Opposition stalls changes at Portland's Riverton Library

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PORTLAND — School and public library officials halted a plan to change the size and services at the Riverton Branch.

The decision, announced during a Monday meeting at the Riverton Elementary School, comes amid swift and passionate opposition from parents and neighborhood residents.

Portland Schools Superintendent James C. Morse and Portland Public Library Director Steve Podgajny have been discussing possible partnerships over the last year. But those plans, which would have been implemented this summer, were never made public.

In May, when funding for the public library’s neighborhood branches was in jeopardy, Morse and Podgajny began drafting a proposal to halve the size of the Riverton Branch, from a 23,000-item collection to 13,000, and switch to an automated checkout system.

Podgajny said the smaller collection would feature popular items, while the full collection would still be available through a delivery service from the main downtown library.

But the City Council intervened, offering $90,000 in transition funding to allow the Riverton Branch to operate for another year.

The branch serves a neighborhood removed from downtown.  

Morse and Podgajny, however, continued planning for major changes, which would allow the school district to gain more classroom space for students by moving the adult education program from the elementary school to the back portion of the Riverton Branch.

“There has been no intention whatsoever of closing the Riverton Branch down,” Morse told library supporters on Monday. “We’ve been trying to figure out how to keep it open.”

The Riverton Branch mostly serves adult readers with books, DVDs and computers. It’s located in Riverton Elementary School, which has its own student library.

Although the proposal would have replaced trained librarians with Portland Adult Education administrators, Morse said the new arrangement would actually increase the hours the library is open from about 15 hours a week to about 60 hours.

Chip Edgar, president of the Riverton Community Association, said he and other residents were alarmed to hear earlier this month that Morse and Podgajny were still planning to make major changes to the branch, which had funding for a full year.

Edgar sent e-mails alerting the community association. More than a dozen people turned out for Monday’s meeting with Morse and Podgajny.

Residents were mostly concerned about losing the “human element” of the library experience with the switch to an automated checkout system, as well as the future of summer reading programs currently offered at the branch.

Podgajny said automated checkout systems were also being considered for the main library.

Resident John Hume said the plan would lead to the “slow death” of the Riverton Branch.

“I’m not a sophisticated guy,” Hume said. “I can’t get the most out of a library without talking to a librarian. They can understand what I want better than I can express myself.”

Resident Rachel Miller said a librarian is especially important for younger readers, who might not know how to find books that align with their interests. Edgar said that going to the library is a way to help socialize his son.

“Students really need that librarian interaction,” Miller said.

Podgajny said he agreed with residents. However, he said, he was in the unique position of having to find money to operate the library, which has become increasingly difficult.

“(Morse) and I really came from the right spots in our hearts,” he said. “This would allow us to maintain a toe-hold in the community. This issue is centered clearly and totally around the finances.”

Morse and Podgajny said they would not pursue the changes this summer. However they plan to continue working on a merger plan throughout the year, so they can be prepared to act if funding is not available.

“This seems like an idea that is not ripe enough to pick yet,” Morse said.

Some members of the City Council have indicated they will not extend funding for the branch library next year.

But residents vowed to continue to organize and pressure their elected leaders to at least fund a part-time librarian.

“I think we’re underestimating the neighborhood’s ability to influence the budget process,” resident Ken Capron said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net