2007 in Review: You can't read in the dark

It was the largest library system closure in history. What happened when a rural county turned to (shhhh!) outsourcing for the rescue.
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It was the largest library system closure in history. What happened when a rural county turned to (shhhh!) outsourcing for the rescue.

Retailers come and go, restaurants close doors all the timeâ'ꂬ¦but libraries going dark? Since when do these pillars of community life go broke? That's just what happened last spring when 15 branch libraries in a Southern Oregon county shut down for six months.

Jackson County's libraries have reopened, now run by a private company. Hours are shorter, staffs are smaller and the long-term funding picture is still unclear. Yet, two months into the new way era, the chatter in the stacks is positive.

First a recap: Rural states, including Oregon, have long enjoyed a deal with the feds that sends back some of the money made from logging federal land. (This arrangement helped make up for the big drop in the timber business that came when spotted owls became the new whales.) Last year this funding dried up, so Jackson County came up short for most of its library-system budget: a cool $7 million. (Lots of other county services were affected throughout the West as well, including police budgets.) A library levy failed, twice. So–poof! Out go the lights over the reference section while the politicos scrounge up funds.

The loss of a library anywhere is a big deal, affecting more than a few bookworms. (A nifty online calculator from the Maine library system shows the real cost of library services.) But rural libraries are especially important. Schools in Jackson County lost the support of volunteer literacy and tutoring programs; job seekers were stranded without internet resources; affordable family movie nights and countless community activities evaporated.

Cut to October, when Jackson County became one of very few library systems in the country to outsource management to a private company: Library Services & Systems of Germantown, Maryland. LSSI, apparently the only such company in the country, has a handful of other clients. Their bid to Jackson County cut the library operating budget in half.

Savings come through reduced hours of operation, consolidated management operations and having fewer employees–non-union employees without the pricey county retirement benefits, that is. I'll be damned if I can figure out how LSSI makes a profit: Bake sales? Hiring relatives who owe them money?

I asked a reliable source for a read on the situation: Jim Olney, director of the Jackson County Library Foundation. Here are highlights from his answer: The blending of the county library and the LSSI management system is going very well, better than anyone, I think, suspected. We all began the process with doubts...but we soon learned that the LSSI management team members are all former librarians who clearly understand how libraries work.

Olney says that the hand-off went especially smoothly because the re-hired county librarians knew the ropes so well, and everyone–patrons and library staff alike--were very jazzed to have their libraries back. The future? Well, there's some tough roads ahead, for sure. Olney said long-term funding is still up in the air. If the federal funds don't return, outsourcing is one option, as is another levy effort in 2010.

Meanwhile, librarians (not a shy lot, despite stereotypes) and other library lovers elsewhere are watching all this quite closely and have written and blogged widely on the Jackson County situation, including ongoing coverage in the online Library Journal. A good summary came from Betsy McKenzie, a Boston law librarian writing for Out of the Jungle.

The next few months, as Olney notes, will be the test for these 15 Oregon branches–as well as other financially troubled library systems across the country. Those who grasp the huge value of community libraries are still sweating over the close call in Jackson County. Watching the largest library closure in American history isn't something you get over quickly.


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