Jackson County’s Carnegie Library opened its doors in Medford in February of 1912.

Trouble in the book stacks

"If I have to spend time in purgatory before going to one place or the other, I guess I'll be all right as long as there's a lending library."

— Novelist Stephen King

Fifty years ago, Oregon libraries were in trouble.

By 1963, library ballot measures had failed in Clatsop, Linn, Coos, Lane and Benton counties. Oregon was spending only about $1.60 per person each year on libraries, and nearly a quarter of the state's residents had no local library access at all.

A report on Oregon library service, prepared by the University of Oregon Bureau of Business Research, released in January 1963, revealed that public interest in libraries was declining in the state.

The report said library materials and supplies often were in "shabby condition" and "dated." Selections were limited, as were library hours.

Too many communities, it said "are either entirely lacking in library service or have woefully inferior service." The report blamed the attitudes of government officials and residents.

Books were important to Oregonians from the state's earliest days. Most settlers who came over the trail or around the Horn brought as many books as they had room for.

Oregon lending-library history began as early as 1836, when Vancouver was the capital of the Oregon Territory and the first circulating library in the West was established there. By the early 1900s, probably because of Andrew Carnegie's library grants, the public library movement was sweeping across the United States and into Jackson County.

There had been a few lending libraries in the county before 1912, but in February of that year, the first Carnegie Library opened its doors in Medford.

By 1963, the library was headquarters for the Jackson County Library System, overseeing eight branches. But unlike libraries statewide, Jackson County had good news to brag about.

On Sunday, April 21, 1963, the first day of National Library Week, Jackson County Librarian Omar Bacon accepted the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book of the Month Club Award from Oregon State Librarian Eloise Ebert — a $1,500 prize that Bacon said would be budgeted for new books.

The award was one of only nine presentations made to outstanding libraries across the U.S. It recognized the consolidation of many administrative and purchasing tasks required to operate the library system and a spectacular 229 percent increase in circulation over the previous year. In Medford alone, usage had increased by 43 percent.

Also cited in the award was the consolidation of book processing in Medford for the entire system — and also for Josephine County's system — as well as increased support by city and county officials.

State Librarian Ebert said that kind of support was rare.

"The basic problem faced by most Oregon libraries," she said "is a lack of funds. When local budgeting groups mete out tax dollars, it is usually the local library that comes up short, because it is not a mandatory service."

Troubled times are never far away. In 2007, 15 Jackson County libraries closed for six months.

In 1984, voters passed a library levy to help keep an ailing system open, but that levy and subsequent voter-approved levies were ended by measures 47 and 50 that together transferred all existing levies into the county's permanent tax base, with no requirement that those funds be used to support libraries or anything else.

Once again, budgets are tight and libraries are in the way. There's trouble in the book stacks. And an entire county and 15 communities have all of their books on the line.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at

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