Monday, October 18, 2010

Rethinking Illinois' Regional Library Systems

In 1965, Illinois pioneered a model of multi-type library cooperation and resource sharing with the creation of regional library systems. The 18 regional systems created by the state statute supported library development, collections, interlibrary loans and reference services. Training and consulting were key services provided to help libraries develop and meet the needs of their individual communities.

Over the past 45 years, those regional library systems have merged and evolved. Shared catalogs that allow instant access to the holdings of multiple libraries became the primary means of resource sharing, replacing the traditional interlibrary loan with a more efficient process. Delivery of items among libraries grew into the backbone of resource sharing as the regional library systems supported it with the means to physically move items from one library to another. Other states looked to Illinois as the leader in library resource sharing and cooperation, the standard by which other states measured their success.

Today, the 10 remaining regional library systems will become three by June 30, 2011. With the State of Illinois more than eight months behind in payments to the regional library systems, each regional library system slashed services according to the Illinois State Library's top three priorities: shared catalog, delivery and the talking book centers that support the federal Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. The five northern systems and four southern systems took the radical step to begin merging earlier this year. The Chicago Public Library acts as its own regional library system and is not involved in the merger process.

For librarians, the next evolution of the regional library systems brings an opportunity to continue Illinois' leadership in library resource sharing. What will the new model look like? What services are the most vital to library development and resource sharing? How can we meet the needs of residents as efficiently as possible and within the limited means of the State of Illinois? The challenge before us is daunting. But we begin from a position of strength, with a strong tradition of responsive service that meets the needs of our unique communities through cooperation and sharing.

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