Jul 13, 2023 - News

The impact of Portland's library closures

Illustration of a hand reaching for a row of books that are falling like dominoes.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

More than a third of Multnomah County libraries are closed this summer for construction, disrupting patrons' access to books, media and vital resources like community engagement and basic needs.

What's happening: Of the county's nearly two dozen libraries, seven are closed for renovations until the end of this year or into 2024.

  • The majority of closed locations will receive "general facelifts," which includes new carpet, a fresh coat of paint, more comfortable seating and better Wi-Fi, according to Katie O'Dell, the library's capital bond deputy director.

Why it matters: Libraries are an essential pillar of public society, providing individuals and families with access to education and culture. But they are also barrier-free institutions where anyone can use the bathroom, grab a drink of water, cool down on a hot day or simply sit down and relax with a book.

  • "All of these activities really feed into the library's role as being a critical component of our democratic society," Annie Lewis, deputy director of Multnomah County Library, tells Axios. "There are no thresholds that you have to meet; you don't have to pay a membership fee."

Driving the news: Axios Portland polled readers to see if library closures are impacting their lives. The majority of respondents said the closure of their local library has affected their day-to-day routine; many are not picking up holds, traveling farther to visit or spending less time there overall.

What you're saying: "Not being able to bring my granddaughter to the library is preventing me from instilling in her the love for books that is so necessary for a critical thinker," one reader wrote.

  • Several readers wrote in to say they typically walk to their local library to use the computer, print documents and even drop off ballots, but now have to rely on public transportation to visit the next closest library.
  • Another wrote that they'll let the book go rather than drive to a different location. "I prefer to walk!"

Context: In 2020, voters approved $387 million in bonds to fund renovations to eight Multnomah County Library locations and build a 95,000-square-foot destination library in East County. The funding will also improve technological infrastructure for better distribution.

The intrigue: Capacity limits are met almost daily at the temporary facility filling in for the county's biggest, most frequented library — downtown Portland's Central Library — which remains closed until the end of the year. "This is really a short-term pain," O'Dell said.

The bottom line: While "spillover library locations" are experiencing significant increases in demand, O'Dell wants to remind people of what's to come.

  • "Because more space is not just space for the library, it's space for the community," she said.

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