In a meeting that proved more informative than contentious, leaders from the Timberland Regional Library system visited Lewis County Monday to present officials with the latest metrics on library usage in the area and the budget situation of the year so far.
Library director Cheryl Heywood briefed county commissioners in a sit-down meeting, then followed up with an official public report at their legislative meeting.
“It’s a continued dialogue,” said county commissioner Edna Fund. “I have some questions when I look at library measures. … I want to digest more of their numbers. I’ll continue to ask questions and continue to promote Timberland and continue to say ‘keep our rural libraries open.’”
The meeting followed months of tension following a plan late last year that would have closed a third of Timberland’s libraries — including many in Lewis County — that was scrapped by the library’s board after intense public backlash. Lewis County commissioners were vocally opposed to the plan, and criticized Heywood for the manner in which it was created.
Monday, Heywood and her team — along with TRL board members Brian Zylstra and Hal Blanton — visited county officials to share numbers they had requested about usage in Lewis County.
According to Timberland, the library has 9,618 accounts on file in Lewis County. The six libraries and two kiosks in the county circulated 529,000 checkouts in 2018, 116,000 of which were digital items. So far in 2019, the county has seen 192,000 checkouts. New registrations in the county fell off slightly last year, following years of growth. Most of the libraries in the county saw a growth in attendance at their programs last year, and internet sessions climbed significantly.
Heywood said county commissioner Gary Stamper had asked her what government officials could do to help grow the library’s numbers.
“The commissioners can help by spreading the word about the breadth and depth of how great their public library system is,” she said. “To use their library system to help them with career development, workforce training, storytime programs and on and on.”
Numbers provided by Heywood showed that more than 20,000 residents have used a library card in Lewis County since 2016. Fewer than half of those, however, have used their card in 2019.
“Usage is going down,” Heywood said. “In a red-hot economy, public library use goes down.”
So far this year, digital circulation is making up a smaller percentage of total checkouts than in years past.
“The trend with Overdrive circulation is that the percentage increase year to year has been going down,” said district manager Ryan Williams. “It’s stabilizing out. Right now in 2019, it’s lower at this point, but it could change.”
Meanwhile, Heywood briefed commissioners on TRL’s budget situation, which was part of the impetus for the proposed cuts last year. By drawing down staffing — due to attrition, reorganization and delayed hires — the library was able to save $185,000 in the first quarter of the year.
“There’s only so much cutting we can do,” Heywood said. “We’re very careful with that.”
Despite the urging of Fund, Timberland has opted not to reestablish its nonprofit foundation, citing past struggles. Heywood said she also also been attending meetings with the Department of Natural Resources regarding timber revenues.
In her address at the legislative meeting, Heywood cited the successes of the Mountain View Timberland Library in Randle with the Story Trail program and an upcoming partnership to offer a telemedicine portal to veterans. TRL also has a provisional agreement with WorkSource to designate its libraries as connection sites.
Commissioners asked Heywood and her team to consider the libraries not just for the metrics they tally, but for the outcomes they can provide for local residents who depend on them. Still, Fund said it was helpful to see numbers on the local libraries, following the firestorm of news of their potential closure.
“Metrics kind of went out the window when we talked about closing the libraries,” she said. “We took our eyes off this for awhile because we wanted to retain our libraries. Now we’re back to the metrics, looking at how they’re doing, what they’re doing.”