Addressing the Needs of the Unserved

As it had for decades, Illinois residents unserved by public libraries continued to be a nagging problem in the 21st century. By 2000, over 1 million Illinoisans remained without tax-supported public library service. Although initiatives such as Project PLUS and LIME, along with the Libraries on the MOVE conference, the Rural Library Panel, and various task forces, grants, and discussion groups, had addressed the problem for the most part successfully, large numbers of the unserved remained. The State Library conceded that the 1-million figure was “a staggering statistic.”999

Illinois was certainly not alone in this issue. While 23 states reported in 2000 that 100 percent of their populations were served by libraries, another 18 states, including Illinois, only served between 90 percent and 99 percent of their populations. Nine states fell below 90 percent. Illinois’ 92.7 percent served fell short of some of the leading states, including Ohio (100%), Michigan and Massachusetts (99.9%), California (98.4%), and Pennsylvania (97.8%). But many neighboring states had percentages equal to or smaller than Illinois. Indiana showed the same 92.7 percent, while Missouri (86.6%) and Iowa (71.4%) fell behind. Larger, wealthier states such as longtime national library leader New York (also 92.7%) and Texas (93.2%) also struggled with the problem.1000

The State Library hosted the Summit on the Unserved at the library on Oct. 2-3, 2000. System directors nominated most of the more than 70 invitees, which included librarians, trustees, and other officials, to this comprehensive discussion forum. Written and verbal testimony was heard at the summit, which addressed questions such as principles for solutions to the unserved, non-resident library cards, special needs for different parts of the state, existing barriers to public library service, children’s service as a top statewide priority, public and legislative interest, and a summary of the most desirable solutions. Among the recommendations were:

  • Develop a statewide marketing plan to achieve universal library service.
  • Investigate new funding sources beyond property taxes, which currently provide the majority of library funding.
  • Hold statewide public hearings to determine citizen interest in universal service and solicit public recommendations for improvement.
  • Research how other states achieved 100 percent service.
  • Change the per-capita grant program to include land area along with population.1001

Still, the problem of the unserved remained unsolved in the first decade of the 21st century, much to the frustration of State Library officials. The non-resident library card fee (mandated by the General Assembly) provides one option for unserved residents, although an unpopular one. The state’s tax revenue was spread increasingly thin, and residents proved largely unwilling to shoulder more tax burdens, making the problem a tough one for State Library officials to solve. A 1993 survey conducted by the State Library found that while 85 percent of Illinois residents believed their library was “a valuable resource in my community,” only a third supported tax hikes to pay for them. Still, the State Library remained as committed to free library service for all Illinoisans as it had been for nearly a century.1002

In terms of library development, Illinois remains among the largest, and best funded, in the nation. In fiscal year 2005, the 623 public libraries of Illinois were second in number only to the 754 of New York. The total of $601 million in public library revenue in Illinois was fourth in the nation, trailing only New York, California, and Ohio. In all, nearly 4,000 public, academic, school, and special libraries compose the Illinois library network.1003