Think Out Loud

Downtown Portland’s central library branch joins those closed for renovations

By Allison Frost (OPB)
March 13, 2023 4:34 p.m. Updated: March 13, 2023 8 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, March 13

The downstairs reading room at the main branch of the Multnomah County Library, as seen from the stairwell.

The downstairs reading room at the main branch of the Multnomah County Library, July 2017. The branch closed for renovations March 11, 2023. It's expected to reopen by the end of the year.

Sage Van Wing / OPB


Portland’s Central library in the heart of the city’s downtown is by far its biggest branch. It also provides internet and other services to those who may be experiencing homelessness or just want to duck in to get out of the elements. Some bond funded renovations started last year, but now the building will close while various updates get completed. The Albina branch will be closing temporarily for construction later this week, followed by the North Portland branch in early April. The Holgate and Midland branches are currently closed for renovations.

Taxpayer backed bonds are also funding a huge brand new library in Gresham. Katie O’Dell has worked at the Multnomah County Library for much of her career and she’s currently the capital bond deputy director there. She joins us to tell us about what’s happening system-wide and the plans the library has made to backfill services while some of these critical facilities are getting remade.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Multnomah County’s Central Library closed for renovations over the weekend. It’s the largest and the most high profile library in the system to close, but it’s far from alone. Many branches are going to get serious makeovers in the coming months and years as a series of bond-funded fixes get underway. That’s in addition to plans for a whole new library in East County, it’ll be the second largest in the entire system. Katie O’Dell is the Capital Bond Deputy Director for the Multnomah County Library. She joins us to talk about what’s happening system-wide. Katie O’Dell, welcome.

Katie O’Dell: Oh, thank you so much, Dave. I’m so excited to be here.

Miller: I’m excited to have you. Let’s start with the Central Library. What is going to be changing there?

O’Dell: Oh, that’s a great question. So Central Library, it is a gem, a landmark of downtown Portland. And for us, as really our centralized library, it is both a gathering place, a place where services and programs happen out of, but it also holds really a cultural icon for money. So there’s a lot of interest in Central Library. It isn’t one of our larger projects. It’s actually getting what’s called a ‘refresh.’ So what we’re gonna be doing there is updating carpeting, updating paint, lowering some of the stack shelves to increase visibility, as we work towards more safety proactive safety measures. And then a rearrangement of some spaces we’re really giving more opportunity and more choices when you walk into that building.

Right now, if you walk in, there’s about one chair to choose from and it does not have arms on it, if you need some help standing up. And there’s just one kind of table as well, very heavy. So we’re looking to shift up and replace some of the furniture, so that they’re more movable so that people can decide where they want to sit, how they want to be in the space, and not be elbow to elbow with their neighbors, which most people don’t want.

Miller: A lot of people go to libraries to use the internet. That was one of the things that we saw when we spent a whole day at the library a couple of years ago. Is computer access changing?

O’Dell: Well, computer access, I would say, is going to be improving at all of our locations. One, because we are getting very fast broadband to each of our buildings, and also we are shifting to a lot more Chromebooks, because people now, if they’re not bringing their own device, they do want to make choices about how and where they use them. So, while we’ll still have tethered significant computers and computer stations, people are going to be able to check out laptops and wherever part of the library that they want to be.

They’ll be more computers, there will be faster computers, and at many of our locations, that are getting the bigger bond projects, that are getting complete renovations and are being built brand new. We’re gonna be doing some pretty exciting technology programming around 3-d modeling and electronic and digital music and art creation. So the bond is just really opening doors for us that we have been knocking on for quite a long time.

Miller: I want to turn to the more major innovations and the new library in just a second, but sticking with Central for one more minute. I think this is the second closure of this big library, it does leave a pretty big void. Are there ways that people who are used to accessing library services near there . . . is there something that will temporarily fill that void?

O’Dell: Yes. So there’s a couple of fronts on this first. We are so close to finalizing a signed agreement for a pop-up space that’s within a block of Central library, but it’s not completed, those contracts are not signed. So I can’t say unfortunately, but it is within a block of Central library. And what we’ll be focusing on there is really a Technology-Access Lab where people can access computers. We’re likely to be doing some printing and faxing some real essential services that those with the fewest resources don’t have readily at their fingertips.

And then we have always had a very strong outreach ethos at the library. And so we’ll be continuing to work with our partners all through downtown, really the full Central Service Agency, to continue to work with preschools and schools, social service agencies, shelters, and the like. We’ve never relied on people having to come to Central Library to get service.

For this period of 6 to 9 months, it is going to be something that will be missed in downtown. And that’s why we’re really prioritizing getting this work done quickly, getting those doors back open.

Miller: So let’s turn to some of the other branches, some of which have already closed for renovations – that includes Holgate and Midland. What can people who are used to going to those libraries expect in the future?

O’Dell: Oh, well, my goodness. These buildings are going to knock your socks off. What have been, for us, branch libraries that serve that neighborhood, are becoming larger, they’re becoming more open, and there are going to be a lot more resources and amenities to visit these libraries. They’re also beautiful, and people can go on our website and see the plans that have been up – Holgate and Midland are the furthest along of our new public locations. Midland Library is gonna have an outdoor garden, one specifically for families and children and one for adults that’s really extending the library out into nature.

Holgate is just a gorgeous, two story building which is new for us. We usually keep things on one floor, but that will feature this fantastic children’s space, a teen space, a technology and flexible lab room. So a lot of ways to experiment, in more ways than we currently have in our vastly underbuilt small, tiny libraries.

Miller: Then there are the ones that are about to close, and folks who are in those areas, or who have, say, holds that they’re expecting to pick up [at] those libraries, have probably gotten emails about this in recent days. Albina and North Portland, what’s going to change?

O’Dell: Yes. We’re building a really exciting significant addition to the classic historic Albina Library, and that’s going to face onto Russell. So it’ll almost be a complete block from Knot to Russell Street and that has an enormous children’s space. The whole Classic Carnegie Library is going to be this beautiful space for families and children. That is also getting a really cool new teen space we’ve never had before. Albina has an outdoor courtyard that people can bring their materials to, like just dream . . .

Miller: Meaning, you can take your books or whatever and go in an inner courtyard, outside?


O’Dell: Yes. It’s like the big time here now. I mean, it’s gonna be amazing. And you know what? Let’s not give up on our very talented designers and have them figure out a way we can be out there when it’s raining as well. And then I want to mention it, North Portland’s also a classic Carnegie. It’s a beautiful building, and so we’re honoring every bit and preserving every bit of legacy we can. They’re getting a really cool new addition that the community has driven and that is a Black Cultural Center. Not the official name yet because we’ll be working with the community, but devoting a portion of that library, which so many people find an iconic building and gathering point of North Portland. Our community engagement for that project has brought out some of the fondest, the most precious sort of memories that people have of the library, whether they actively used it or not.

So they will have a whole edition that’s going to be devoted truly to Black culture, Black artists. It’ll be a programming space, and most important, it’s going to be a space open to the community to utilize. In so many of our ways, in the way our buildings are built, when we close, we close. And it’s very difficult to be open for a portion of time or have our larger program rooms. So like at North Portland and actually all of these libraries, there’s gonna be portions of the space that are usable when the library is not open. And so different kinds of community groups will be able to use it. It’s going to really extend access into the community that won’t be 100% dependent upon the library and library staff.

Miller: You mentioned the community engagement there. I’m curious broadly, because that was just one example after voters said, ‘yes,’ let’s put hundreds of millions of dollars into this library system. How did you broadly figure out how the library should change, where the money should be spent? Because it’s a lot of money, but it’s a big system and you had to make, I imagine, some tough choices.

O’Dell: Oh, absolutely. I’ll tell you the bulk of that work was done before the bond. I mean, we walked into that bond knowing what we were doing and for the most part where we were doing it. It was a lot to find that site for the East County Library. And so a lot of that work had been done.

We started this work in 2016 and spent an entire year doing community engagement and a lot of data assessment internally of how people utilize the library, but also external data of the neighborhoods we’re located in and where the strength-based assets for this county are. So a lot of that work was done in 2016. That’s all in our framework for future library spaces. That’s really the overall capital plan for all buildings.

What this bond is, is really the first third of that work, in which we’re addressing nine significant projects and then doing a light touch [to] refresh all others. So everyone will see something, which is good, right? We have no deferred maintenance so we can just really keep our libraries looking great, whether they got a significant building bond or they’re being rebuilt, or whether they’re just getting some improvements that make that space work even better.

Miller: All right. So let’s turn to East County and in many ways, the most dramatic piece of this, which is an entirely new library. I’ve seen some renderings for this. My guess [is] a lot of people have seen this [and] a lot of people have not. Can you give us a sense for what’s being planned right now?

O’Dell: Well, Dave, let’s just be honest. I cried the first time I saw those renderings. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe what we’re getting in East County. It’s gonna be a regional library serving East County like we have never been able to before. It’s gonna be located across from the Gresham City Hall, but it’s not a Gresham exclusive library. It is two stories about 95,000 square feet. Again, we’re working the indoors into the outdoors and we’re looking at planning two community outdoor spaces, and also has public access that comes right through the site. So it’s really enlivening [and] activating what is currently a parking lot. It’s the most exciting thing to work on.

It will be a destination, and we’re so fortunate to be between the Max Line to the north and Division, with its Tri-Met Routes to the south. It’s, it is just the, it’s a privilege of a lifetime to work on this library. And I am so excited. I hope people, if they haven’t seen it yet, will go on our website and just check out what we’re working on.

We are deep in community engagement on that project. And so we’re working with, on the ground, community design advocates, community members who are a part of our team and doing work within even their communities. We’re tabling everywhere we can table and talking to folks about how they would feel welcome in this building, what would bring them in that hasn’t brought them before and what did they want to do with the space.

I do want to mention that the new East County Library will have an auditorium. We haven’t had an auditorium since the old Albina closed down, I think in the late 1960s. So a space where we can bring together students, the public, have performances. Typically, we often have to rent places around town. And for the first time, we’re going to have an auditorium that the community will also be able to use.

Miller: Might be a good place for a live radio show?

O’Dell: Excellent. You’re booked! You’re booked for opening week. Let’s go! We’ll be there in two years [and] nine months, let’s do it.

Miller: That’s the time frame for this?

O’Dell: Two years and nine months. Yes. Three years from today, everything will be done. It’s amazing. We’re working full steam. That new ECL library is due to open in the fall of 2025.

Miller: We have about a minute and a half left, but I’m wondering how these renovations reflect the changes in the way that people use libraries?

O’Dell: Oh, absolutely. There was a time, it happened to be about 10 years ago, when our digital circulation surpassed our print circulation. Right now, 61% of all materials circulated at the library are digital. That’s a really big change, but that doesn’t lessen how important our print materials still are, as well as DVDs, CDs, music scores. But how people access them is changing. What people also want in their library and what they have a dearth of in any other format is public space, where they are welcomed and there is no expectation of spending money. And so that is something that we have a unique role in. And that’s just the first unique role. And after that, we get to facilitate and help what people are interested in.

Our mission is empowering the community to learn and create and that takes different space. We are historically underbuilt. We are tiny, we’re one-fourth the size of Seattle King County, Denver’s three times the size of us. We have these little, tiny libraries and now as we create more space, we’ll be able to do different things. The community will be able to do different things in our space.

It is a short term pain, right? We’re going to have locations close. This is a massive change, but it really ensures that the health of our organization can last for another 160 years.

Miller: Katie O’Dell, thank you very much for joining us.

O’Dell: Thanks so much.

Miller: And let us know when you get excited about these changes.

O’Dell: You bet.

Miller: That’s Katie O’Dell, she is capital bond deputy director at Multnomah County Library.

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