Our library system is well on its way to a crisis that will cause more and deeper cuts to its services.

In 1968 — over 50 years ago — voters in the unincorporated regions of Thurston, Mason, Lewis, Grays Harbor and Pacific counties voted to create an “Intercounty Rural Library District” known as the Timberland Regional Library (TRL) system.

TRL includes libraries in Lacey, Tumwater and Olympia, smaller towns such as Yelm, Aberdeen, and Raymond, even smaller towns such as Belfair, Montesano and Ilwaco, and truly tiny communities such as Oakville, Packwood, Randle and Salkum.

According to Michelle Larson, TRL’s Public Relations Coordinator, residents in Thurston County comprise 54 percent of the population of the library system and contribute 55 percent of its revenue. About 45 percent of the system’s expenditures are in Thurston County.

TRL owns and maintains some libraries, while others — such as those in Lacey, Olympia and Tumwater — are city-owned. This adds to the unevenness of the tax burden.

Olympia voters refused to fund construction of a new library in 1997. Twenty-two years later, we need one even more. Also, Thurston County voters refused to approve a property tax levy increase for the library system in 2009. It’s impossible to know whether or how much the modest inequities in funding influenced these votes.

Even if those inequities didn’t exist, persuading voters to pay for a new library is probably always going to be a hard sell, especially when the need for more books competes with the need for more cops or more affordable housing. And now, when more people read books on phones and tablets, investing in hard covers and buildings seems outdated to some.

And persuading voters to invest more in TRL is a hard sell for another reason too.

Last year, TRL staff, led by Cheryl Heywood, planned to close a third of the system’s libraries — and forbade staff from sharing that plan with their patrons and the public. The plan had not even been shared with the TRL board, which is composed of people appointed by county commissions. When the news leaked (the Centralia Chronicle did excellent reporting on the issue), the backlash was fierce, and the plan was canceled.

Now the library system faces a $765,000 deficit in this year’s $25 million budget, and a growing puddle of red ink in years to come.

This is not a sustainable system. The logic of creating a cooperative rural library system was that small towns could share a larger book collection than any one library could afford to own, and that a single administrative structure for many libraries would also produce economies of scale.

But all the libraries in TRL are not equal. TRL is not going to build a new library for Olympia, even though it owns and maintains nine of the 27 libraries in its system.

Today, the purpose of libraries in large and small communities is diverging. This is becoming apparent as TRL works to develop an “aspirational” strategic plan. Its draft mission statement is “Connecting people, places and things.” At a recent public meeting in Tumwater, one audience member critiqued that as vague and unrelated to what libraries actually do. He suggested it might work better as the mission for Intercity Transit.

Sarah Ogden, TRL’s innovation and user experience manager, explained that in small communities, they envision library staff connecting people with help to find housing, social services, or other resources. In a tiny community where there are no social service agencies close at hand, that might make sense. In such communities, the library may already be the sole provider of such information, and in many cases, the social center of the community as well. For instance, a recent Friday night event on the grounds of the Packwood library featuring local live music and s’mores drew more than 150 people.

In larger towns, there are other places to go for social and cultural events and social services. Their libraries’ mission statements would probably be much more focused on providing online services, books and films for people of all ages and speakers of multiple languages.

Instead of investing energy in an aspirational strategic plan for an sprawling agency that is slipping toward insolvency, we ought to rethink the outdated structure of the agency itself. Could communities that already own their own libraries opt out of TRL’s administrative and tax structure and simply pay a user fee to access the shared stock of books and other materials? Could the contract between the five counties be renegotiated? Is there a better way to fund our libraries?

We don’t have the answers to those questions, but we suspect TRL doesn’t either. We urge our county commissioners and city councils to take responsibility for rethinking this structure before the current system comes face to face with deeper cuts to library services in all the communities it is supposed to serve.

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