Time to heal the rift over libraries

Sometimes the shock of losing something you've taken for granted can serve as a reality check. It appears that may be the case for library supporters who saw Jackson County's gleaming new library system go dark for more than six months.

Today, the central library and the Ashland branch will reopen for the first time since April 6. The central library in Medford will be open just 24 hours a week — about half the hours offered previously. Ashland voters last month approved a local levy to increase their library's hours to 40 per week.

Painful as the months without functioning libraries may have been, it was the second defeat of an operating levy in May that really jolted library supporters. Now, it seems they have heard and understand what the voters were saying — that the libraries should scale back operations to reduce the cost.

When 59 percent of voters rejected an operating levy of 66 cents per $1,000 of assessed value last November, library supporters could have come back in May with a reduced request. Instead, they forged ahead, mounting a campaign to convince taxpayers to fund the libraries at existing service levels.

That effort failed, even after the libraries shut down in April. On May 15, 58 percent of county voters said no for the second time.

Since then, Jackson County officials have contracted with a private Maryland company to operate the libraries at reduced cost for about three years. The money to cover the operations comes from part of $23 million the county is receiving from the federal government in the form of a one-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act.

It's still possible that Congress will authorize four more years of funding, but county officials and library backers certainly shouldn't count on it. The only prudent course is to find a long-term, stable funding source that voters will accept.

Half the library service with outsourced administration isn't ideal, but it's far better than no libraries at all. Even vocal opponents of the failed levy are praising the new arrangement.

The task facing library supporters now is to keep listening to the public and not rush to put a new funding proposal on the ballot too soon.

Pat Ashley, a member of Coalition for Libraries' Future, acknowledged the scope of the challenge in a special report in Sunday's newspaper when she said many voters were angry that the two levies asked for the same amount of money.

"We have a lot of bridges that need to be built," Ashley said. "There's a real chasm."

So there is. And bridging it will take time.

Jim Olney, executive director of the Jackson County Library Foundation, put it well when he said, "It's going to take two years to get the conversation going."

Let that conversation begin.

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