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Statesman Journal: Some Worry That Public Access Might Be Limited

Librarians are worried that public access to state documents and historical information will be lost when the Oregon State Library completes its reorganization next year.

The State Library reorganization is part of a larger, 10-year plan Gov. John Kitzhaber is pushing on the premise that it will improve government administration and inter-agency communication. A proposal released last week outlined plans to eliminate the library’s government research services, give control of federal and state documents to the State Archives, build an online search engine that crosses multiple agencies and improve the state’s library for the visually impaired.

“I think that rather than changing the state library what we are looking at is evolving the state library,” State Librarian MaryKay Dahlgreen said. “We asked ourselves ‘Is this a government function? If it is, is it the State Library that should be doing it?”

One area of particular concern to Craig Smith, who worked for the library as a reference and information specialist, is that the library will likely give ownership of a significant number of digital and physical resources to the archives.

“(The archives) main mission is to retain state of Oregon office records, which are eventually destroyed following a schedule,” Smith said. “The State Library role is very different as it is part of a federal and state repository for published documents that are to be retained for free public access.”

He also worried about the archives answering questions for lawmakers and state employees because librarians can offer confidentiality while state agencies are subject to public records requests.

“You could ask very damaging whistle blower-type questions. I’ve actually helped people researching their own agencies and wanted to see documents and articles that they don’t have access to,” Smith said. “It was a place people could come to with confidence.”

Oregon’s state librarians answer about 120 questions from state employees each month. In August, the agency filled 700 requests for things like documents, DVDs and articles. That figure doesn’t include the requests state employees are able to fill on their own using search engines and software owned by the library.

“All the decisions, all the recommendations that the library came up with are the result of a coordinated effort that included library employees, subject matter experts and patrons,” said Luis Navarrete, information systems specialist who worked on the reorganization plan. “These are not coming from the imaginations of one or two individuals.”

Brian McGuirk, a former librarian for Government Research Services, was deeply concerned about moving documents to the Oregon Historical Society. That’s because the historical society is a private entity, which charges customers to use its research materials and employees.

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland, is overseeing the reorganization. She said the library and the historical society own similar documents and “they each have an incomplete collection.” She thinks it makes more sense to consolidate photographs, diaries and other historical documents like genealogy records at the Historical Society.

“Those are materials were purchased with public money and now they are going to a nonprofit that charges,” said Elizabeth Tice, president of the Willamette Valley Genealogical Society.

Tice’s group meets weekly at the library and sends volunteers nearly every day to help the librarians. She’s worried her group could dissolve when the books move to the Historical Society.

“We’re not happy with it,” Tice said. “One of the draws is that we advertise that it’s free.”

One change everyone seemed happy about is building an online portal that would search the catalogs of the State Library, law library, archives and the Department of Transportation’s library.

“It’s kind of silly that this doesn’t already exist,” Steiner Hayward said. “We need a unified portal. Then people can get into a bunch of different systems and a bunch of different organizations to find what they need without having to play a guessing game of ‘Gee, I wonder where that document is.’ ”

The Department of Administrative Services will help design the portal and librarians will be tasked with helping people use it.

McGuirk thinks the time frame and budget for building the online portal aren’t realistic.

“Everything after 1996 exists in an electronic from, but everything before that — from statehood to then — is not,” McGuirk said “That’s a lot of work.”

He recalled it taking about eight months to scan images of the Oregon card catalog.

The time frame could change. A work group dedicated to figuring out how to implement the new ideas is being formed. The group will make a presentation to lawmakers in February in order to secure funding for the library for the coming year.

“They’ll look at ‘This is the direction we’re heading. What road do we take? What vehicle do we take?,’ ” Dahlgreen said. “The bigger issue for me, it’s not just getting a second year of funding but figuring out what the state library is going to look like.”

astaver@Statesman, (503) 399-6610 or on Twitter @AnnaStaver

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