PORTLAND – Just before the opening of the renovated downtown library, Portland residents learned that three of the branch libraries would be closed due to budgetary constraints.

City officials, library staff and even Press Herald letter writers have expressed their disappointment and their resignation to the closures.

In the wake of these decisions, the conversation has moved from debate to threats of additional budgets cuts that could affect the future of the libraries as community gathering areas.

Before deciding that this is the proper direction for the branch libraries, I’d like to ask each of us to take a moment and think about the repercussions of the action, and to consider who is most affected and how.

In order to counter the effects of the closures, the library’s director, Steve Podgajny, has promised to improve the services of the main library and expand the hours. This will make no difference to residents on the outskirts of Portland without access to transportation.

Reopening the library on Mondays may be more convenient for some patrons, but it will not change the fundamental fact of the main library’s location.

The library patrons most affected will be those unable or not allowed to drive or ride the Metro but who are capable of walking to Riverton School.

Many of these patrons are students, and many of the students are residents of Riverton Park, a Portland Housing Authority neighborhood on outer Forest Avenue.

A large number of students who live in Riverton Park are English Language Learners, a population that has increased 62 percent in the past six years, a population deemed significant enough by the school superintendent to require eight new multilingual teachers.

Without the Riverton library, these students will have no access to learning materials over the summer and few chances to practice the language skills they acquire during school.

The library requires no parental signatures, involvement or planning, and it is (miraculously, still) free.

Podgajny recently told the Portland Forecaster that the library “can’t be asked to play (the role of community center).”

This may come as a surprise to Portland residents who have been inundated with the praise for the renovation focused on the library as a “state-of-the-art community gathering spot.” (Press Herald, April 16)

While anyone who enters the Riverton library will immediately know she has entered a shared social space, the case for keeping Riverton surpasses its embodiment of community.

Closing the Riverton branch library will severely limit the ability of Portland students to access the “diverse collection of books and other resources” pledged in the library’s mission statement, the unique promise that only a public library can make.

Of the three branches to be shut down, Riverton has the largest annual circulation, more than the Reiche and East End branches (before the renovation) put together.

It is not difficult to see that Riverton patrons will suffer most if the branches are closed.

And because many are young students whose families are in the process of learning English, they are the least likely to protest the closure.

But this is not simply a question of serving the city’s lower-income residents.

If, as proposed, the library partners with the Housing Authority to create a mobile book service, this may only deepen the divide between public housing residents and other patrons by stranding library services in an area rarely visited by the wider community.

As the historian Gail Radford has pointed out, programs that are “means tested” and available only to lower-income residents isolate the populations they intend to serve and are unlikely to survive politically.

When the Riverton Park mobile branch is threatened with closure, who will raise their voice?

If the city of Portland is happy with the symbols of community, then we should continue to focus on the extensive glass and stone of the new library.

If we seek not just symbols but the access to knowledge a library provides, the branch libraries must remain open.

 

– Special to The Press Herald