Multnomah County librarians welcome a November bond measure that would increase library space by 50%, but they worry the county can't afford to operate the new space.
Keli Yeats, a librarian at the county library's Rockwood branch, says she and other librarians were never asked for their input on the bond during the years of its development.
"One thing that has concerned me about the bond is the message has been they don't intend to increase staff," Yeats says. "I don't understand that. We already don't have enough staff."
Currently, all 19 Multnomah County library branches could fit inside Seattle's central downtown library with room to spare. That could change in November, however, when voters decide the fate of a bond measure that's been in the works since 2016.
The $387 million measure would build a new, 95,000-square-foot flagship library in east Multnomah County as well as expand and renovate several existing libraries.
The new projects would more than triple the library square footage east of 82nd Avenue, an area currently underserved by the county. American Library Association figures show Multnomah County libraries are the fourth-busiest in the nation by total circulation, but rank 102nd in square footage.
Bond documents show that although space will increase by 50%, library officials expect operational costs to increase $3.5 million annually, which is about 5% of the current budget.
Multnomah County Commissioner Lori Stegmann, who represents east county, says one of the keys to the bond measure is the location of the proposed new library, which she says must be near public transit. A map of projects shows the new library would be built in Gresham.
"We haven't done a good job investing resources into east county," Stegmann says. "If we don't invest in our libraries today, where are we going to be five or 10 years from now? We can't afford to wait. We have to keep planning for the future because it's coming whether we like it or not."
Although the addition of new square footage addresses a clear need for resources in an underserved community, east county librarians have concerns about staffing. (Capital bonds can only be used for bricks and mortar, not personnel or administrative costs. The county learned that bitter lesson with Wapato Jail, which it built in 2004 but never had the money to operate.)
Jeannine Gonzalez, a youth librarian at the Midland branch in East Portland, says staffing is already a problem. Librarians often find it hard to do outreach or programming, such as children's storytimes, because they have to stick to the circulation desks. Gonzalez worries the problem could worsen if the bond measure passes.
"The burnout was real. There doesn't seem to be respect or understanding for what librarians do." Gonzalez says. "[East county] needs additional footage and locations, but we also need staff to operate them."
In east county, patrons rely heavily on libraries for a variety of services.
"There isn't the information literacy or technology literacy as affluent folks," Yeats says. "We spend a lot of time doing tech support. Folks in east county seem to use government sites a lot more. We're helping people navigate systems to get aid, food stamps, rent relief, apply for citizenship."
Library spokesman Shawn Cunningham says headcount should return to normal post-COVID and 41 new staff will be hired as the new projects are completed.
"A flagship library will also offer MCL the opportunity to integrate more self service, comfortable seating areas, and meeting rooms— which all do not require extra staffing," Cunningham said. "This configuration will then allow current staff to serve patrons who need more one-on-one help; offer additional programming; and conduct library outreach."