March 6, 2020

One of the first names Melissa Poulin’s daughter learned was Juliet. It wasn’t the name of a family member, a neighbor or story character. It was the name of a Holgate Library children’s librarian.

In 2015, Poulin started taking her four-month-old daughter to storytime at the library branch in Foster-Powell. There, they regularly joined a circle of neighbors and friends for stories, songs and community. By the time her daughter entered preschool, her teachers were wowed by her vocabulary.

“Her face lit up anytime we said the word ‘library,’” Poulin said. “This free program shaped her because it was easily available to us every week.”

County Library Director Vailey Oehlke (left) smiles at colleague Perry Gardner (right, arms raised) during board briefing on Library bond.

But when Poulin started taking her son to storytime in 2018, she and other families were frequently turned away due to overcrowding. Storytime and other events were as popular as ever, but the library simply didn’t have the space to accommodate everyone who wanted to attend.

“I want storytime for everyone. And that’s just one of many library services that Portlanders want and use,” she said. “As neighborhoods grow, our neighborhood branches need to grow, too.”

Sharing their space with cobras and cockatoos singing lullabies

Poulin was one of more than a dozen community members and leaders who spoke at  Thursday’s Board of County Commissioners meeting in support of a November bond measure that would raise $405.5 million to fund improvements across the Multnomah County library system.  Many more people attended the meeting.

Multnomah County’s library system is the fourth busiest in the entire country, but ranks 102nd in square footage. Across the county, libraries offer only .33 square foot of space per capita; many comparable library systems in Oregon and across the nation offer a full square foot of space per capita. The lack of space is felt acutely in East County, where 20 percent of the county’s total library space serves 40 percent of the county’s population.

Audience members showed support for proposed Library bond at March 5 board briefing.

“We are operating in a fraction of the space they need,” said Commissioner Lori Stegmann, who represents East County and introduced the request for referral. The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners unanimously referred the bond to the November ballot to be approved by voters.

If voters pass the bond, it would fund the increase of library spaces across the county by almost 50 percent by rebuilding, renovating or expanding six county libraries. Additionally, the construction of a brand new flagship library in East County would add 95,000 square feet of space to the system.

The Multnomah County library system has been unable to keep up with the growth of the community it serves, no less position itself to accommodate any future growth. The last time the public voted to expand library spaces was 24 years ago. Since then, Multnomah County’s population has grown by nearly 30 percent. Further, the county’s population is predicted to increase another 30 percent from 2018 levels by 2040. 

Limited space keeps libraries from fully meeting the needs of the community and fulfilling its changing role as a 21st century library system, which includes offering public spaces for studying, community events, creative learning opportunities, accessing technology and celebrating community cultures. 

Currently, several county library sites lack a dedicated space for quiet reading or studying. Many libraries regularly turn away community members, like Poulin and her children, from reading programs. Some branches deny up to 70% of requests for public meeting rooms.

Amy Fellows, a youth librarian at the Capitol Hill branch, shared that “[our] one meeting room is often busy, used by outside nonprofits and community organizations, or by us for storytimes, tween councils, book groups and crafting, technology and gardening programs.”

She continued: “We host children’s concerts outdoors on our lawn and reptile and bird shows in the main library space. On these occasions patrons visiting the library for quiet space to work or read in have been beyond understanding about sharing their space with cobras and cockatoos singing lullabies. But we wish they didn’t have to.”

Bringing the Library into the 21st Century

The $405.5 million bond measure would also fund improvements that would modernize library operations, increase efficiency and reduce future operating costs. Those projects include:

  • Converting to an automated materials handling system, which involves establishing a systemwide books and materials sorting and distribution center and installing automated materials-handling equipment.

  • Connecting all libraries to gigabit speed internet service.

  • Increasing accessibility of buildings, services and technology for people with disabilities.

  • Improving seismic readiness.

The proposed improvements come from the 2017 Framework for Future Library Spaces, a long-term vision for expanding and modernizing the Multnomah Library system. The report was created based on input from 13 culturally specific focus groups, 51 community conversations across the county with nearly 2,000 community members and a public survey that received more than 1,700 responses.

In addition, the library convened a Blue Ribbon Committee, made up of 25 civic and business leaders from across the county, to review and analyze the report’s proposals. 

“Today is a continuation of work that we and our partners have been doing with our hearts and our brains since 2016,” said Vailey Oehlke, director of libraries for Multnomah County. “Today is the day that this library system fixes its eye to the horizon and reinvents itself for future generation and limitless human potential.”

Weaving equity into the future of the library

While the bond measure funds will increase space and capacity at library branches across Multnomah County, the improvements are posed to make a particular impact for East County, which has been historically underserved and under-resourced.

“There is so much need in East County,” said Commissioner Stegmann. 

Maria Delgado, an East County resident, shared through an interpreter, “When the library building spaces are full, there's not enough room for the participants [of a social service program] and for the people of the east county of Multnomah — people like me… The libraries are very important spaces for our community, but we need to build bigger buildings because our community is growing very fast, especially on the east side of the county.”

“The words opportunity, access, and possibility come to mind when I think of an iconic flagship in East County,” said Perry Gardner, a library manager at the Gresham branch. “The possibility of this flagship effort aligns with Multnomah County’s philosophy of equity and inclusion, which could help serve the needs of underserved and underrepresented communities.”

Further, the library capital projects funded by bond revenue plan to participate in the County’s Construction Diversity and Equity Fund program, which sets aside 1 percent of construction dollars to support and provide adequate opportunities for minority, women and emerging small businesses.

“In essence, it’s about the library putting a stake in the ground” to ensure that construction and procurement decisions within the scope of future library improvements are made through an equity lens, Oehlke said.

Small Spaces, Huge Meaning

Despite the need to expand and modernize, the morning’s testimony made it abundantly clear how much value the Multnomah County library system brings to the community. Community members, several of whom fought back tears, passionately shared with the Board of Commissioners the ways in which the libraries’ spaces and services enriched their lives, reflected their values and represented the ideals of public spaces. Each of the commissioners admitted to feeling similarly about the library system.

“I can’t help but be overwhelmed by the amount of work that has gone into this and the amount of love and energy I feel in this room for our libraries,” said County Chair Deborah Kafoury. “I have just been flooded with all these feelings and memories and emotions about my life here in Portland and how intricately tied it’s been to the Multnomah County library.”

County Chair Deborah Kafoury raises her arms in support for proposed Library bond measure at March 5 briefing.
“There is something sacred about these spaces,” said Commissioner Stegmann. “I look forward to seeing that sense of wonder, adventure and belonging on the faces of children as I experienced all across Multnomah County as they too learn to call their branch home.”

“This is a chance to really grow the library system in a way that fosters that community [and] creates those opportunities that we know that libraries do so magically,” said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson.

Several commissioners spoke of the library as a reflection of the County.

“I deeply support the focus on first and foremost inclusivity that is really the heart of all that we do,” Commissioner Sharon Meieran said. “This is a place, and sometimes the only place, where people can feel they belong no matter who they are.”

Commissioner Susheela Jayapal added, “I am just so proud to be part of a community that loves its libraries so much because what that speaks to is a community that loves the values behind the library: its openness, its equity, its ideas, learning and accessibility.”

Before bringing the bond measure to vote, Chair Kafoury looked forward, saying, “We have the opportunity to think so much bigger, to re-envision what our libraries can be and should be for our community. That's the hope I’m going to walk out of here with today.”