Like libraries everywhere, Libraries of Eastern Oregon (LEO) seeks to enhance civic engagement, social capital and the personal development of individuals – recognizing the benefits to society of a well-informed citizenry and the worth of each person regardless of socio-economic factors.
LEO walks a fine balance between helping remote, rural libraries maintain traditional, internal services and values that are reflective of the communities they serve – while at the same time convening connection with distant partners who help build community with unprecedented offerings, delivery and promise.
Maintaining this balance requires rural library staff to have passion for community outreach, a willingness to explore new means of service delivery, an entrepreneurial spirit and a deep respect for the patrons and places they serve.
By embracing these ideals, public libraries in Eastern Oregon meet this year’s OLA presidential theme of “Finding Community” to a degree that now serves as a model for remote, rural places elsewhere. As LEO and the region’s libraries look ahead, successes to date lay a clear path to a most exciting future.
LEO emerged following two years of informal meetings among public librarians. The State Library provided funding for three years for an in-depth study to explore various governance options for a 10-county library district, provided funding for a 500-household survey. About the same time that initial State Library funding became available, the working committee organized formally to secure foundation grants for enhanced library services. LEO was recognized by the IRS as a nonprofit in December 2000.
LEO’s mission is “To create and deliver opportunities for 21st century public library services in Eastern Oregon.” Today LEO represents over 50 public libraries in 15 counties – Baker, Crook, Gilliam, Grant, Harney, Hood River, Lake, Malheur, Morrow, Sherman, Umatilla, Union, Wallowa, Wasco and Wheeler – and is reportedly the geographically-largest library consortium in the continental U.S., covering an area of 54,680 square miles or more than half the land mass of Oregon.
After the governance study, LEO staff continued in a volunteer capacity for several months. A strategic vision was developed – “Lighting Up the Libraries.” Lighting Up called for rural public libraries to become revitalized as essential 21st century learning centers and was adopted by former Gov. Kitzhaber as the sixth highest priority sustainability project under the Oregon Solutions program.
Subsequently, the Oregon Legislature provided funding for a comprehensive, on site assessment of all LEO libraries. LEO also obtained grants for region wide heritage and technology assessments. Needs identified in the assessments continue to guide LEO’s efforts. Adult programming was cited as one of the highest needs by nearly all libraries.
To bring its partners together, in early 2007 LEO developed “A Sense of Place” as an educational platform for program delivery. The themed approach appeals to lifelong learners and diverse interests throughout the region.
These library and LEO efforts have helped build community at home by presenting offerings that reach across a previously underserved population. Community is strengthened, too, by outside partners who enhance library services and who value the region’s libraries for the important role they play in connecting persons and society. Through the public library, rural residents come together for civic engagement and shared lifelong learning experiences.