Larger Units of Service

As the decade wound down, there remained cause for optimism. In 1989, system grants were increased by 10.6 percent, due in large part to the Illinois Library Association’s efforts to secure supplemental funding. That same year, school library grants were authorized by the Illinois legislature for the first time. Under the plan, each school library would receive up to 75 cents per student in state funds. Two years earlier, a record had been set for the formation of new public library districts when 29 were established in 1987.853

Public library districts proved to be a blessing and a curse. For decades, the State Library had promoted districts as the best way to cure the problem of unserved residents. In its two decades, Project PLUS led to a growth spurt for district libraries. By 1989, there were 203 districts, which comprised 33 percent of the total of public libraries, a dramatic increase from the 26 districts that made up 5 percent of libraries in 1965. However, the push for district libraries had a downside. In 1990, Albert Halcli wrote that, “the systems were in the ironic position of not always encouraging new libraries. They have generally discouraged the creation of libraries in small  communities with a limited tax base.” This missed opportunity helped contribute to a decline in unserved residents that was slower than desired. By 1986, the percentage of unserved Illinois residents stood at 15 percent, a moderate decline from 19.5 percent in 1965.854

Halcli conceded that the State Library and the systems “had taken a calculated risk” in the move of “eggs into one basket” library districts. However, Halcli noted, many small communities were unable to “support quality service” and that larger units were desirable. “Change does not always come easy,” declared Halcli. “The solution of the problem of the unserved….may be slow in coming, but progress is being made.” Indeed, the numbers supported Halcli’s claim. Despite the less-than-stellar growth, Project PLUS was credited with an additional 517,064 Illinoisans receiving library service since 1972.855

Secretary of State Jim Edgar, third from right, does the honors in a beam-signing ceremony at the State Library construction site on April 13, 1988.

Secretary of State Jim Edgar, third from right, does the honors in a beam-signing ceremony at the State Library construction site on April 13, 1988.

In 1985, the State Library introduced another plan to encourage larger units of service. Project LIME, a shortening of “LIbrary MErgers,” was created to encourage small libraries to merge with one another. The State Library noted that 77 percent of the state’s 595 public libraries served populations of under 15,000, while 52.6 percent served less than 5,000, and wondered “if this is effective library service.” It was believed that “many potential mergers…could result in better library service, if not lower costs.” But to encourage mergers required a “‘carrot’ of enough significance to overcome local pride.” The “carrots” were three-year grants to assist with book budgets for libraries seeking to merge, since books and materials were deemed to be the most likely place to “reduce expenses in times of budget constraints.” The first year of the grants were for service prior to the actual merger, with the remaining two years of funds distributed “once the merger becomes a fact.” The State Library confidently predicted, “Project LIME will add a refreshing flavor to merger talks, and be as successful as Project PLUS in creating libraries of more meaningful size.”856

Many of the underdeveloped smaller libraries were in rural areas, particularly in Southern Illinois. These libraries continued to suffer from a lack of funding and staff, thereby underutilizing their community role. In addition, most of the remaining unserved residents were from lower-income areas. In June 1986, a federally funded workshop, “Libraries on the MOVE,” was held in Carbondale to examine the role of rural libraries. The workshop was jointly sponsored by the State Library and the Shawnee Library System and featured a speech from Secretary Edgar, who encouraged rural libraries to embrace the “Information Age.” Edgar also declared his commitment to rural library development, which he called “one of the most important and promising activities of the State Library.” Depressed economic conditions, stagnant library budgets, and duplication of services by multiple agencies were listed as top concerns for rural libraries, and increased interagency cooperation between rural libraries and rural agencies was stressed. While smaller libraries lacked funding and staff, the conference helped define and promote their roles. As Edgar noted, “even a small rural library can be a window to the world.” The Secretary subsequently appointed a task force to study the needs of rural libraries. Its final report was released in 1988, and one of the chief recommendations was an increase in the maximum allowable tax rate for libraries and a higher equalization rate. The efforts to help rural libraries stretched into the next decade, as five panel hearings to discuss rural library topics were held statewide in the fall of 1991, with recommendations presented the next year.857

Trustee education continued to receive emphasis as part of library development. In 1986, the State Library and the Illinois Library Association issued a series of 24 booklets titled Trustee Facts File. These pamphlets covered such topics as cooperation, planning, standards, construction, automation, funding, and systems. Many Illinois library leaders contributed to the series, including Kay Gesterfield.858