A Reduction in Library Systems

The stagnant economic picture for libraries in the 1990s led to a major overhaul of the library systems. While Illinois was rightfully proud of its library network, questions arose about the configuration and number of the 18 systems since their creation in 1965, including differences in systems’ geographic size and population. Rural systems like those in southern Illinois were far less populous than many urban systems, particularly around Chicago. In addition, services and resources differed across systems, due in part to the differences in size and residency numbers. Smaller systems tended to focus on book stock, especially at their headquarters, along with improved reference work and increased interlibrary loan. Larger systems attempted to develop specialized local library collections that could be used by member libraries and users within their system area.930

Resource sharing by libraries and systems offset some of these concerns. By the early 1970s, smaller systems sought more financial resources, while larger systems looked for “faster, more comprehensive” service upgrades. As early as 1970, the idea of system merging was first mentioned. But the suggestions were met with familiar protests. The fear of losing autonomy, independence, and localized service were all cited as reasons against realignment.931

Secretary of State George Ryan addresses a crowd at the Lincoln Trail Libraries System.

Secretary of State George Ryan addresses a crowd at the Lincoln Trail Libraries System.

As a result, talk of merger rarely got past the discussion stage until 1986, when the State Library commissioned a study to evaluate the library systems. A Library Services and Construction Act grant paid for the study, which was contracted to HBW Associates, a leading library consulting firm. The final report was released under the title “Vision 1996,” a look into the future of the systems. The study offered 15 major recommendations. Some, such as multitype systems, the need for a statewide automation plan, and aggressive leadership with better communication from the State Library, had been recognized by State Library staff for some time. Suggestions for “countywide” service to unserved areas were made, with community colleges serving dual roles as public libraries, and the establishment of unmanned vending-machine-like “information dispensers.” These dispensers were to be placed in high-traffic areas, such as grocery stores and pharmacies.932

The HBW study also asserted that current system governance was “no longer viable” and called for much smaller system boards with a more businessoriented approach. System staffs were also to be reduced, with outside contracting for needed services. Continuing education of system personnel was also stressed, as was an “Institute for Library System Administration” to educate key personnel. Surveyors called for a method of in-house system evaluation, as well as establishing system boundaries by county lines. Another revisited question was “provider vs. facilitator,” with recommendation that the latter be emphasized. Small libraries also came under scrutiny. The study cited the high number of libraries in smaller communities and pointedly asked, “is this efficient and effective library service?” The continuation of Project LIME to promote mergers was recommended, as were reworked minimum standards to prevent toosmall libraries from being established.933

The HBW report also recommended a drastic reduction in the number of systems – from 18 to six, which would have meant multiple mergers on a large scale. The final proposal, which sparked hot debate, sought to create systems serving the northwest, east central, and south-southeast sections of the state. Another two systems would include “collars” for the Chicago and East St. Louis metropolitan areas. The current Chicago system would comprise the sixth system. Six to 10 regional service centers were recommended as “service providers, operating on contract with the systems.”934

The debate over system reduction raged within the Illinois library community, but the State Library saw good reason to explore the question. A “blue-ribbon task force” was appointed by the State Library and the Illinois Library Association to analyze the HBW study and make its own recommendations, which it issued in 1988. Some recommendations were accepted, while others drew strong rebuke, especially HBW’s criticism of small-town libraries, which was viewed as “demeaning.” The entire question of systems reduction received tepid attention, with the task force vaguely concluding that “the question of numbers cannot be resolved at this time. The final number could be more, less, or the same as the present number.” The task force also rejected the idea of regional service centers, which “cannot be accepted as presented,” although a small “reference facility” with a spartan staff opened in Chicago that same year. The task force also recommended an update of service standards for library systems. But clearly, a reduction in the number of systems was coming. The only question was how many systems would last.935

Ironically, the existing number of systems was actually fewer than the 21 Robert Rohlf had recommended in 1963. In the summer of 1991, a study by the Illinois Library System Directors Organization (ILSDO) again looked at options for realignment and merger. System funding had stagnated for over a decade, and financial concerns were a driving force. Geographic factors, population shifts, and technology were also considered. The influx of automation, with great gains in speed and efficiency, had made the world “smaller.” Effective library service now required minutes, rather than days, and it was apparent that 18 systems were no longer needed.936

The Cumberland Trail Library System was the first to take action. In the spring of 1992, that system’s board voted to dissolve, with member libraries joining the Shawnee Library System. The following year, the Starved Rock and Bur Oak systems agreed to merge, creating the new Heritage Trail Library System on July 1, 1993. That was one day after the dissolution of the Kaskaskia Library System, whose board decided their member libraries would best be served by joining the Shawnee and Lewis and Clark Systems.937

But the biggest move was yet to come. In western and central Illinois, the Corn Belt, Great River, Illinois Valley, and Western Illinois systems were in discussions to form one large library system covering 13,000 square miles, or 22 percent of the state. Such cooperation among the four systems was nothing new. For over a decade, they had participated in a cooperative computer system known as the Resource Sharing Alliance. That system had served as a model for the rest of the state, and the four systems were lauded for their efforts at cooperation for better patron service. They eventually joined to become the Alliance Library System, established in July 1994. The Alliance merger left Illinois with 12 library systems, a third fewer than before, but optimism for their future ran high. In a reference to a previous quarter-century of service, the State Library confidently reported in the summer of 1993 that, “the resulting systems are expected to serve local member libraries well for the next 25 years.”938

More systems alignment followed. The Heritage Trail, River Bend, and Northern Illinois Library Systems merged to form the Prairie Area Library System, which began operations on July 1, 2004. On that same date, the Metropolitan Library System, an amalgamation of the Chicago Multitype and Suburban Library Systems, also began operations. The 2004 mergers left nine systems in the Illinois library network – half as many as before – but all continued with a commitment to streamlining library service for Illinois residents.939

On July 1, 2011, the systems merged even further. Illinois Heartland Library System (IHLS) was created by the merger of four regional library systems: Lewis & Clark, Lincoln Trail, Rolling Prairie and Shawnee. Reaching Across Illinois Library System (RAILS) was created from the merger of Alliance, DuPage, Metropolitan, North Suburban and Prairie Area.