Prelude to Thoughts on Sustainability
Column Editor: Scott Alan Smith (Langlois Public Library, Langlois, Oregon; Phone: 541-348-2066)
Well, gentle readers, it’s been a little over a year since I assumed my duties as library director of the Langlois Public Library. Leading a small rural public library has proven in many ways to be very rewarding. There have been some surprises. I have learned a great deal.
Some aspects of the job have proven, not surprisingly, to be very familiar. My nearly thirty years as a book dealer prepared me well to handle selection, acquisitions, collection development, and vendor relations. I have enjoyed this work, and it has been very gratifying to see my choices in the hands of readers.
Indeed, one of the most rewarding experiences of this appointment has been the opportunity to get to know and to interact with patrons. I know many of them by name, and I’ve learned their readings and viewing tastes (we check out a lot of DVDs as well as books). Although it has perhaps receded into the dim corners of archaic library practice, readers’ advisory is still very much alive here.
Public access computers get a great deal of use, as does wi-fi. Helping people find the information they seek is fundamental to effective customer service, and again vendor experience is invaluable training for such a role.
Programming is a central function of the job. We have monthly programs that include a book club, language classes, a movie night, favorite readings, and presentations that focus on local and regional culture and history. We also work closely with the Port Orford Public Library (Port Orford is only thirteen miles south of us, which in this remote part of the state is nothing) to support children’s programs, writing workshops, and other activities. These programs require planning, publicity, and engagement with the community. In this I am indeed lucky to have as a counterpart Tobe Porter, Director of the Port Orford Public Library. Tobe is an institution in north Curry County — indeed, she built the Langlois Public Library before moving to Port Orford. Her depth of knowledge and prestige in the area has been invaluable to me.
Many programs and fundraising efforts are made possible or supported by the Friends of the Langlois Public Library. The library has a loyal and strong Friends group; Jo Rieber, the President of the Friends, has been a cheerful and tireless advocate for the library.
Facilities management is another area of concern. Although this stretch of coast is known as Oregon’s banana belt — it seldom gets very cold, or for that matter oppressively hot — the combination of marine air, powerful wind, and heavy rain (think of Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion) take their toll. Building maintenance is essential. Planning also comes into play here. One of the projects I inherited was that of looking into a possible building expansion. A committee considered the issue and ultimately recommended not pursuing this for at least a year, and the board accepted the recommendation. I’ll address the reasons why in a bit.
Training, staff development, and volunteer coordination are all part of the job, and once again vendor experience speaks to some of this — training and staff development are just as vital to vendors. Recruiting enthusiastic volunteers is something new, though, but enjoyable and very necessary. Volunteers are essential for small library operations. The Friends of the Library also funded two summer internships for local students; in addition to working in the library we were able to tour Ingram’s Roseburg distribution center, and take a field trip to the University of Oregon’s Knight Library.
Fundraising and grant writing are also vital aspects of managing a library, especially a small one. There are local, regional, state, and national grant makers who have supported projects for our library. One project this past year, funded by the Curry County Cultural Coalition, was the digitization of several issues of a late nineteenth-century newspaper published about five miles south of Langlois in the now nearly vanished community of Denmark. The work of digitization was performed by the Oregon Digital Newspaper Program at the University of Oregon. I am grateful to Sheila Rabun, Project Coordinator, for her help in bringing this project to a smooth and effective conclusion.
Far less familiar is the administrative structure of such libraries. The Langlois Public Library District is, under Oregon law, a special district. Oregon has roughly 900 of them, including library districts, water districts, cemetery districts, ditching and draining districts, fire districts, and so on. We are advised and aided by an agency of state government, the Special Districts Association of Oregon. As the district’s chief executive I report to a five-member board of directors, who are publicly elected officials. Strict guidelines and state statutes addressing public meeting law, elections, budget procedures, OSHA compliance, procurement, and much more define our structure and operations.
When I started here, two old friends who have served as public library directors in Alaska for several years told me that one critical key to success is a good working relationship with one’s board. I am fortunate to have a board that consists of people genuinely committed to the library’s ongoing relevance and excellence, and who endeavor to understand as much as possible about the library world.
The greatest challenge facing this library — indeed so many libraries — is that of sustainability. Property taxes are the primary source of revenue for the district. Although augmented by donations, grants, and fundraising efforts on the part of the Friends, the principal financial foundation of the district is one that is not increasing, while costs continue to rise. The aforementioned library expansion was not pursued because we felt the cost of operating a larger facility would be too great, without offering commensurate benefits.
There are a number of options we can — indeed, must — consider moving forward to ensure our small community can still enjoy the benefits of library services. This will be the topic of my next column.