Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Here's a story that has lots of different layers of politics. It's an example of how people of all stripes can be hypocritical and spiteful. This is my perspective as a librarian and a liberal.

My local library, the Champaign Public Library, is part of library consortium, Lincoln Trail*, which includes about 90-100 libraries that all share resources. This means that a patron of CPL can order books directly and online from any of those 100ish libraries, and vice-versa. For free.

*Lincoln Trail is going away-- being subsumed under a much larger system, Illinois Heartland-- but that's not relevant to this issue.

It is through this cooperative agreement that libraries work best. My patrons and your patrons get access to way much more material than they ever would if confined to the materials in your building. It's a microcosm of how civilization works. Cooperatively, we can achieve much more than we can on our own.


Since Champaign is the large population base of the region, it has more resources and social services than smaller communities around it. Some people choose to live in bedroom communities near Champaign so that they can avoid paying the higher taxes associated with "the big city." People in those communities have small meager libraries that don't require very high taxes. But some of them then come to Champaign and use CPL's larger collection, taking advantage of the library cooperative agreement. They don't believe in high taxes for supporting libraries, but then they abuse the library. They are hypocrites.

Of course, as in any cooperative agreement, some people game the system. The way I see it, that's just simply the cost of doing business; the cost of living in a society where serving the needs of the citizens is more important than denying them things. I'd rather that everyone get the support they need rather than prevent a few bad apples from taking advantage. Perhaps that is why I'm a liberal.

CPL's response to this problem has angered me. The first stage was to violate the consortial agreement (in spirit, if not in letter) and limit borrowing from nearby communities. I felt like this was a very bad move, borne out of fear and isolationism rather than the spirit of library cooperation. Once you start keeping score in a situation like this, the whole system breaks down.
I didn't like where it was heading.

I had arguments with other liberals who supported this decision, because their hatred of a few conservative hypocrites overrode their liberal ideals. I was shocked to be having this argument with people who I'd always considered to be passionate supporters of libraries.


Sure enough, that was just the first step. CPL is now leaving the consortium, starting their own catalog with the Urbana Free Library. Now the two biggest libraries in the Lincoln Trail system are taking their toys and going home.

It doesn't exactly illustrate my point, but isn't this adorable puppy a good respite from all this angry political talk?

Full disclosure: As a librarian at one of those smaller Lincoln Trail libraries, this bothers me. It bothers me that my patrons won't have easy access to CPL materials any more.

But it's not just about my patrons. This move also bothers me as a resident and patron of CPL. What people don't realize in these kinds of cooperative agreements is that the larger libraries are often "net borrowers," which means that their patrons actually order more things from other libraries than the other way around. (I know that is the case with my library and CPL. They're larger than we are, but they also borrow more materials from us than we borrow from them.) So patrons from both libraries will be affected. And as a CPL patron, I'm annoyed that my access to these 90-some other collections in the system is going to be limited.

Of course, none of this is evident in the press releases from the library. They make it sound like this is a great new development-- an upgrade in services. It's not.

Like the harsh immigration laws in Arizona, it creates walls and shuts people off. It's a unilateral, political decision made with a business model in mind, not public services. It's bad for patrons, it's bad for libraries, and it's bad for democracy.

Okay, so it may be hyperbole to compare my public library to Wall Street. But it's topical and illustrates my feelings.


Anonymous said...

Can you point to research which explores the large library / net borrower concept?

Tim said...

After much digging, I'm afraid I can't find any definitive research on the topic. I have, however, found two instances of anecdotal evidence where a larger community or library was a net borrower within its system.


Libraries: Past-due notice. Franzen. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel [Milwaukee, Wis] 10 Aug 2001: 22A.

And Chicago suburbs:

Oder, Norman
Library Journal; Jun 1, 2005; 130

Logically, it does make sense that a library with a large, active patron base is going to borrow more from libraries around it.

I'm still working on an answer to your question, though, and it may become its own blog post... (or may not, depending on how much time I have and whether something new and shiny captures my attention...)