Multnomah County's Vaunted Library System Is Redefining Itself for the Pandemic Era

The changes have not come without pushback.

By Fiona McCann October 28, 2020 Published in the Winter 2020/2021 issue of Portland Monthly

To be clear: the local library was never just about the books. 

But in the aftermath of the pandemic, the well-loved Multnomah County Library system—already a hub for a host of public services, from adult literacy tutoring to citizenship classes—is reshaping its entire mission and encountering some growing pains along the way. 

“A lot of it was super obvious,” says Multnomah County’s director of libraries, Vailey Oehlke. “Fifty million people in the United States are unemployed right now, and as a public library that is free to everyone there’s a huge role for us in providing support and access to resources.”  

Change happened fast: in the first few months after libraries closed, some employees were reassigned to other county priorities, including staffing at makeshift homeless shelters. A library building bond measure—which includes a proposed 95,000-square-foot flagship space in East County—was scaled back by $18.5 million (from $405.5 million) while branches in North and Northeast Portland were added to the list for expansion and renovation.  

And though in the fall the library boasted of avoiding “significant layoffs,” employees had their hours reduced, job location changed, or found themselves on short term contracts with no guarantee of continued employment. 

Staff pushed back against many of the changes, saying they’d been left out of the loop despite their close contact with the communities the library serves. Many of them felt that the library was paying lip service to centering equity, but making decisions without listening to historically underserved communities. “It was a painful process,” admits Oehlkewho says she could have done a better job of navigating the changes to bring staff along, and that she knows it impacted people’s trust in her leadership. “I expect that it will have repercussions for the organization for a while.”

Oehlke acknowledges that the layoff process, which prioritized seniority, is in itself “a classic example of systemic racism because it favors the people who have been employed the longest.” She says efforts were made to retain BIPOC staff by recognizing cultural competencies. And while the pandemic had one impact on services, unrest around racial justice also impacted some decisions, including switching out one proposed renovation for two smaller projects, one of which is the expansion of the Albina library branch, located in a neighborhood with deep historical roots in the Black community.

Meanwhile, as Portlanders weigh in on the library bond measure—polls have suggested that passage is uncertainmany things have already shifted: buildings have closed, most in-person service has altered, and new, urgent needs are arising.

Oehlke and others hope that out of all of this comes a new library: helping people find work and supporting education now top the list of priorities, with virtual services and technology training also finding a place. 

Just one example: as schools went online, the Multnomah County system kicked off a pilot project to turn a David Douglas district school ID number into alibrary card number, allowing any registered student easy access to its resources. (Also in process: backpacks packed with a Chromebook, a hot spot, and library materials, which families can physically check out as they would a book.)  

But what about books, the library’s original raison d’être? They’re still there, though when they come in they have to spend 96 hours in quarantine before they can be loaned out again.  

That’s what it means to be a public library,” says Oehlke. “The layers of service on top of that can change as the needs in the community change, as the technology changes, but that trust and the commitment to serving those with the fewest resources, and the fact that they’re free and the bar is super low to access those services, that’s unique.”  

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