Politics & Government

Owsley County's public library thrives despite widespread poverty

The Owsley County Public Library moved into its own building in 2010 after spending eight years moving from one empty building to another in Booneville.  The library, in one of the poorest counties  in the nation, is also one of the best funded and used.
The Owsley County Public Library moved into its own building in 2010 after spending eight years moving from one empty building to another in Booneville. The library, in one of the poorest counties in the nation, is also one of the best funded and used. The Herald-Leader

Owsley County loves its public library more than any other place in Kentucky, and it has the numbers to prove it.

Out of 119 library systems statewide, Owsley ranked No. 1 for book circulation in fiscal 2013, with 11.38 books checked out for each of the county's 4,722 residents, according to this year's statistical report from the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives. That's nearly three times the statewide average of 4.26 library books checked out per person.

Owsley ranked No. 2 on a per capita basis for library attendance; book collection size; and number of Internet-linked public computers. In 2010, it cut the ribbon on a 7,000-square-foot facility that fills on weekday afternoons with youths enjoying free snacks, organized games and books. Even after closing time, people sit in parked cars outside to use the free WiFi. An outdoor reading garden is set to open next spring.

"Everybody here loves the library," said librarian Lesa Marcum. "When you have a stranger walk in and say, 'Oh my goodness, this is beautiful, this is the sort of thing you expect to see in Lexington,' then I feel like I've done my job."

Although it long has been one of the country's poorest counties, Owsley decided in the late 1960s that it wanted an excellent library. Owsley citizens petitioned to levy a library tax on local property, applied for state aid and requested other outside assistance, including donated books. Last year, local taxpayers dug deep to provide $173,329, or 92 percent of their library's operating revenue.

Support for libraries is not equally enthusiastic across Kentucky, a state where 12 percent of adults lacked basic literacy in a 2003 federal study.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals is considering taxpayer lawsuits from Campbell and Kenton counties that could force most of the state's library systems to roll back their tax rates and collectively refund millions of dollars. The court's decision is expected by the end of February. Similar taxpayer challenges are pending against libraries in Anderson, Montgomery and Boone counties.

In its 90-page report comparing the state's library systems by revenue, staffing, attendance and other criteria, the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives suggests that as communities offer their libraries more or less support, they respectively get more or less in return.

Hard to offer more

Take Knott County, for instance. Like Owsley, Knott is a relatively poor place in the Eastern Kentucky coalfield. Unlike Owsley, it has not levied a library tax. The Knott County library gets, for free, 2,400 square feet on the first floor of Hindman's "Opportunity Center," a multiuse facility built with $5.8 million in state funds. The Knott County Fiscal Court contributes $42,000 a year for the salaries of a full-time librarian and her part-time assistant.

However, money otherwise can be scarce. Knott County's library is closed on weekends and after 5 p.m. on weekdays. Its bookmobile, which once traveled into Knott's remote and isolated communities, is out of service. The handsomely painted van's motto was, "We deliver books that fill your head with great ideas!"

With Eastern Kentucky's historically shaky economy further undermined by the coal industry's collapse, Knott County's wallet is empty, said Judge-Executive Zachary Weinberg. The county awarded the library $10,000 in coal severance funds a year ago to buy books and computers, but coal taxes are drying up as the mines keep closing, Weinberg said.

"Of course I think (the library) deserves more money. But where we are right now, economically, it's hard to do any more," Weinberg said. "People here don't have jobs. It's hard to set aside another tax for a library when people can't afford to pay they taxes they already owe."

Getting to the books

Eighty miles to the north, Elliott County's library, also without the support of a dedicated tax, has the same limited availability to the public: weekday 9-to-5 hours, no weekends, no more bookmobile. So it's perhaps not surprising that Elliott ranks second-to-last in the statewide comparison for book circulation, with 0.54 books checked out last year for each of its 7,780 residents. Knott ranks fourth-to-last, with 0.63 books checked out per resident.

Many working people can't get to the library when it's open, said Jasmyne Lewis-Combs, Elliott County library director.

"We're 30 minutes from Morehead, 40 minutes from Grayson, and a lot of people here commute to work. By the time they get home in the evening or on the weekends, we're closed. So unfortunately, people don't really get to use us," Lewis-Combs said.

Libraries are starting to use digital technology to share their collections outside their buildings. Through their websites, they allow patrons to temporarily download books and movies that can be enjoyed anywhere on computers and wireless devices. Statewide, the number of e-books in public library collections leapt from 309,196 in 2011 to 5.2 million in 2013. Downloadable videos jumped from 27,603 to 839,242 in that same period.

"There's a real change in the way libraries are being used. You can see it moving from paper form to electronic form," said Jay Bank, data coordinator for the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives and author of the statistical report.

However, such technology isn't cheap. Two dozen Kentucky library systems reported having no digital collections last year, mostly in poorer, rural areas.

The library tax

From the 1950s through the early 1980s, citizens in many counties established library taxing districts. Through voter petitions, they created libraries and gave their governing boards the authority to set property tax rates, just as cities, counties and school boards can. (This authority is, in large part, what's being challenged this winter before the Court of Appeals).

In 1984, the General Assembly limited the power to establish these districts to fiscal courts, which generally proved more conservative than citizens groups had been, said Wayne Onkst, commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives.

"It became a political issue at that point," Onkst said. "Previously, you had these women's clubs and community leaders who wanted to take advantage of this funding source. But for some reason, in 12, 13, 14 counties, there was no local leadership that decided that a library was a priority."

It was just in the last five years that Carter and McLean counties opened publicly funded libraries, putting a library in nearly all of Kentucky's 120 counties, Onkst said. Ballard and Carlisle counties in far-Western Kentucky share one library in Wickliffe, open Thursdays and Fridays.

In all, about a dozen counties do not have a dedicated tax or other stable funding for libraries, Onkst said. Those libraries typically are limited to what the county fiscal court can spare after it juggles demands for street repair, courthouse payroll and other needs. A tough winter that forces the purchase of more road salt can mean fewer books.

"If you don't have a dedicated revenue source, then the necessary funding is simply not there to do very much," Onkst said.

Fayette County does not have a library tax. But the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government is required — because of a 1979 lawsuit and subsequent court decisions — to forward to the Lexington Public Library at least a nickel of every $100 in property taxes that it collects. Last year, the Lexington library's operating budget was about $15.1 million, which was above average for Kentucky libraries on a per capita basis.

Onkst's department provides a small subsidy to local libraries — about $2.5 million overall this year. But legislative budget cuts have reduced the agency's funding by 40 percent since 2008. In 2013, Elliott County got $12,134 in state aid; Knott County got $15,494.

"It's not enough to carry a system, and it was never meant to," Onkst said.

'Too many 'anti' people'

Carter County chose to shut its public library for two decades, starting in the 1980s. Volunteers worked to provide limited book service at an Olive Hill location, but county leaders resisted periodic calls to levy a dedicated tax and reopen the public library.

"Us rural people out here would benefit very little from it," factory worker Roy Seagraves, an eighth-grade dropout, told the Associated Press in 2000 after Carter County magistrates unanimously rejected a library tax that would have cost the average homeowner $30 a year. "I'm paying taxes out the rear end already."

Carter County never did agree to a library tax, Judge-Executive Charles Wallace said this month. As in Knott and Elliott counties, Carter's current library system — it has two branches 15 miles apart, in Grayson and Olive Hill — gets as much money as local governments can afford on a year-to-year basis. It had $97,352 in total operating revenue last year.

In the state's statistical report, Carter ranked dead last for book circulation (0.53 books checked out for each of the 27,348 residents), total collection spending per resident (28 cents) and library staff for every 10,000 residents (0.73). It ranked third-from last for library attendance.

"We're keeping their doors open over there, but that's about it," Wallace said. "I'm in favor of a library tax myself. But there's just too many 'anti' people in this county who don't want to pay any more taxes for anything."

Back in Owsley County, librarian Lesa Marcum is familiar with the hardships of life in a poor community. Nearly 38 percent of her county's residents live in poverty.

But that just makes a first-rate library even more important, Marcum said. Apart from the books — which the state's report shows are a hugely popular attraction in Owsley County — families who can't afford cable television are able to borrow movies. People who can't afford a home Internet connection can surf the Internet on a public-access computer.

After school and during summer break, children flock to the library for homework clubs and reading programs where healthy snacks are offered along with books and fun activities, Marcum said.

"We have a lot of children who — I don't want it to sound negative, but they need to get some extra attention that they're not getting at home because of poverty or drug use," Marcum said. "They see the library as I see it, as a haven."

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