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Small Towns Face Losing Their Libraries

  • Chris Lehman

A community in southern Oregon is bracing for the very real possibility that its entire library system will soon be closing down. The first public library in the United States was established before there even was a United States, and libraries have been an integral part of American communities ever since. Almost every town has one and many people, including Jenny Mastroni, can't imagine life without one.

Mastroni often brings her children to the library in Medford, Oregon. "It's great for the kids to come and see books and to check them out and read them," she explains. "It's an activity that we can do as a family instead of playing video games and other things. So, it's been a great resource."

But that resource could be gone soon. Fifteen libraries in Medford and the surrounding area are scheduled to close in early April. The money to run them is disappearing.

This rural area on Oregon's border with California has traditionally relied on income from logging on Federal forestlands. A downturn in the timber industry in the early 1990's prompted the Federal government to step in and temporarily subsidize public services like libraries and law enforcement in communities like Medford.

But those subsidies have come to an end, and the timber industry has not rebounded. That's forcing places like Medford to make deep cuts in services. For people like Robert and Tammy Mann, the threatened closure of the library is a slap in the face. He says everywhere the couple has lived, they've always used the libraries. "It's a great resource. We would hate to see it closed." His wife suggests cutting back the hours might help. "Maybe a couple days a week would be better than closing it. That's the only thing I can come up with."

The Manns say they don't check out just books from the library. For them, as for tens of millions of Americans, it's also a place to get movies and CD's. Libraries have moved well beyond simply being a collection of books. According to the American Library Association's Karen Muller, ever since the 1920's, libraries have been a multi-media treasure trove. "Once librarians realized they had books and other materials not just for educational purposes but also for entertainment purposes, moving that to including records and movies and puppets and toys and DVD's and all of the other kinds of things is just a natural extension."

Muller says libraries also grew in another way: in addition to a place to get books and CDs to take home, they became a place where people enjoyed spending time. She says libraries are one of the only public institutions that are really open to the public. "You don't go to your police station to visit. You don't really go to the hospital," she points out with a laugh. "But you do go to the library and you expect there to be something you can do there, whether it's sitting for a few minutes to read, or visiting a coffee shop if they have one, or to attend a lecture or a summer reading program for the kids. It's a community center in a way that a lot of other public institutions are not." And that's something that's lost when a library closes down.

The potential countywide shutdown in southern Oregon is thought to be the largest mass library closing in American history. And it comes at a particularly bad time for some of the 15 communities affected. They've just put the finishing touches on brand-new library buildings. And now, there's no money to run them. Laurel Prchal, a librarian in the small town of Talent, near Medford, still finds it hard to believe. "It's really horrid that we're going to actually be closing down in April," she says, "and the thought of that building sitting there is not good. We really have hope that somebody will come up some kind of a solution."

A solution has been elusive so far. There was a glimmer of hope as some members of Congress announced an agreement to extend the subsidies for another year. But that agreement has yet to be finalized, and local officials say a long-term solution is the only sure way to keep libraries open.

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