On Vailey Oehlke’s Watch, the Multnomah County Library Is Anything But by the Book
Libraries are in the business of sharing knowledge, not just reading.
And reminding the public of that broader mission is the job of Vailey Oehlke, the 53-year-old director of libraries for Multnomah County—a person as compact, lively, and smart as the library system itself. (Oehlke, who rides a red BMW F 650 GS motorcycle, is about five-foot-three; the footprint of all 19 of Multnomah County’s branches and its administrative office could fit inside Seattle’s Central Library.)
Today she’s at Gresham’s Rockwood Library, perched on a puffy turquoise chair that looks straight out of Google HQ. To her right, two tween girls make scented slime inside the library’s makerspace, which since 2016 has hosted free classes and open labs for school-age kids (and sometimes adults) who want to tinker with everything from 3-D printers to sewing machines and one very popular laser cutter.
“We are still a place where you get books,” says Oehlke, who counts Toni Morrison and Jesmyn Ward among her favorite authors. “It's a thing we do most, but we also do this.”
And more. MCL pays local musicians to stream their albums at librarymusicproject.com. It invites local writers to publish original fiction in e-book format, adding the best to the library’s OverDrive platform. (This spring, the library will publish the project’s most popular e-book, The Gifts We Keep, by Portland 911 dispatcher Katie Grindeland, in hard copy with Ooligan Press. “It’s goofily retro, right?” says Oehlke. “I mean it was submitted as an e-book, and now it’s being published in hard copy.”)
Born in Portland, where her dad taught English at Jefferson High School, Oehlke’s first library gig took her to Beaverton, where she worked in what was known as the telephone reference department. People called with all manner of questions, and Oehlke’s job for four or five years was to answer them. Sample question: Might it have been a hobo spider that bit me?
Susan Benton, president of the Urban Libraries Council, helps library systems across the nation and Canada share ideas and innovate in the digital age. She credits Oehlke with pushing MCL, the largest provider of free internet access in Oregon, further into the 21st century. “Libraries play a fundamental role in being a hub for digital inclusion,” says Benton. “It’s in the sweet spot of what libraries can do.”
Oehlke’s system competes internationally for bragging rights, too, with libraries in Moscow, Calgary, and Amsterdam. “Vailey is a totally cutting-edge library director helping lead libraries into their next phase—books plus technology in a community center open and attractive to nearly every kind of person,” says Liz Kaufman, a campaign consultant who helped the library find stable funding with a dedicated taxing district in 2012.
The focus on technology doesn’t distract the library from the more basic needs of its patrons. To visit, guests must wear shoes. Rather than turn people away, the library provides shoes, says Oehlke.
“We are arguably the most democratic institution in the community,” says Oehlke. “It doesn’t matter who you are, how much money you make, what your lived experience is. You get to come in and have the same access and be treated with the same respect and expect the same quality of service as everybody else.”