July 30 – Astoria and Warrenton propose ballot measures for the November election that would fund improvements to public libraries.

Libraries are investments in social equality, places where knowledge is shared, not separated. Equal access to information can help break down barriers of race, income and social class. Learning something new or being exposed to different ideas can help unlock potential.

But even if you never set foot in a public library or appreciate their value, they are physical assets that we collectively own and have an obligation to maintain.

In Warrenton, the city will ask voters to raise a tax levy for the library from 33 cents to 38 cents per $1,000 of estimated property value. The 5-cent increase would generate nearly $1.5 million over five years and help pay for operations, community programs, library staff and extended hours.

Voters approved a substantial tax rate increase — from 9 cents to 33 cents — in 2017 when the Warrenton Community Library moved from Hammond to a larger space on S. Main Avenue downtown.

In Astoria, the situation is a bit more complicated.

City Council is counting on voters to clarify the scope of a renovation to the Astoria Library on 10th Street that has dragged on for nearly a decade.

The $8 million bond measure would help pay for a $10.6 million renovation. The tax rate is estimated at 57 cents per $1,000 of estimated property value.

City leaders stressed that an architect’s designs for the library are conceptual and will be subject to public comment if the mandatory measure is approved. But the renovation would likely involve bigger windows for more natural light, removing the mezzanine, opening up the basement, upgraded reading rooms and more inviting meeting spaces.

Perhaps most importantly, the upgrades would make the entire 55-year-old building — designed in the Brutalist style by prominent architects Ernest and Ebba Wicks Brown — accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act and repair aging infrastructure.

In 2019, when we urged the city to essentially start over the Astoria Library, we called the renovation plan “a compromise of a compromise.” The library foundation was unable to raise much private sector money for the project. We were concerned that voters would not support a bond.

Three years later, the only thing that seems to have changed is the city council’s willingness to let voters settle the matter.

Mayor Bruce Jones, who is not running for re-election in November, put it correctly: “If voters choose not to support the library bond, we will move forward on the $2 million renovation using funds available. But either way, this council will come to a final resolution and we’re not going to defer it to the next council.”

The city released polling data that indicates a majority of voters would support the bond measure in November. We are concerned, however, that library advocates are overselling the renovation plan or making promises that may be difficult to keep. Already, in the few weeks since the announcement of the bond measure, library advocates have been embroiled in a debate over whether there will be the same number of browsable stacks as there are today.

In our view, Astoria missed an opportunity when the city council voted 3-2 in July 2016 against a new library with housing potential in Heritage Square. That same night, the council rejected a stripped-down extension to the library in the car park along Exchange Street.

At the time, we called these actions “little reflection”. But even the most cynical among us didn’t think we’d still have an empty pit in Heritage Square and the same library all these years later.

Voters approved recent bond measures for a new county jail and for public schools in Seaside, Astoria, Warrenton and Knappa, as well as higher tax levies for the Clatsop County Fairgrounds and for protection against fires at Cannon Beach and Knappa.

Defenders of Astoria’s libraries are expected to focus their message for the November election on improving accessibility and fixing aging infrastructure. Seeing the library as an asset to be nurtured—rather than an aspiration, as one might prefer—could make the difference.