As it plans for the future, hard feelings remain over Timberland’s attempt to close libraries

On a rainy Wednesday night, two dozen people gathered in the basement of the Timberland Regional Library’s Montesano branch to hear about the library system’s strategic plan update.

Harmless, right?

“Some of you might know why you’re here. Some of you maybe saw something in the newspaper and got concerned and came to see what’s happening,” says Sarah Ogden, TRL’s innovation and user experience manager.

Timberland, which covers five counties including Thurston County, is working on a three-year strategic plan that will inform new initiatives and future spending. But as officials go out to library users to get feedback, they’re encountering lingering hard feelings over a proposal last year to close a third of its 27 branches.

Montesano was one of the branches slated to close. At the front of the room is a large pad of paper with a draft of Timberland’s new vision statement written in marker: “Our communities connected.”

As in, connecting with library users, connecting people within the community, connecting the library’s branches, connecting Timberland to local governments and other agencies.

“How are we going to be assured that TRL is part of that community connected piece?” asks Dean Johnny of Oakville.

Montesano Mayor Vini Samuel suggests the branches are unique, so what’s the point of connecting Olympia to Montesano to Shelton? What can they offer each other? she asks.

“You can’t apply a cookie-cutter plan to Monte and Elma or Oakville and Westport,” says Carol Boyer of Montesano.

Last September, TRL officials proposed sweeping changes to system including closing branches and reassigning staff in Tenino, Hoquiam, Oakville and elsewhere, in some cases replacing branches with mobile services, book lockers or other methods for getting materials to users.

“We are not quite the modern library that we would like to be,” Ogden told The Olympian, noting while circulation of physical items is down, user are coming to the library for other reasons. “We can’t continue to be a building with books and hope that people continue to come in.”

The backlash was swift, with patrons and staff complaining they were left in the dark about possible changes. The library’s board of trustees later voted to delay any decision and in November took the possibility of closures off the table entirely.

A widening gap

Around the same time all that was happening, officials were getting started on the strategic plan update. The last plan ran out in 2018, so they were due for an update.

Beginning in the fall, staff surveyed more than 1,200 people to find out what they want their community to look like, beyond just the library. Responses were used to come up with the draft strategic plan.

But last year’s controversy is coloring the process.

“People are watching, they’re keeping an eye on us. The downside if you have something happen is people say, ‘Oh, what are you trying to pull?’” Ogden said after the Montesano meeting, which was meant to get feedback on the draft.

Similar meetings will be held Wednesday at the Naselle branch, Thursday at the Tumwater and Aug. 1 at the Belfair branch, all starting at 6:30 p.m.

After that, a committee of library trustees and staff will make changes to the plan. Another round of meetings to present those changes is scheduled for late August.

The draft mentions cultivating diversity and inclusion, in hiring or staff training for instance, and investing in local communities, perhaps with pop-up libraries. It makes no mention of how much that would cost, which begs the question: How can TRL afford to do more?

Ogden says the strategic plan is aspirational and that the financial reality will come later when staff go to implement goals from the plan.

Here’s the reality: Voters historically have resisted tax increases to fund the system, including voting down a 1997 bond proposal to build a new Olympia branch and a levy lid in 2009. Since then, the system has cut hours at nearly all its branches, in addition to cutting staff time and dollars from its materials budget, and introducing late fees, according to Olympian archives.

“What we bring in has not gone up, but what we pay out for salaries and benefits and materials and collection replacements and building maintenance, all those things have gone up. So there’s a gap that’s widening,” said Michelle Larson, TRL’s public relations coordinator.

Heading into 2019, officials spent down the beginning fund balance to cover nearly $1.5 million in increased costs. Still, they were projecting a deficit of $765,000 from the $25 million budget.

Cuts to administrative staffing positions this year through attrition have brought that down, TRL Director Cheryl Heywood said at a June board meeting.

“We’re trying to keep the libraries open, we’re trying to keep the staff happy,” she said, “and at the same time drawing down the staff through attrition.”

Abby Spegman joined The Olympian in 2017. She covers the city of Olympia and a little bit of everything else. She previously worked at newspapers in Oregon, New Hampshire and Hawaii.