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Library reflects our community values

My View • Why wouldn't Multnomah County want to save money on service?
by: jim clark A new Cascade Policy Institute report calls on Multnomah County to hand over operations of its library system to a private contractor, or institute user fees, as alternatives to a proposed library tax district.

Across the country, public libraries are more widely used and needed than ever.

The Multnomah County Library is experiencing record-breaking use. By any objective measure, the library serves this community exceptionally well. It is second in circulation only to the New York Public Library, which has four times as many residents and library branches. Last year, the Multnomah County Library system circulated almost 24 million items - more than one renewal or checkout per second.

The Cascade Policy Institute posits that the volume and quality of service provided by Multnomah County Library could be suitably funded through private means. Public libraries were first established in recognition that a cornerstone of democracy is an informed citizenry, with free access to all ideas.

In an increasingly commercialized world, that access is even more important and deserves stable, public funding. It is a sound investment in the community we share, and one that Multnomah County taxpayers have supported since 1902.

Costs are important, and so is efficiency. Among the 55 libraries of similar size, the county's library system is first in circulation; second in circulation per capita (twice that of Denver and 71 percent higher than Seattle); and first in how many times each item circulates. The library system's cost to circulate each item is 22 percent and 44 percent less than Denver and Seattle, respectively.

Many voices call for government agencies to operate more like businesses. During the past 10 years, the amount of library material checked out is up 80 percent while staffing remains essentially flat. System improvements make it possible for the library's staff to keep up with a 48-percent increase in circulation and a 99-percent increase in holds without adding substantially to the employee head count.

I would argue that cost and efficiency aren't the only premises on which to judge an organization. I believe we should also consider a deeper and more meaningful question: What values should a community's library reflect?

Public libraries exist to provide free, equal access to information and services to everyone. While many library users do live comfortably, many don't. In Multnomah County, one in five residents younger than age 18 live below the poverty level; nearly half of recent library survey respondents reported household income less than the county's median.

Library services are available to all of them. The public library is a unique place where the collective riches and wisdom of the world are not shuttered to those who cannot pay.

Regardless of how modestly Cascade Policy Institute portrays its proposed fee structure or characterizes socioeconomic conditions of the 'heaviest users,' user fees that may be considered 'small' to some are major barriers to entry for many.

Would we support a library that creates a substantial number of 'have nots' for whom access to information and resources is out of reach?

Multnomah County's library system helps save taxpayers money in the long run. The library's early literacy efforts and partnerships contribute to reading success, and ultimately help boost graduation rates and reduce rates of incarceration. This year, more than 98,000 children enrolled in Summer Reading and early literacy programs will serve 6,500 parents and caregivers involved with at-risk children.

Helping just one job seeker gain self-sufficiency has compounding benefits. The library offers many services targeted for job seekers, including dedicated computer labs, resume help, online application assistance and wi-fi access. Last year, the library offered nearly 2,000 computer classes and labs with almost 18,000 attendees, along with over 900,000 hours of free Internet sessions. Many of those sessions were dedicated to job searching.

Libraries meet people at their point of need. With toddler story times, book discussion groups, outreach to homebound seniors, one-to-one homework help for students, citizenship classes and innovative programs to engage traditionally under served communities, the library meets needs across the spectrum of the community.

In May, voters will have the opportunity to decide if the library's value to the community is worthy of their continued support. The board of county commissioners is weighing the best funding option to put to voters. Their choice on the ballot may be for permanent funding by forming a library district or for renewing the current five-year local option levy.

In the meantime, the Multnomah County Library will continue to throw open doors of its 19 libraries every day and welcome and serve all who choose to enter.

Vailey Oehlke is director of libraries for the Multnomah County Library system.