming in for the air conditioning, because it hasn't been that hot,' Wittig said. 'It's the same programming, but we're getting more people to attend.'

Gladstone has also trended up in its circulation numbers over the past few years, even without any population growth. The exceptions include Oak Lodge Library, which is scheduled to merge with Gladstone next year, lost 40,000 in circulated items to its neighboring city over the past six years, and Oregon City's circulation was stagnant in a much smaller location.

Among the events set up by the Friends of the Ledding Library is a weekly concert in neighboring Scott Park every Wednesday at noon through the end of August. There are also about four weekly events for children in Ledding's downstairs.

Greg Chaimov, Milwaukie City Council's liaison to the library's expansion task force, has seen increasing numbers of people checking out books rather than purchasing them.

'The library provides free activities, and if a family has less money to spend, they're more likely to go to the library than, say, Oaks Park,' Chaimov said.

Although the library is subsidized each year by about $1 million from the county and city's general fund, the library is completely free only for the most diligent users. Fines and fees this past year added about $57,000 to the city's coffers, and library revenue in June was 18 percent higher than the year before.

In July, Ledding's circulation decreased slightly from the previous year, but another trend remains absolutely consistent: More residents of unincorporated Clackamas County are using Milwaukie's city library. Milwaukie's population decreased by 200 people between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, but thousands more are living in the areas just outside of city limits.

Wittig and Chaimov expect that more people from the unincorporated area around Clackamas Town Center will come to Milwaukie when Clackamas Corner closes and moves east to Happy Valley in December.

'It gets packed, but it kind of ebbs and flows,' Wittig said. 'Even when it's crowded, there's always room for more people to sit.'

The expansion task force is preparing to reach out to the community to find out what they want and what the current needs are. One suggestion that has been popular so far is a satellite branch in the eastern part of Milwaukie, but the city has yet to figure out how big the building would need to be.

One long-term goal for the city is to move all its public employees to one location, Chaimov points out, so such a move could free up real estate in city office spaces that are currently scattered in several locations.

In December 2003, Milwaukie contracted an architectural firm to develop a library master plan, which called for Ledding's current site to be expanded by 15,000 square feet to 26,000 square feet. But the project was a nonstarter for lack of funding.

Oregon City has had its own trouble finding an expanded home. Oregon City's library can only house 20 percent of its collection in the 7,500-square-foot Carnegie building since last June, yet it's still been circulating a monthly average of more than 40,000 items, 80 percent of what it was doing at the much larger Hilltop space.

Library Director Maureen Cole thinks Oregon City has yet to reach circulation capacity at Carnegie by attracting more patrons to materials, events and resources.

'Our job is selecting and matching materials to people. That is something we start anew each and every day. We are not limited in our imagination of how to do this, but rather by the hours in the day,' Cole said.

If Milwaukie were to ever consider moving the early 1960s-era library from its current location, it would have Florence Ledding's 'Last Will and Testament' to answer to. Her will leaves little wiggle room on the subject of moving from the Harrison Street property, stating in part, 'The property herein given, devised and bequeathed shall be held by the city of Milwaukie in perpetuity, shall be inalienable and shall be used for library purposes only and shall never be used in whole or in part for any other purposes.'

Chaimov sees a multitude of reasons for keeping Milwaukie's library downtown, even if the city could find a legal loophole around the will.

'Beyond a legal reason not to move off the site, there would still be a moral reason to uphold the late Mrs. Ledding's wishes,' he said. 'That building has also become, for a lot of folks, the cultural hub of downtown, and that's something we'd like to retain.'