It can be easy to take public libraries for granted. The free (tax-funded) service allows anyone with a library card to skim through books, access resources like computers and public archives, or just chill out in a climate-controlled space.
“It’s a real anti-capitalist move to utilize the library,” said Katie O’Dell, a Multnomah County Library director who has been managing the capital project. “Libraries are as punk and as radical as anything else.”
But right now many Multnomah County libraries are closed for construction. Currently, seven out of 19 public libraries are out of commission, and undergoing extensive renovations. So library-goers across the Portland area have had to relocate.
Library boosters would be quick to point out that many Multnomah County libraries are outdated and small. Thanks to a 2020 county bond measure, the library system had $387 million in general bond funds to spend on expanding, modernizing, and building new library facilities.
"One of the conditions of the bond was that we spend a significant amount by December 2023," O'Dell explained. "And so we have an aggressive timeline."
Closing in on the end of its second refresh, downtown Portland's Central Library will reopen in late winter with fresh paint and carpet, expanded rooms, and comfortable seating among other updates. Midland, Albina, North Portland, Belmont, and St. Johns will expand—the new Albina library space will grow to be one of the largest in the county while maintaining its historic building. Holgate and East County libraries will have completely new buildings.
O’Dell said staff have done their best to make the closure and transition periods as smooth as possible. But she acknowledges it’s a tricky time.
“It's really hard to have libraries close, it’s not awesome,” she said. “But we’re going to get it done.”
Staff have been rotated around to different branches in order to accommodate spillover regulars from libraries currently closed.
"It’s not the same,” Samantha Prehn told the Mercury. Her library of choice used to be Central Library—which has been closed for renovations since March—so Prehn said she now visits the Sellwood and Northwest branches to hang out and read.
“They don’t have resources like historical maps, microfiche, news index cards, or large magazine collections,” Prehn said. “All of the branches [nearby] seem to be the same layout, a charming but cramped space, usually without an empty seat anywhere.”
For other people, the disruption of their typical library routine has allowed them to explore some of the county’s other options—and maybe even discover a new favorite spot.
“I’ve learned that the Kenton Library rocks,” Portlander Nic Cota told the Mercury. “[When North Portland] opens back up, I may still go to Kenton for the atmosphere and ability to just stumble into a weed shop / liquor store / pizza joint / bike shop / taqueria / record store / thrift shop / 50-foot statue of Paul Bunyan after.”
Prehn also mentioned she’d “like the branches to be more of destinations.” Once construction is complete, Multnomah County Library leaders hope this will be the case.
“It really is about increasing square footage, which then increases the amount of amenities and space for people at libraries,” O’Dell said. “It's less about guarding books, or CDs, or DVDs. It’s about creating space for people.”
The North Portland Library renovation will create a Black Cultural Center, which fits with the neighborhood's history as a stronghold of Black culture and with its ongoing struggles against gentrification. The planned, Afrofuturism interior design concept came from a popular vote on the library's website.
Additionally, Central, Albina, and Midland libraries will all have dedicated spaces for teens. O’Dell said she’s particularly excited to see that idea come to fruition.
“We’ve never had the teen space that we’re going to have, with dedicated space that is built in consultation with teens and for teens,” O’Dell explained. “Adults take over all our spaces in the library… [these spaces] will be so attractive for all different kinds of teens to have a place to be and a place they feel welcome.”
To O’Dell, the new facilities are an opportunity to cater to both the current die-hard library fans and reach out to newbies, too. The semi-professional recording studio planned for East County could represent a big draw. "I can finally record my ukulele album,” O’Dell quipped.
“I really think anyone’s life can be enhanced by the public library,” O’Dell said. “And if you don’t see it for yourself, think about the young or older people in your life—those folks who are isolated in our communities. [The library] is a place where connections can be made. Even if you’re not the one who feels a direct benefit, people in your life will.”