NEWS RELEASE: Multnomah County Library Director Vailey Oehlke to retire

March 6, 2024

Vailey Oehlke, Multnomah County’s longtime Director of Libraries who led sweeping efforts to stabilize funding, diversify the workforce, expand and modernize 19 cramped buildings, and construct a new East County Library, will retire in June.

Chair Jessica Vega Pederson announced the news in an email to County employees this morning. Oehlke’s last day will be June 3, 2024.

“I am deeply grateful for Vailey’s 27 years of service to Multnomah County and our community, including 15 years of leadership as Director of Libraries,’’ Chair Vega Pederson said. “She has been a dynamic, innovative leader who loves our library system and leaves it stronger, more stable and more inclusive. I will miss her energy, vision and commitment to ensuring libraries are a resource for every single member of our community.’’

The Chair will work with Chief Operating Officer Serena Cruz to recruit and hire the next Director of Libraries. The Chair and COO will work with Karras Consulting to coordinate this recruitment and hiring process. The firm will reach out to Library employees, supporters and other County staff to gather input and assist with this process. Deputy Library Director Annie Lewis will step in as Interim Director effective June 3 as the recruitment takes place.

Director of Libraries Vailey Oehlke

Oehlke’s path to director began in Portland, but it was not a straight line. She was born in the city, where her dad taught at Jefferson High School. After growing up mainly in the Midwest and teaching high school English, she returned to Portland and was working as a copy editor at Stoel Rives law firm when the law librarian urged her to consider library studies. 

After earning a master’s degree in library studies at the University of Illinois, Oehlke’s first job was on the Beaverton Library’s telephone reference desk. There she learned the countless ways people turn to the library, including one caller looking for a photo of Jesus and another who had just been bitten by a brown recluse spider. “You don’t need the library,’’ she recalls gently saying. “You probably need to go to the hospital.” 

In 1997, Oehlke joined Multnomah County Library’s School Corps program as a youth librarian. Six years later, she joined the downtown Central Library staff, first as a section administrator and then as director. She became the library's deputy director in 2008 and was promoted to Director of Libraries by then-Chair Ted Wheeler a year later.

Wheeler’s first directive was for Oehlke to stabilize library funding. At the time, the majority of the library’s annual budget was funded by a levy that required voter approval every five years and was subject to significant property tax compression. Oehlke led efforts to create a library district for permanent and stable funding in 2012. She then went on to serve four more County Chairs, all the while presiding over historic growth and transformation of the library system.

Working with community-centered employees, she saw the Library’s need to “serve people who needed us the most — the people furthest from opportunity.” This included building culturally relevant services for those once excluded or marginalized because they were Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. 

She was a youth librarian when the Library hired its first bilingual, bicultural Spanish speaker, at a time when there were few employees of color. Today, there are bilingual, bicultural Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Russian and Somali-speaking staff, plus Indigenous and Black Cultural Library Advocate staff members. Now, 35% of all Library staff are people of color, and BIPOC employees make up nearly 51% of those hired in the last five years.

She also worked to ensure the Library remained relevant going forward, not by dictating what was best for the community, but by inviting community members to share their needs by asking, “What would make this a place where you would feel welcome?”

That style of leadership left a lasting mark when voters in 2020 passed a $387 million capital bond. The funding allowed the expansion and rebuilding of 19 libraries, a new state-of-the-art operations center and a new East County library in Gresham — all with input from users.

Oehlke also served as an officer and later as president of the Public Library Association and as an executive board member of the Urban Libraries Council. She has represented Multnomah County Library and public libraries in civic, business and academic settings. Nationally, Multnomah County Library is recognized as a leader and innovator in forward-looking, community-first services and approaches.  

Says Oehlke: “I am proud of Multnomah County Library’s success during my time as Director. All along, I have strived to focus on the future, so that our library and all public libraries remain valued, relevant and responsive to their communities; so that people continue to use and support their libraries. Now, the library’s services and spaces are undergoing a transformation for and by the community we serve. 

“As I reflect on my time here, I think we’re beginning to see the fruits of that labor, a new manifestation of hope for our library and public libraries generally. I have been extremely fortunate to work in a community that supports its library system, due in large part to the unyielding commitment and excellent work of library staff across the system. I am grateful for the consistent support of Multnomah County’s elected leaders along the way and for their investment into a dynamic vision of public libraries that will remain alive and growing well beyond my time.” 

At a November 2023 meeting before the Board of County Commissioners, Randall Edwards, Chair of the Multnomah County Library bond oversight committee, described how the bond is building a legacy for the County — past, present and future. And after thanking staff, he singled out Oehlke for “her many years of leadership on behalf of our libraries.” 

“What we are seeing in this modernization,” he said, “has been in large part due to her commitment and vision to Multnomah County Libraries to meet the growing and changing needs for current and future citizens.”

Director Vailey Oehlke, left, at the North Portland groundbreaking in May 2023.

About Multnomah County Library

A treasured community institution since 1864, Multnomah County Library is one of the nation’s busiest public library systems, providing social, educational and cultural programs, resources and services, online and through its 19 public locations. With an eye toward the future of community-centered spaces, the library is working to build, rebuild or expand nine libraries through a voter-approved capital bond. In addition to being Oregon’s largest provider of free internet access, the library offers millions of print and digital resources, in multiple languages for people of all ages. From kindergarten readiness to job training, computer-assisted design and 3D printing, the library supports all people in their pursuits to connect, learn and create. Learn more at