Unpacking library card access in Josephine County

April 9, 2024 in

by Kate Lasky
Originally published in the Grants Pass Daily Courier | June 2023

In a perfect world, everyone would know everything about how government works. The laws, the funding, the governing structure. But this isn’t a perfect world and government is complicated. In fact, it is so complicated that it takes more than a few words to explain something as simple as how to get a library card.

A library card might seem like just a piece of plastic, but trust me, it’s got the power to change your world and save you thousands of dollars. It’s a first-class ticket to the world of information.

This past month during election season, more people visited our Josephine Community Library to ask about the process of voting than at any other time since the library district was formed in 2017. Of course, we at the library refer election inquiries to the County Clerk’s office and the Secretary of State —that’s what they do. In this case, however, even long-time library volunteers and donors were genuinely confused about why the library board candidates weren’t on their ballot. The short answer is that their home, the place where they sleep, wasn’t in the library’s service area. The long answer is more about how the library is funded and who pays the bills.

Let me start by addressing one chronic myth: Libraries are not free. People pay taxes to fund libraries. Although new buildings and special projects may require additional funding from donations and grants, libraries across the nation are funded by local tax measures of one kind or another, and therefore they are owned by the people.

In Josephine County, our library system is noncontiguous, meaning the area of service is not connected. We have four unique library branches: one in Grants Pass, and three other rural facilities in Cave Junction, Williams, and Wolf Creek. The service areas amount to four separate islands surrounding the library buildings which are not directly connected to one another but are part of the same system. This is how the library district was formed in 2017 and how it is governed today.

If the library board candidates weren’t on your ballot this past election, it is because your home isn’t located in the library district, and therefore you don’t pay library taxes.

Like a school district or a fire district, the library serves a specific area and everyone who lives inside that area pays property taxes for the library. The residents inside the service area receive a “free” library card because they pay for it in taxes. Costs are also wrapped into the rents charged to those who don’t directly pay a property tax, so by law, renters also receive a library card. Folks outside the boundary can obtain an alternative library card for the same service — they can pay an annual fee of $60, volunteer at least one hour a month, or annex their property into the district. In this way, those who pay taxes aren’t asked to foot the bill for those who don’t pay taxes.

The good news is that everyone in Josephine County is given an equal opportunity to receive a library card, even if they don’t live in the library district, because the Josephine Community Library Foundation sponsors library cards for those who cannot afford the fee. In fact, no Josephine County resident who has asked for a sponsorship has ever been turned away.

The bad news is that no matter how you obtain a library card, if your home is outside the service area, you will not be able to vote in library board elections or run for a board position, unless you annex your property. Annexation sounds complicated, but it is a simple process of applying to add your property into the library district area. The library board, county clerk, and county assessor work together to process annexation petitions for Josephine County residents. Applications, also called petitions, are available at the library. To date, more than 100 households have annexed their properties into the library district. Another 35 properties are still in process; many of which started during this past election season.

I wholeheartedly encourage everyone in Josephine County to not only get a library card, but also to get more involved with the library and local government. From attending public meetings and participating in civic volunteerism to learning more about district, city, and county funding structures, the first step to having a voice in government is understanding how it works. As one library patron recently said, “My library card is the only one in my wallet that doesn’t give me any trouble.”

Between the Pages is a monthly column written by Kate Lasky for the Grants Pass Daily Courier. Ms. Lasky has worked with Josephine Community Library since 2009. She holds a master’s in education and is currently pursuing her master’s in library science. To send comments or questions, email klasky@josephinelibrary.org.