ILWACO — Seeking to heal wounds from last year’s divisive library-closures fiasco, regional leaders focused on philosophy on a recent visit to Ilwaco.
Instead of dwelling on shortfalls in the $25 million budget and potential closure strategies, a gathering at the Ilwaco Timberland Library discussed mission and vision.
Those attending included three staff and four patrons, including one multi-tasker doing a scenic jigsaw puzzle. They were led through a series of concepts by Sarah Ogden, the regional library’s district manager for innovation and user experience.
The overwhelming conclusion was that “inclusiveness” was the key.
The consensus from Ilwaco’s gathering came as Ogden toured communities in the five-county library network salving wounds after last fall’s controversies. In reporting a recent Hoquiam gathering, the Daily World even labeled it a “reconciliation tour.”
Last fall, amid secrecy, leaders at the Tumwater-based Timberland worried by budget shortfalls considered closing as many as one-third of the branches, including Hoquiam and Montesano in Grays Harbor County. When the Centralia Chronicle and other newspapers revealed details, the plan was scrapped.
Timberland linked the libraries of Pacific, Grays Harbor, Mason, Lewis and Thurston counties in 1968. It has reciprocal borrowing agreements which provide access to 10 other libraries, including King County, Seattle and Fort Vancouver.
In recent years, the growing demand for services, especially in the greater Olympia area, and escalating cost of operating libraries, has caused questions to be asked about priorities and even the sustainability of the regional network.
In late spring, Bob Hall of Raymond, who represents Pacific County on Timberland’s governing board, addressed the annual meeting of the Friends of the Ilwaco-Ocean Park Libraries. He offered assurances that Ilwaco, Ocean Park and Naselle would not close, although he indicated that staffing and opening hours could change.
Ogden reiterated Hall’s reassurance, noting, “Our core services are not going to go away.”
But she admitted that a mistake had been made with library leaders’ earlier approach. “We heard pretty loud and clear last fall a step that was missed was going out and talking to our communities,” she said.
At Ilwaco Aug. 27, patrons and library staff put the controversy aside and instead focused on the library’s mission. All stressed their shared belief that the library should be open to all.
Ogden noted that surveys showed that other than children’s programs the overwhelming demographic for library users was “40-plus, middle-class and white.”
“We don’t see diversity,” she said. “We want everyone to become part of the community.”
Two groups were identified as being underserved at Ilwaco:
• Spanish speakers;
• Young adults.
Susan Carney, director of the Ilwaco branch, noted that efforts to better serve Spanish speakers have been limited. “It’s not a huge amount, a couple of magazines over time and some materials. It’s not huge. And we are not represented with other languages other than Spanish in this building.”
Ogden said one suggestion was hiring staff who speak Spanish. “We could think more about staffing — for some people it is their second language. But how can we help out that group? How can we make the connection better?”
Carney added that the library sought to serve the LGBTQ community and those with Native American heritage. “Their families have been here for a very long time,” she said. “It’s truly important to have them in the community and serve their families.”
Ogden noted that regional surveys showed limited numbers of people aged 20 to 20 going to the library. “Why is that?”
Amy Hitchcock, a library staff member, suggested the data about adult patrons is somewhat skewed — because younger users commonly tap into electronic formats to borrow materials. “We don’t ‘see’ them, but that doesn’t mean they are not using the library,” she said.
But she highlighted a forgotten demographic — young adults. The community and library rarely focus on their needs. she said.
“Kids graduate from high school and they are library users, they leave and what we have left is people without places to go for fun things — and that’s a place where 18-,19-, 20-year-olds can go,” she said. “They can’t go to the bar and they don’t want to go ‘where the old ladies go.’ I think the focus should be for those, and beyond 20-year-olds.”
Two vocal patrons during the session were Ann Saari of Ilwaco and Judy Dawson of Long Beach. Both echoed the need for publicizing what modern libraries offer. “I am sure there are diverse people out there who could benefit from our services, if only they knew about them,” said Saari, a retired librarian.
Both chorused the need for small libraries like the three in Pacific County to continue to be hubs for broad community services.
“I am very concerned about rural libraries — sometimes that gets lost when you start pinching pennies,” Saari said. “We need to provide for rural libraries. People in urban areas have access to all kinds of services that we do not.”
Dawson questioned the proportion of public money allocated to libraries. “I think that line item should be bigger,” she said.
One important library service is helping people of all ages access information, Dawson added. “It’s not how much is in your brain, it’s knowing where to find the answer.”
After 90 minutes, the meeting wrapped up and Ogden departed with a flip chart filled with suggestions on refining the way the library system’s mission is focused.
These comments, and others collected during similar gatherings this month, will be discussed at a regional committee meeting at 1 p.m. Oct. 3 at the library system’s headquarters at 415 Tumwater Blvd. SW in Tumwater. An online survey is planned during September for those who did not attend meetings to add their input.
The full Timberland Board will meet at the Raymond Library 5:30 p.m. Sept. 25.