“You created a wildfire here when you tried to take away their library.”
— Lewis County Commissioner Edna Fund, addressing the Timberland Regional Library Board in September
The book-loving pioneers who founded the Timberland Regional Library System 50 years ago this month would be shaking their heads on this golden anniversary. I think those rural visionaries would perceive their legacy in a very mixed way today as their library system saw its half-century milestone marked with an expose headline in The Chronicle about its leadership headlined “Closed Book.”
The founders would have been disappointed to hear a top administrator of their five-county library district ordered a community librarian, working in the heart of the library’s namesake timber lands, to keep silent about secret plans to close the Randle library.
“I truly understand your feelings that it’s unfair to them not to tell the Randle community so that they can attempt to sway the decision. However, although we will make sure that they get to air their feelings, it would be a disservice to them to lead them to believe they can change the decision,” District Manager (Adult Services) Trisha Cronin wrote in early September to Mary Prophit, the manager of Mountain View Library in Randle.
I think TRL’s founders would have been heartened, however, to see the 200 people who showed up at an emergency community library meeting a few day later (after word of the imminent closure leaked, thankfully, despite Timberland’s gag order on its local staff).
The passion and drive for the community to keep their library open should have been a strong wake-up call for Timberland, but its top manager, Director Cheryl Heywood, was quoted focusing more on people who didn’t come to the meeting: “I know there were about 200 people there, but that doesn’t represent everybody who lives out there. Is that everybody who lives out there? I don’t think so.”
I’d say that remark was off base. In fact, getting 200 people in a small town — or even a large one — to show up for anything other than a Friday night ballgame is an accomplishment.
These dismissive attitudes toward public sentiment are especially puzzling because their carefully written Capital Facilities Proposal, unveiled just a few days after that packed Randle community meeting, called for a year-long community engagement initiative to “help us to better understand our communities; change processes and thinking to make conversations more community-focused; be proactive to communities issues; and put community aspirations first.”
Timberland’s plans to orchestrate the timing and rollout of that plan (which also called for balancing the budget and re-orienting the library’s future by closing a third of its branches and opening many more unstaffed locations for patrons to pick up books and access WiFi) was upended by news leaking early about its branch closure plan.
The library has had plenty of community engagement since then, with a standing-room-only crowd of people from Randle and many other rural communities attending the September TRL meeting in Ilwaco. (Pleas from people in Randle to have that meeting moved closer to their area, so more people would participate, were too much for the bureaucracy to handle, but the people of Randle hopped on a special run of the L.E.W.I.S. Mountain Transit bus to attend the meeting anyway).
That spirit would have made Timberland’s founders proud. The people still love their libraries, and will stand up for them.
With that said, I also want to comment the Timberland Library administration, under Director Heywood, for identifying worrying budgetary trends and proposing ways to address them.
According to the Capital Facilities Proposal, Timberland’s income is increasing by $400,000 a year, while its expenses for staffing (including medical insurance and staff cost-of-living increases) are going up by $500,000 a year.
Timberland’s document proposes reducing staffing levels at its libraries, and that’s certainly worth looking at. (In response, the union representing Timberland librarians points the finger at staffing levels and wage increases for top brass at the TRL headquarters in Tumwater, which is also something for the leadership and especially the library system’s board of directors to examine).
Lewis County Commissioner Edna Fund has called for replacement of top library administrators, saying they have violated the public trust. As a former Timberland Library Trustee herself, Fund’s perspective is informed and should be thoughtfully considered by current trustees.
Whatever happens, Timberland should build on its core strength, which is people like Mountain View Library Manager Mary Prophit, an Iraq War veteran who has earned her community’s respect by standing up for them and their library with grace under fire, despite being put into an impossible position after the gag order from her bosses. Timberland should give her a medal for integrity — she’s the kind of staffer they need to celebrate and encourage.
TRL should also build on its other strength — the passion of community members who spent a day and a night driving from one end of the district to the other to protect their beloved library. These types of staffers and these enthusiastic library patrons are a gold mine and a crucial resource for Timberland as it faces both the problems it had identified before — expenses growing faster than revenues — and the problems it has created for itself through its closed-door plans to close a third of its libraries.
Timberland’s professional library administrators in their Tumwater headquarters should spend a lot more time out in their rural communities. They had planned an elaborate set of listening sessions. Maybe instead of that, they should also spend some time in the Randle mill a half mile from their library. Or go in the woods with some of those namesake loggers whose revenue still pays for a big chunk of Timberland’s operations.
The TRL Capital Facilities Proposal is a thoughtful look at how to provide “library services” to rural areas, and it has some intriguing, worthwhile ideas. However, it misses the mark in an important way — it doesn’t acknowledge that every single library is the beating heart of its community. A library isn’t a collection of services. It’s a town’s living room, a place for mothers, children, teens, elders and everyone to walk amongst the collected knowledge of our civilization.
In the system created a half century ago in Lewis, Thurston, Pacific, Mason and Grays Harbor counties, the libraries are also designed to serve our rural areas, even if it’s costly to do so. These places are our homes, and these are our libraries.
Starting any discussion by planning to close libraries is a non-starter.
Brian Mittge is a lifelong Timberland Regional Library card holder and active user of the library system. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.