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Multnomah County Library: Looking at arts education through an equity lens 

The popular library system is using its bond-funded resources to expand its free arts and cultural opportunities at neighborhood libraries, with the programs offered determined by the diverse communities themselves.

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Lunar New Year performance at Holgate Library. Image Courtesy of Multnomah County Library.
Lunar New Year performance at Holgate Library. Photo courtesy of Multnomah County Library.

Many of us are drawn to our public library simply for the pleasure of perusing the stacks for that next novel in which to lose ourselves, to pick up that eagerly awaited book on hold, or to engage our children in the joy of reading.

Yet public libraries have long been about much more than books. With everything from family storytimes, GED and homework help, to tax assistance, job coaching, and language and computer classes, libraries have become an essential resource for everyone in our community, regardless of location, race, or socioeconomic status.

What’s more, Multnomah County Library (MCL), which currently includes the downtown Central Library and 18 other branch, or neighborhood, libraries located regionally throughout the county, is also one of the largest arts educators in the region. On any given day, you’ll find children and adults engaging in craft clubs, performance art, puppet-making, drawing, sewing, folk art, digital art, and many other art forms. 

Ali Jo and Rosie, Kenton Library goers, love graphic novels, which led Rosie to begin participating in an art table activity based on the “Color Monster” book. Photo courtesy of Leah Schoonover.
Ali Jo and Rosie, Kenton Library goers, love graphic novels, which led Rosie to begin participating in an art table activity based on the “Color Monster” book. Photo courtesy of Leah Schoonover.

And these arts opportunities are only growing as Multnomah County Library moves forward with its bond-funded expansion and renovations. In 2020 voters passed Measure 26-211 by a decisive 60 percent, signaling that they understood that the well-used MCL system needed more space to accommodate the needs of the region’s growing population. This transformation includes three new libraries, a major space increase at five libraries, and upgrades to the other libraries. But it also provides the library with the resources to expand its arts and cultural offerings in ways they hadn’t been able to in the past.

The MCL staff is committed to expanding its free art education opportunities to all ages, from infants and toddlers to seniors, and to people from diverse cultural backgrounds, regardless of language or income, with programming determined by the unique needs of the population served by each neighborhood library. They are involving the communities around those libraries in both the planning and execution of the programs, with a focus on creating programs for those who are currently living the farthest from existing opportunities. 

Celebrating the Slavic New Year art activity at Midland Library. Photo courtesy of Multnomah County Library.
Celebrating the Slavic New Year art activity at Midland Library. Photo courtesy of Multnomah County Library.

“The opportunities are based on what each community needs or is asking for versus the library pushing a curriculum,” says Katie O’Dell, Library Capital Bond Deputy Director and former Director of Programming and Outreach, “Our approach is more organic and community-driven.”

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Community-driven design and programs

Community engagement is shaping the design of new library buildings, with the goal of reaching deep into neighborhoods.

The library is using a multipronged approach to find and engage people who might not otherwise participate in a design process: multilingual in-person information gathering sessions at the library, online surveys,mailings, and meetings with community partners. 

Collaborative painting during a Kwanzaa celebration at the North Portland Library. Photo courtesy of Multnomah County Library.
Collaborative painting during a Kwanzaa celebration at the North Portland Library. Photo courtesy of Multnomah County Library.

“One of the wonderful things about the new spaces is that it’s affording us new opportunities to think differently about how these spaces are used,” says Vailey Oehlke, Director of Libraries. “Our overarching commitment is to really engage with the community in terms of how to use those spaces in ways that are reflective of what the community wants.”


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This community-focused process will also shape the arts opportunities offered at the libraries going forward. 

“We have community partnership staff whose job is to connect with, have conversations with, and most importantly, listen to people and other organizations in the community and find out how the public library spaces would really help us leverage what they’re doing, in the interest of all community members,” adds Oehlke. 

One of several Dia De Los Niños celebrations throughout the library system. Photo courtesy of Multnomah County Library.
One of several Dia De Los Niños celebrations throughout the library system. Photo courtesy of Multnomah County Library.

Katie O’Dell explains the change in the library’s approach to arts and learning programming: “Everyone, the staff and the public, will envision it as community space. It’s a big transformation of how we collectively think about library space. So rather than thinking, how will we as staff do it all, we now think about how others with expertise, talent, drive, connections and an audience can utilize this space, mostly at no cost.”

Makerspace and creative learning environments

In many ways the story of the makerspace at Rockwood Library illustrates how library programs are shaped by the neighborhood around them.

For years, Rockwood Library had been flooded with kids every day after school. One of the smaller buildings in the Multnomah County Library system at just under 6,500 square feet, Rockwood Library would often have over a hundred kids fill the space after their regular school classes ended. 

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A silk-screening workshop with the Independent Publishing Network at the Rockwood Library Makerspace. Photo courtesy of Multnomah County Library.
A silk-screening workshop with the Independent Publishing Network at the Rockwood Library Makerspace. Photo courtesy of Multnomah County Library.

“So many kids would come to the library day after day,” said longtime librarian Reid Craig. “And they were so drawn to the computers, which most of them didn’t have access to at home. They would wait for hours to get a chance on the library computers.” 

Rockwood is one of the city’s most diverse communities. “Library staff had established relationships with our Spanish and Slavic speaking communities, but more and more immigrants and refugees were being settled in the area because rent was more affordable in East County,” explains Craig. “Many of the kids that came from refugee camps didn’t have access to consistent education, so there was a real disparity in language and learning among them.”

The makerspace concept, a communal creative space, was embraced by library staff as a way to offer STEAM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Arts-Math) opportunities to kids with such wide-ranging experiences and abilities, and allow them to not just access technology, but to use it to create. 

A Stitch ‘n Grit workshop in the Rockwood Library makerspace. Photo courtesy of Multnomah County Library.
A Stitch ‘n Grit workshop in the Rockwood Library makerspace. Photo courtesy of Multnomah County Library.

With a combination of public money and private funds raised by The Library Foundation, a non-profit organization which provides private support for the library system, Rockwood Library became home to Multnomah County Library’s first makerspace in 2015. Focused on youth in grades 6-12, the 1,000 square-foot space contains innovative equipment and software that can be used to learn a host of design and art skills.

The makerspace is designed to be a collaborative learning space. While instructors from the community are brought in to teach classes and workshops, students who have mastered a digital art are enlisted to mentor others.  

Building on the ongoing success of Rockwood Library’s makerspace, eight of the new library buildings being built through the capital bond will have state-of-the-art creative learning labs. Computers in these spaces will feature software that will allow users to learn everything from computer-aided design (CAD) and graphic design to sewing and video and music production.

While focused on teens, the current makerspace at Rockwood Library offers adult classes and drop-ins, too, such as this Remendando & Mejorando (mending and repairing) class in Spanish. Photo courtesy of Multnomah County Library.
While focused on teens, the current makerspace at Rockwood Library offers adult classes and drop-ins, too, such as this Remendando & Mejorando (mending and repairing) class in Spanish. Photo courtesy of Multnomah County Library.

Says Vailey Oehlke, “Youth will be able to come into these spaces and learn how to create beats, record it, and importantly, have places and opportunities to share it out. That learning can happen now in ways it just couldn’t have in the past.”

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The East County Library, steps away from the Gresham City Hall MAX station, will have a large makerspace right off the entrance to the building. Like the planned creative learning labs at other regional library branches, this flexible space can be used for storytimes, meetings, crafting, and have mobile technology carts to turn them into makerspaces for the digital arts. Being able to activate these spaces differently every hour helps to make most of them each day. 

While there are classes offered for all ages, after school hours at the creative learning spaces will be largely geared to school-age students. These spaces allow students to have access to creative technology, educators, process, practice, and opportunities to show what they are doing.

Expanding art opportunities for all ages and cultures

Storytimes are offered at all MCL branches, and some neighborhood libraries already regularly offer classes such as family art labs, Lego clubs, and craft clubs. But interspersed with those more regularly offered art programs are specialized classes in a variety of mediums from literary to visual to performing arts. Some recent offerings include drawing a fairytale, an introductory class to music technology, sewing a tote bag, decorating glass ornaments, Мы рисуем осень! / We Are Drawing Fall, and Acuarelas y Libros / Watercolor and Books Club.

Children in grades K-5 can explore art concepts in a fun, friendly environment at Family Art Labs. Photo courtesy of Multnomah County Library.
Children in grades K-5 can explore art concepts in a fun, friendly environment at Family Art Labs. Photo courtesy of Multnomah County Library.

“We always work hard to provide services for youth and families, but one of the things we’re really mindful of is that our population is aging, and the number of people in our community who are elders or who are living in poverty is increasing, so if we’re walking our talk about serving those farthest from opportunity, we have to pay attention to that reality when thinking of programs,” says Oehlke.

The library takes a different approach to adult arts programming. Explains O’Dell, “Our opportunities for adults lean more toward experiential, to trying new things. While with teens we often do more of a series-like approach: we’re going to learn to build a skateboard all the way from sanding it to painting it to affixing all of the parts.”

A dragon boat-themed crafting class at Central Library. Image courtesy of Multnomah County Library.
A dragon boat-themed crafting class for seniors at Central Library. Image courtesy of Multnomah County Library.

Targeted programming for unique audiences

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MCL staff also reaches into the community to create specialized programming, such as working with those who are incarcerated, who are also considered library patrons. Through a library partnership, incarcerated youth at Donald E. Long Juvenile Detention Center recently won two top ten awards in a national songwriting contest

The library has a staff person specifically hired to engage with downtown LGBTIQA youth, to find out the unique needs of that population and how it aligns with what the library can offer. Historically underserved teens are also participating in designing the new libraries, and, through paid internships, learning project management and space design concepts as part of the process.

Multnomah Library works within senior and assisted living facilities around the city and brought teacher Lyubov Romanova in to show patrons from the Slavic Adult Care Center how to create Khokhloma-style plate paintings. Image courtesy of Multnomah County Library.
Multnomah Library works within senior and assisted living facilities around the city and brought teacher Lyubov Romanova in to show patrons from the Slavic Adult Care Center how to create Khokhloma-style plate paintings. Image courtesy of Multnomah County Library.

Sourcing local talent

Multnomah County Library has long functioned in their five target languages: English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and Vietnamese.  Arts offerings will go beyond these languages and be offered in an array of languages spoken by the library patrons in the neighborhood being served.

Says Oehlke, “We are really leaning into the notion that we can’t have every expert on staff, that there is a ton of expertise out in our community that we can bring into these spaces.”

To achieve this goal, the library partners with a wide range of community partners for their arts programming expertise: local performers and working artists, small business owners, and nonprofits.

One of the library’s educators is Irina Myachkin, owner of LittleTone Music, which offers group and private music lessons to children. She teaches music in Russian and English at the Troutdale, Rockwood, and Hillsdale library branches.

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Irina Myachkin teaches music in Russian and English at the Troutdale and Hillsdale library branches. Photo courtesy of LittleTone Music.
Irina Myachkin teaches music in Russian and English at the Troutdale and Hillsdale library branches. Photo courtesy of LittleTone Music.

“The library offers a fantastic opportunity for kids to explore music at no cost, and acquaint themselves with its fundamentals, delve into music theory, sound production, and explore different musical genres, composers, and styles,” says Myachkin. “I also teach music lessons in Russian, making it accessible to all Russian-speaking students in Portland and nearby areas. This allows children whose native language isn’t English to comfortably learn music in their mother tongue and potentially discover a new passion in life.”

Another such expert is Newel Briggs, who has taught music classes at the library for nearly two decades. A seasoned musician whose band Dub Squad toured with UB40, Briggs has taught music at many Multnomah County Library locations. In one of his classes he teaches kids how to make instruments like banjos and pan flutes from common household items, and then play them. 

Musician Newel Briggs is passionate about teaching kids. Photo courtesy of Multnomah County Library.
Musician Newel Briggs is passionate about teaching kids. Photo courtesy of Multnomah County Library.

He also teaches a class called Children’s Folk Songs from the Rural South where he sings and tells the real stories behind songs like “Loop de Loo,” “Miss Mary Mac,” “Ham Bone,” and “Shortnin’ Bread.” Briggs was raised in rural Texas by his grandparents, who were descended from slaves, and he learned the stories of songs and his instrument-making skills from them.  

“It’s great to be able to share this knowledge and these stories with kids,” says Briggs about teaching. “It’s such a blessing.”

New public art

Multnomah County Library is partnering with the Regional Arts and Culture Council to create community-centered arts installations for new public art at each of the new libraries. The artists commissioned for this work represent the community’s history, culture, and diversity, and will do their own community engagement in their artistic process.

Crystal Akins Meneses is the one of artists selected to do artwork for the new Holgate Library. Founder of the nonprofit Activate Arts, as well as a hospice chaplain and death doula, Meneses approaches art as a collective activity with the power to heal and connect. 

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A mosaic-making workshop led by Crystal Akins Meneses. Image courtesy of Activate Arts.
A mosaic-making workshop led by Crystal Akins Meneses. Image courtesy of Activate Arts.

The work she is creating for the Holgate Library is a mosaic and is part of a statewide project she is doing called “Holding brokenness together.” She will reach out through the library, schools, and nonprofits to invite people to participate in one of her free mosaic-making workshops where each participant will make a tile or cell that will be part of a large permanent mosaic.

“Colors and shapes give us joy, and claiming your creativity can be a powerful thing,” says Meneses. “There is no right or wrong way to do this. Everyone can do it, and anyone who has a desire to try is welcome.”

While these public artworks are permanent, there will be spaces for rotating work in the new libraries. The eight new creative learning spaces in the redesigned libraries are intended to be changeable exhibit or performance spaces. 

More space to create and perform

The bond plans include a new destination library in East Multnomah County, which is home to 40 percent of the county’s population, but currently has only 20 percent of the library space.

While the final designs of the new libraries are still taking shape, it’s certain that the bond funding will greatly expand the amount of space for arts learning and exploration. 

The new buildings will have changeable spaces that transform readily from a crafts workshop to zumba studio. The new East County Library, which will be located at the former Gresham City Hall park and ride, will also have a performance auditorium for community performances and an outdoor amphitheater.

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“Gresham has tried for years to create a performance arts space and plans fell through each time, so we knew early on that having a performance auditorium at the East County location was important to the community,” explains Oehlke.

A concept rendering of the entry plaza of the new East County Library branch in Gresham. Image courtesy of Holst Architecture.
A concept rendering of the entry plaza of the new East County Library branch in Gresham. Image courtesy of Holst Architecture.

The East County performance auditorium will be equipped with the latest technology, but will be accessible and easy to use. Adds O’Dell: “A small neighborhood dance school will be able to use it for a performance with just a few simple controls for lighting and sound. But large established performing arts groups like Oregon Ballet Theatre or White Bird will also be invited to stage shows for East County audiences who may not be able to attend downtown performances.” 

Sssh!

Don’t worry – the expanded community arts opportunities made possible within the new and renovated libraries won’t remove all the hush and quiet from your neighborhood library. The new creative spaces are designed with a sound barrier to preserve quiet areas for focused work. An innovation of the redesigns is that many libraries will now have a sensory room or area where library patrons can control their sensory experience of the library.

Multnomah County Library sees itself in a shepherding role for redesigned art and learning spaces. Says Oehlke, “It’s the community that’s paying for it, it’s the community that owns it, it’s the community that helps program it, and then gets to experience it.”

For more information 

To find out more about the Multnomah County Library redesign, visit the Building libraries together web pages. For inquiries about the new spaces and their programming, contact libraryspaces@multcolib.org.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Jean Zondervan does communications work and enjoys creating content for causes. She has written and produced collaborative projects for print, web, exhibits, and video and has a particular interest in exploring environmental and social issues through the arts. Prior to settling in Portland, she taught English as a first and second language in Texas and South Korea, worked at the Art Institute of Chicago and a small gallery in England, and grew up on a farm in Minnesota. She currently tends to kids, pets, and a large garden in North Portland.

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