Anti-Tax Fervor Closed Their Libraries. Now Residents Are Trying to Go It Alone.

By Kirk Johnson

Lindy Brandt spent 18 years as a librarian in Douglas County, Ore., until voters turned down a tax increase that would have kept the library system open. Now she volunteers at a library in Glendale, Ore.CreditCreditAmanda Lucier for The New York Times

DRAIN, Ore. — All the county libraries closed in this wooded corner of Oregon when the money ran out. But believers in the power of books rejected that fate, and in town after town they jumped back into the book-lending business on their own. Or tried to.

The tiny library in Drain, population 1,000, scheduled a grand reopening party this fall after more than 18 months of darkness, but party planners had a problem as the date loomed: The library didn’t own any books. Fifty miles away, Reedsport’s librarians couldn’t get access to the old list of library card holders, so may have to build a new system from scratch. And in the city of Roseburg, a new library is preparing to open with no plans to share materials with other libraries around the county, breaking a tradition of sharing that goes back generations.

“It’s every library for themselves, and you don’t know where it’s going to lead,” said Robert Leo Heilman, a volunteer at the town library in Myrtle Creek.

The long, steep decline of the timber industry in southwest Oregon starting in the 1990s brought lean times to local governments. Then came newcomers and retirees, who were just fine with that. Low taxes and skepticism about government became part of the culture, and in Douglas County, a majority of voters in 2016 rejected a modest property tax increase to keep the 11 county libraries alive.

Kris Wiley, the library director in Roseburg, says she will need more than 50 volunteers to run the library.CreditAmanda Lucier for The New York Times

But anti-tax sentiment has turned out to be a patchwork in this county, which is about the size of Connecticut, with just over 100,000 residents. In recent months, some communities voted to pay to reopen or support a town library, while others insisted that volunteers alone would suffice. The result has been more tumult: A split between rural parts of the county, which mostly rejected higher taxes, and urban parts; an us-versus-them battle over who now gets to borrow library books; and general chaos, as people try to figure out the mechanics of running an institution that had long been the purview of local government.

Douglas County, deeply Republican in a Democrat-leaning state, has the fourth lowest property taxes in Oregon, according to state figures, and a county library tax would have added about $6 a month for someone with a median priced home. There are also pockets of rural poverty in towns like Glendale, population 800, where a branch library was kept afloat in the old days by a countywide sharing of resources. But ever since voters rejected the library tax and the libraries were shuttered in early 2017, homemade efforts to reopen them have cropped up.

“It’s keeping me awake nights,” said Betsie Aman, a substitute teacher and volunteer at the library in Glendale, which reopened for 12 hours a week as a nonprofit corporation with an all-volunteer staff. Among a core group of women who led the effort, three have withdrawn because of illness, advancing age or fatigue. “We’re getting kind of burned out,” Ms. Aman said.

Legal and logistical issues have made the struggle harder. Douglas County retained everything in the stacks, from books to videos, making it difficult for local groups to take legal possession. Some of the small groups are hashing through questions they never needed to think about before: grant applications, training, even rules about family leave and retirement.

Other local library leaders said that keeping a library alive or reopening it can also be a hugely optimistic moment, amounting to a declaration of belief that civic spaces for information, education and literacy are still valued.

The Roseburg library is reopening this year in a smaller space carved out of its original building.CreditAmanda Lucier for The New York Times

“You don’t often get a chance to build something from scratch,” said Kris Wiley, the library director in Roseburg, who arrived in Oregon three months ago and will head a staff of three paid employees and the more than 50 volunteers she says will be needed.

Roseburg’s City Council used money from the city’s general fund to help restart the library. In two other small communities, local versions of the county library tax that failed in late 2016 were put on the ballot this year and passed by residents, creating new public money for reopening libraries.

In Drain, the tax increase was exactly the amount that county voters had rejected, and it won 76 percent of town voters in an election in May. After a long negotiation with the county, the library in late September finally got ownership of the books that were already inside; the reopening party is scheduled for early November.

Sandi Malchow, a restaurant owner, had not voted in the countywide vote the first time around. “The second time, I definitely did, and I voted yes,” said Ms. Malchow, who said she was struck by the effect she saw on children and teenagers in town, who had used the library as an after-school hangout, especially on dark, rainy winter days.

Not everyone will now have free access to the libraries, however.

Roseburg, for example, the county seat and home of the former central library, will charge $60 a year for a library card to anyone living outside city limits. (Students in school in the city will get free privileges no matter where they live.)

Volunteers are keeping the library in Glendale open a few days a week for use by residents like Kirsten Brown, 11.CreditAmanda Lucier for The New York Times

“Our first obligation at this time is to the citizens of Roseburg who are funding the operations,” said Ms. Wiley, 46, who was recruited from Minnesota, where she ran a local library.

Roseburg’s city manager, C. Lance Colley, said the City Council saw that voters in the city favored the library tax, and voted to appropriate money to reopen a new library on that basis. The new fees on rural residents who rejected the tax is a simple statement of democracy, he said.

“People in Roseburg still want a library and were willing to pay for it,” Mr. Colley said.

New boundary lines for sharing books between libraries are also stirring resentment. Small libraries will no longer have access to Roseburg’s bigger collection.

“So much of what was in that building was provided by the entire county,” said Valarie Johns, a board member of the Drain special library district, about 25 miles north of Roseburg. “There’s a lot of anger about that.”

The demise and rebirth of the libraries is an ongoing story — as well as a powerful motivator, Ms. Johns said.

“When they were closed, it was easier to get people on board saying, ‘We’ve got to have them back,’” she said. A sign on Drain’s soon-to-reopen library bore a simple message the other day: “Thanks voters.”