Libraries at a Crossroads: The High Stakes of Measure 26-211 for Multnomah County Libraries and the People Who Depend on Them

Here’s why newspapers including Willamette Week, The Oregonian, The Portland Tribune, Gresham Outlook, and the Portland Mercury have all endorsed and urge a ‘YES’ vote on Measure 26-211.

Across the country, few communities are as reliant on their local libraries as Multnomah County. The statistics are remarkable. With 14.8 million checkouts and renewals per year, the Multnomah County Library is the 4th busiest library system in the nation — eclipsing cities of far greater size.

The local community depends on our libraries for much more than just checking out books and materials. And demand for library services is increasing dramatically as we cope with the pandemic, work to recover from the economic crisis, and as students try to catch up from months outside of classrooms. Whether our libraries buckle under that weight will be decided by voters — who are being asked to approve the Multnomah County LIbrary Bond, Measure 26-211.

Multnomah County's library branches, often overcrowded and outdated, were straining to meet community demand even before the COVID-19 pandemic. The reason is simple: despite being the 4th busiest library system in the nation, Multnomah County Library is 102nd in terms of building space.

A number of local library branches are so small that librarians regularly must turn away children and families from Storytime reading programs. Other programs, like resume classes, fill up almost instantly and have long waiting lists.

There is simply no room for people in many of the tiny branches. Some branches are more than a century old and many have never been expanded despite more than 100 years of population growth. And East Portland and East County have been chronically underserved: 40% of Multnomah County's residents live East of I-205, yet they have only 20% of library space.

The Multnomah County Library Bond has been designed to address these urgent needs. It will:

– Increase space for urgently-needed services and programs for students, young children learning to read, seniors, and people searching for jobs. This includes expanding branches including Albina, Belmont, Holgate, Midland, North Portland, Northwest, and St. Johns.

– Build a new, full-service branch in Gresham to serve underserved East Portland and East Multnomah County — and more than doubling library space in East County.

– Provide high-speed, no-cost broadband Internet access at all branches, with more devices and more space to use them.

Supporters of the Measure 26-211 point to the fact that our libraries provide essential services that so many people in the community depend on, especially right now:

– Multnomah County Library plays a central role in education at every level, providing homework help, access to materials far beyond the ability of schools to carry, and a safe, quiet place to study for many students who have few if any alternatives.

– They teach people to read and love learning, whether it is the 120,000 times a year young children and their families attend Storytime, or people learning English for the first time.

– With Internet access an absolute necessity, our library is Oregon's largest provider of free Internet. This is particularly important for many of the community's lowest-income households that do not have Internet access at home.

– The library door is also the door to opportunity, as a resource for job seekers polishing interview skills or studying to take the next step in their career.

Newspapers including Willamette Week, The Oregonian, The Portland Tribune, Gresham Outlook, and the Portland Mercury have all endorsed Measure 26-211 for a simple reason: it represents an urgent investment at a critical moment. The Library Bond will enable Multnomah County Library to provide the services we use the most for the people and neighborhoods that need them the most. And at a price of $10 a month for a typical homeowner, the bond is the best value on the ballot.

Given all that's happening in the world, it might take a little extra effort to find the Library Bond on the ballot in this year's election. But it may be the most important Yes vote we can make. Because if we miss it, we will miss a whole lot more.