Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Open Letter to the Timberland Regional Library Board of Trustees:

 Update: November 30, 2018

Dear Members of the Board,

I am writing on behalf, and in support of the communities that have recently fallen under threat of closure of their public libraries.  The Capital Facilities Proposal has come to the attention of current, and former residents alike, and I’d like to have a moment of your time to lay out some shared concerns that, I believe, the proposal does not address in an adequate fashion.

Primarily, I am deeply disturbed by the recommendation that public libraries in small, isolated, and economically depressed communities be shuttered in order to allocate funds toward expansion programs for facilities located near, and around our State’s Capital; an area with the population to support innovative fundraising techniques.  Thanks to the data provided in the proposal, we can see that Thurston County produces 55% of Timberland Regional Library’s revenue, but receives 41% of the budget, and while this may seem like a sad state of affairs for the library facilities in Thurston County, isn’t that kind of the point of belonging to a region(?) -- meaning that the libraries are stronger together than they would be apart.  Making money where you can in order to benefit the whole should be a point of pride for the well-funded facilities knowing that with their help they are doing an important part of ensuring equal footing for all community members within the region, but especially for vulnerable youth, and the impact it has on their education.  It at least used to be, when urban libraries were subsidized by the money generated rurally by the tax on timber sales, or have we forgotten that so soon?  As a society, we’ve come to a point where we’re beginning to view all of our supposed disparities through the lens of unfair hand-outs, instead of what they really are, which is a hand up.

Reading should be egalitarian, and free.  The Capital Facilities Proposal, as it stands today,  is one of the most vulgar displays of the worst aspects of capitalism, coupled with elitism, and segregation I’ve seen in our modern era.  The small, formerly robust timber communities who once propped up the TRL system for urban areas, now, after experiencing decades-long, dramatic economic shifts can expect to be further stripped of crucial community resources by the very system these towns created?  Let’s be clear, these “shifts” are nothing new, and yet, now is the time the board has decided to examine the unique challenges facing these counties?  Now is the time for people to have “courage” and “adapt to change”?  These communities have been changing, adapting, and having to scrape together courage just to hold it all together for the last 25 (+/-) years, and they’ve gone largely ignored as they persisted.  I’ve heard of being fashionably late, but the timing of this proposal, the faux-concern, and fixes outlined therein is just one insult after another.

Just as it can be dangerously short-sighted to assume everyone has the luxury income to buy every book they want to read, the technology and devices necessary to access digital media, and that libraries are losing business to Amazon, and the internet, it is equally naïve to think everyone has the means (both financially, and time wise) to hop in a car and travel 20 miles round trip to access all of the amenities local libraries currently provide.  Closing a building, and promising a fleet of bookmobiles is not going to cut it.  An Über-for-books might sound exciting at first, but we’re really just looking at a dressed up version of the “Traveling Collections” introduced during the first American Industrial Revolution, and expecting it to usher us into a glittering 21st century (never mind we’re well past a decade and a half into it by now) … Yes, that takes “courage,” indeed!  It’s worth noting that the implementation of a bookmobile only takes into account reading materials for entertainment purposes, as it ignores all aspects of in-depth research, education, volumes of reference materials, and access to historical records.  Loaning out e-readers is unlikely to alleviate frustrations either, unless in addition to the above complications, the following are also considered: Rare, and out of print materials, as well as the fact that not everyone has a safe place in which to use, and / or even charge fragile devices.  Mobile services also take for granted that everyone has permanent housing.  People with temporary, or transitional housing situations will not be well-served by a van intended to meet them at designated point-of-need sites in the same way that they are served by static buildings that are at constant, learnable, and stable locations in their respective communities.  Right now, on the Timberland Regional Library website, in order to be granted a library card, an applicant must furnish a physical address, and phone number, as well as a personal email address.  Assuming the vans won’t be opening up their passenger seats for patrons to peruse their selected materials, one needs a library card in order to take advantage of what a bookmobile has to offer.  This new service will exclude an entire swath of low-income, homeless, transitional, and vulnerable members of the community who could otherwise walk into any public library in the region, and so long as they didn’t remove them, have access to physical materials that suit their needs, and furnished accommodations with which to satisfactorily use them.  Not all library patrons are card-holders, nor can they be, by virtue of the application process.  In this respect it is not logical to expect bookmobiles and county “hubs” to effectively replace the fixed location buildings of local libraries.  It also calls into question the data (page 8) in the proposal illustrating the current population versus active library cards as if that is a reliable indicator for how many people actually use Timberland Regional Libraries annually.  Likewise ignored in that particular data, is the amount of people present, and actively participating in library coordinated events that do not involve the use of library cards.  Until there is a way to quantify that number or level of activity, a truly honest conversation about community engagement can not be had.

Additionally, public libraries are free meeting places where members of the community, clubs, and organizations may assemble without having to become some establishment’s paying customer(s), in a time where that is becoming increasingly rare.  By entertaining the idea of closing local libraries, we are all but ensuring the erasure of fixed or low-income folks from their own lives, and existences.  Not only is a move like that completely unfair, but it is cruel.

In the same vein, Librarians have been responsible for providing countless “free services” that go beyond their job description in these safe spaces located in our communities for generations; many of which have been walking distance to our schools, and downtown areas.  They have been teaching adults, and children alike how to read, or improve upon their current reading levels, how to conduct deliberate research, homework assistance, how to draft attractive resumes, as well as introducing patrons to new technology, and equipping them with the skills necessary to use it, and essentially instilling the dignity, and sense of pride that comes with taking control of one’s own betterment.  These people are invaluable to the locations they serve, and scattering them to the remaining, post-closure locations would be a devastating loss for the people who have come to rely on them. 

Without local, easily accessible libraries what else is left for children of these communities who weren’t born with a guitar or football in their hands?  There simply aren’t enough programs (school-related or otherwise) to engage local children, keeping them interested, and willing to develop themselves in constructive ways.  We have to ask ourselves, when everything good is plundered, is it any wonder why so many of the youth of these counties flee the moment they come of age?  The ones who do stick around are either tasked with the endlessly tiresome job of trying to breathe life back into communities gasping for air after being gut-punched, yet again, by another committee who seems more concerned about the numbers on a page, than what, and who those numbers actually represent, or they fall into the margins, and become the population the rest of us absolutely must care for, and protect.  For those of us who leave, or have left, we are completely overwhelmed by the convenience, and resources available the moment we step foot across county lines, and we resent it.  We resent that everything had to be so needlessly difficult.  We resent that the attempt to thrive had to be a fight.  We resent that the local economy couldn’t sustain all of us who wished to stay.  We resent the people who have never experienced how the effects of the closure of a single industry can devastate entire communities who, in turn, make decisions that will negatively impact places they’ll never live, and people they’ll never know.

Furthermore, I find it disingenuous to frame the conversation of these particular library closures on underperformance in the last couple of years, when the truth of the matter is, yes, many of these communities have been lagging behind economically, however, libraries across the United States have seen a steady decline in revenue beginning in and around the Great Recession (twelve years ago).  We know this, thanks to the Institute of Museum and Library Services.  We also know that library usage follows, not only funding, but strategic marketing as well.  According to Pew Research Center, large portions of the American public aren’t even aware of all of the services provided by public libraries; things such as: E-book borrowing, online career and job-related resources, online GED or high school equivalency classes, programs on starting a new business, and online programs that certify that people have mastered new skills.  All of this begs the question: Where was the sense of urgency for community outreach, marketing, and stopping the decline in usage over a decade ago?  In other words, none of this could have been a surprise for those with data at their fingertips, and with that being said, I’m asking that these towns not be punished for the Board’s failure to act sooner.

Aside from enthusiastic marketing, and flooding the region’s population with information on all of the services available to them through the public library system, one major aspect that could use a radical reconfiguration would be the hours of operation for Timberland Regional Libraries in rural areas.  If we’re being encouraged to consider creative solutions, then I think the first place to look is at the operating hours of libraries in small towns with large outer lying areas to cover.  A source of frustration for me personally, having grown up in Montesano, was how the library hours never seemed to correspond with the schedules of working adults / parents, or those of children with after school activities, and sports practices.  Having a library close at 5 and 7 PM during the week, barely gives children time to get home, eat, and put themselves together in order to get to the library in time.  It makes perfect sense that if the goal is to get more people coming through the doors, that the hours should be radically reorganized to make that easier to accomplish, and to suit the lives of the local population.  If quitting time for the typical job in the area is between 5-7 PM, that leaves only one day per week for anyone in that demographic to patronize the library, or chauffeur their children (especially families outside of walking distance who can not make other transportation arrangements for their children).  If the goal is to keep the 39 hour work-week model, then a 6 day work week of 6.5 hours per day operating from 2 - 8:30 PM not only fits within the currently allocated hours, but also gives more of the population a greater likelihood of getting inside a library more than once a week.  Obviously, weekend hours can be adjusted to earlier time slots to suit the needs of the community, but overall I’ve always believed that shifting the hours of operation to later evening hours during the school / work week does more to encourage activity, and help eliminate “dead hours” during the day when the majority of the people are otherwise preoccupied.  This is just one aspect to consider, and I’m sure if the community were allowed to put its collective head together with those of the Board of Trustees, that more ideas would be sure to follow.  I think all basic solutions should be seriously examined, and tested first, before closures are placed on the docket again.

From the outside looking in, these ofttimes romanticized sleepy little towns seem idyllic, but the truth is, they’re not “sleepy,” they’re on life-support, and the last thing they need is for someone to callously pull the plug by depriving them of resources, and services they’re desperate to keep, when there are other more compassionate measures to take. 

Stormy Peterson