Lending crisis may hit libraries

Funding cuts put interlibrary loans at risk

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Downers Grove resident Edris Byers reads about three mystery novels a month.

Some of the books she finds at her local library, but other, harder-to-find titles are ordered through an online interlibrary loan system and delivered to her home library within a few days.

But that delivery service might be in jeopardy because of lack of funds and the state's deteriorating financial situation, state library officials warn.

"I didn't know the state was broke," joked Byers, 84, of Downers Grove. "You know, things are getting terrible. If they stop the delivery service, it will limit our reading material. The only other option would be to go out and buy the book."

Illinois Library Systems, which oversees nine local library systems throughout the state, is best-known for its delivery service.

Alice Calabrese-Berry, director of the Metropolitan Library System, which serves portions of Cook, DuPage and Will counties, said library systems have not had a budget increase in more than 20 years. The systems also experienced a 16.5 percent budget cut last year.

Their breaking point, however, came this year. MLS and most other systems have only received about 57 percent of the money owed to them for the fiscal year that ended June 30.

Most agencies — including schools, social service agencies and other government bodies — have received only a portion of the money due to them from the state. There is a backlog of unpaid bills and fund transfers of $4.5 billion for the fiscal year, according to Illinois Comptroller Daniel Hynes' office.

MLS is waiting for $1.1 million in funds. The DuPage Library System is owed about $584,000, and the Prairie Area Library System, which covers a large portion of northern Illinois including parts of Will County, is waiting for $975,000.

The offices of the North Suburban Library System — which received only 42 percent of its funding and is waiting for about $900,000 from the state — has laid off 20 full- and part-time employees so it can use the remainder of the funds for delivery.

The office currently doesn't even have an employee to answer the phone.

Officials with the systems said most have enough money to operate the delivery service for about four to five months.

Bonnie Reid, coordinator of reference and information services at the Downers Grove Library, said she never expected the delivery service to be at risk of disappearing. She has worked at the Downers Grove Library for 28 years.

"This is an essential service," Reid said. "College students order books through the system. So do people for career training reasons. Taking (the system) away would send the library back 30 years, before computers."

Scott Pointon, director of the Des Plaines Valley Public Library District with libraries in Crest Hill, Lockport and Romeoville, said people would have no choice but to pick up the items themselves.

He said it would especially be difficult because their system, the Prairie Area Library System, serves much of northern Illinois west to the Mississippi River.

"People aren't going to drive to some town near the Iowa border to pick up a book," said Pointon.

In 1965 the Illinois General Assembly passed the Illinois Library Systems Act to encourage cooperation among libraries in promoting and sharing library resources.

"The delivery service is our priority," said Anne Craig, director of the Illinois State Library. "We are doing everything we can to ensure that this continues. We understand that many people rely on the system. We are in constant contact with (legislators)."

Kelly Kraft, a spokeswoman for Gov. Pat Quinn's office, said the state simply doesn't have the money right now. "Gov. Quinn is working day and night to find a way to pay bills," said Kraft. "He is 100 percent committed to making good on all (past) payments due."

Downers Grove Library Director Christopher Bowen is trying to get the word out through his blog and handouts at the library. He has posted an online petition urging for funding on the library's Web site.

Bowen recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to try to get some federal funding for libraries across the country. His biggest worry right now is the delivery system.

"I can't imagine a modern-day library without it," said Bowen. "All we can do is hope for the best."