Live & Learn

But dark clouds were forming over what had been a long period of sunny skies for the State Library. The library had moved into its new home as a run of national economic prosperity was starting to wind down. By the end of 1991, the United States was suffering its worst recession in a decade, and Illinois libraries felt the effect.

George Ryan succeeded Jim Edgar as Secretary of State and made great efforts to promote his own interest in libraries. However, later that year, local libraries suffered a cut in direct grants. The systems had long complained about stagnant funding, but those woes paled in comparison to an announcement from Ryan that shocked the Illinois library community in the summer of 1992. The Secretary of State’s budget included a cut of over $7 million in system funding, a 34 percent decrease.915

A firestorm of controversy ensued. Lamont chose to break the news to the systems herself, which made for many uncomfortable meetings with angry directors and librarians. Morale among libraries statewide plummeted. One librarian reportedly went into mourning, changing her hairstyle and dressing in darker colors to lament the funding cut. Making matters worse was how blame was directed. Although Governor Edgar had been a friend of libraries throughout his tenure and Lamont had fought vigorously for library development, the former Secretary of State and his Director bore the brunt of the criticism.916

The backlash quickly turned ominous. At least one bomb threat was made against the State Library building. Lamont also received several threats against her life that were taken seriously by authorities. One threat even haunted a family vacation. Lamont and her family were on a beach in northern Michigan when she was approached by a local county police officer. The officer had been sent by the Michigan State Police, who had been called by the Illinois State Police with news of a death threat against Lamont. Local authorities provided extra security for Lamont during the rest of her vacation.917

The funding cuts tested the resolve and leadership of the Illinois State Library and left Ryan’s relationship with libraries in tatters. However, the embattled Secretary offered a remedy to ease many of those tensions. In the spring of 1993, Secretary of State Ryan introduced the “Live & Learn” program as an alternative and permanent revenue source for Illinois libraries. The Secretary seized an opportunity to increase the token fees that Illinoisans paid when purchasing new or used cars or trucks. An $18 increase in those fees suddenly created a huge revenue stream.918

Live & Learn resulted in nearly $19 million in annual revenue for Illinois libraries. The money was divided among libraries of all types and programs of all needs. Systems received $8 million, offsetting the slash of a year before. Three-quarters of that total went to formula grants, with the rest for automation. Another $5 million went to library construction grants. Per capita grants for public libraries increased 32 percent to $1.25, while school library per capita tripled to 75 cents. Family literacy grants received half a million dollars, while reference and research projects received $700,000. Another $300,000 went to services for the visually impaired and physically disabled.919

The plan quickly restored Ryan’s popularity in the library community. The Secretary received loud applause and two standing ovations when he addressed the Illinois Library Association’s annual conference on Live & Learn. ILA President Randy Wilson called Live & Learn “the greatest library initiative in Illinois in the past 25 years.” A series of promotional town meetings followed as Ryan took his plan to the public. Live & Learn subsequently won the support of the General Assembly and was signed into law by Governor Edgar in a ceremony in Chicago on July 9, 1993. Ryan’s initiative earned him honor from the White House Conference on Library and Information Services Task Force, which awarded him the prestigious White House State Elected Official Award in 1994.920

Offsetting the 1992 decrease was not the only way in which Live & Learn was timely. Illinoisans were using local libraries as never before, with 66 percent of state residents using a public library in 1993 and 60 percent owning a public library card. But funding levels did not always match that demand. Illinois followed only New York with its nearly 3,000 libraries, including 620 public libraries. It ranked third in library attendance. With this well-developed network in place, Illinois also ranked fourth nationally in the number of interlibrary loans. Public libraries handled the bulk of those interlibrary loans, accounting for 53 percent, compared to academic libraries (31%), special libraries (9%), and school libraries (7%).921

Illinois libraries had achieved this level of excellence without comparable funding. The state ranked 10th in per capita public library expenditures at less than $23 per person, with 84 percent of public library revenue coming from taxes. Illinois ranked 19th nationally in expenditures for books and periodicals, with school and academic libraries faring little better. Illinois public school libraries were 31st nationally in studenttolibrarian ratio, and academic libraries were 30th in the ratio of full-time students to faculty. The problem of the unserved continued with 1.2 million Illinois residents – nearly one out of nine – still without public library access in early 1996.922

But one plan to meet those needs suffered a crushing defeat. The State Library had long advocated a “universal library card” to make public libraries accessible to all state residents. Secretary Edgar repeatedly made reference to the universal card, and by late 1992, the talk had evolved into a plan. The card would be accepted at all public libraries statewide and would especially benefit unserved residents. In a Chicago Tribune article on Feb. 25, 1993, the small southeastern Illinois town of Oblong, which did not have a public library, was given as an example. With a universal card, Oblong residents would be able to use the library in nearby Robinson. Adult users would be charged a nominal fee, while children were subject to no fees. In turn, the State Library would reimburse the Robinson Township Library $10 per person.923

However, the universal library card plan met with great criticism. Many of the negative comments were due to the lingering resentment of the 1992 system funding cuts. Chicago-area libraries were particularly upset with the proposal. Many suburban libraries argued that the plan would increase operating costs by much more than the $10-per-person reimbursement. One suburban librarian claimed that $36 per person was needed to offset the plan. Others believed that the plan was unnecessary in the Chicago area, because most communities already had libraries, with unserved residents simply paying the non-resident fee to use nearby libraries. Suburban librarians also questioned the propriety of a plan that was designed for rural libraries, arguing that such a plan would not work in urban areas. In addition, the age-old perception of State Library interference also prevailed.924

As a result, a massive effort to defeat the plan ensued. Telephone calls and letters flooded the State Library and other state offices, while public meetings were held to drum up opposition. The State Library eventually withdrew the plan and pledged to examine other ideas. The effort to stop the universal library card again demonstrated the passion, and power, of Illinois libraries, which remained a vocal and influential body in state policy matters.925