Libraries on life support

North Suburban System struggling to cope with state budget crunch

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Escalating state budget problems have decimated Illinois' library systems.
"We're running out of money," said Jan Hayes, co-director of the North Suburban Library System. "We've laid off our director, and we've laid off all of our staff except the delivery people," she said.
The system serves Lake, Kane, Cook and McHenry counties. It makes possible, among other things, the popular interlibrary loan and material-sharing programs at local libraries. This service, for example, allows patrons to check out books housed in libraries all over the four-county area at no charge.
In 2009, the system ferried 5 million books, DVDs and other materials among its members. It also provided consulting, networking, subsidized technical support, an online catalog and dozens of other services to school and public libraries.
Robust and rapidly growing for the past several years, late payments from the state to the tune of $880,000 have left the North Suburban system with no operating funds left, Hayes said. Last month, the system was forced to abandon the majority of its regularly provided services and lay off its director and nearly all its staff.
Today, the system is running on about $223,000 in donations from its members. It's focusing on keeping a skeleton staff to run the van-delivered material-sharing program as long as possible.
"Our public libraries have donated money to keep the delivery services going for another three months, but we are just up against the wall," said Hayes, who works part time now for the system.
Unfortunately, all nine library systems in the state are in the same boat, said Anne Craig, director of the Illinois State Library.
"In our department alone, we have about $24 million in vouchers and invoices waiting to be paid," Craig said. "Much more money was appropriated than has been collected. The issue is, quite simply, there is not enough money in the checkbooks to write the checks. Our $24 million is just a peanut in the pile of the $4.5 billion waiting to be paid."
Craig noted the growing tab of unpaid obligations to schools and other public service providers across the state.
As the state's library systems anticipate continued budget problems this fall, each is surveying members and investigating how to move forward. Workshops on strategic restructuring already have been scheduled. Meanwhile, the Illinois Library Association, the ILA Advocacy Committee and the directors of the Illinois Library Systems invite residents to make appointments with local legislators about the issue.