Development of Library Systems

This new thinking was the basis behind the most significant change in Illinois librarianship in the 1960s – development of cooperative library systems. Like other State Library programs of the era, the library systems concept was rooted in an in-depth, wellplanned proposal outlined in a landmark study, A Plan for Public Library Development in Illinois. The growth and development of library systems had a greater effect on Illinois library service than any program to date.560

The eminently qualified director of the project was Robert Rohlf. A Minnesota native, Rohlf held two degrees in library science and administration and had served in various posts with the University of Minnesota libraries. He held high-ranking positions with the Minneapolis Public Library before becoming director of the Dakota-Scott Regional Library, a large multicounty library in West St. Paul, Minnesota, in January 1959. The Illinois Library Association’s Public Library Development Committee hired Rohlf in 1962 to lead their study, for which he took a one-year leave of absence. After leaving Dakota-Scott in March 1966, he served for three years at the Library of Congress, including a one-year stint as Director of Administration. Later, he spent a quarter-century as director of the Hennepin County Library in Minneapolis and became a nationally respected library consultant.561

In 1963, Rohlf traveled over 16,000 miles across Illinois, visiting 125 libraries and interviewing over 200 trustees, librarians, and officials. In the interviews, Rohlf intended to learn the most pressing problems facing Illinois libraries, as well as drawbacks to their development. Rohlf correctly noted that many of the problems facing Illinois libraries were shared by those in other states. He noted that Illinois continued to lag behind other states in the development of public library service. Although Illinois had experienced the same post-war population boom as had other states and benefitted from the Library Services Act, library service had not kept pace with the increased population. Illinois’ population on Jan. 1, 1947, was just under 7.9 million, with 1,275,277 unserved by public libraries. By Jan. 1, 1963, the population had jumped to nearly 10.1 million, with 2,109,554 unserved. This was an increase of 834,277 over the previous 16 years and a percentage jump from 16.1 percent to 20.9 percent.562

Numbers rose despite the fact that the number of libraries actually increased from 379 to 521 in the same period. Of greater concern was the fact that each library was serving fewer patrons on average in 1963 than in 1947. Of residents served by public libraries, Rohlf found that nearly 1.3 million received “substandard” service. Taxation, or its lack, was not the problem. Over half of tax-supported libraries received “a local tax effort equivalent to the minimum standards for financial library support…local communities are making at least minimum efforts to support their libraries.”563

But Rohlf identified a multitude of concerns that overshadowed adequate support. One was Illinois’ library laws. In his interviews, Rohlf determined that most respondents found the laws “contradictory, vague regarding powers of library boards, actually discourag[ing] formation of larger library units in that permissive tax rates are lower for district libraries than for individual city or village libraries and representation on the library board is not uniform.” There was also “great confusion over levies” of taxes and “questions concerning who [sets] the library budget…there is also the question of representation on district library boards being dominated by the largest community.” Similarly, trustees, in a repeating argument, “seem fearful of losing control over the local library whenever any cooperative venture with neighboring libraries is mentioned.”564

School consolidation was another factor in laggard library service. In the postwar years, many rural school districts were consolidated in an effort to increase efficiency and to pool resources. As a result, the number of districts across Illinois declined dramatically, from 12,073 in June 1946 to 1,590 17 years later. While Illinois education had improved as a result, consolidation had the opposite effect on libraries. Consolidated school districts were larger taxing units than the single community-taxing unit of public libraries, which were usually in the larger towns within the school district. As a result, those libraries were often heavily used by non-resident students who attended school in the community. The students felt “it was their right to use the library services free of charge whether or not they actually are residents of the library area…parents also assume this right, and often complain bitterly about paying a nonresident fee for library use.” Not only were the numbers of student patrons greater, but their needs were more demanding. Students frequently entered libraries with “requests for material [that] are more intense and sophisticated than any adult would have thought possible in the pre-Sputnik era.”565

This “higher level of study” created a “demand for reference” that struck at the heart of an issue common to libraries. Rohlf correctly concluded that, “it is in the reference service which a library renders to its public that the library stands unique.” This was a crucial service that “no paperback stocked bookstore, magazine dealer or television program” could match. But reference service was also “the costliest part of a good library’s operation” and was further strained by “the hordes of nonresidents using the library.”566

Adding to these concerns was the generally small size of most Illinois libraries, and their equally small budgets. Without a large tax base to draw upon, most library budgets were severely constrained. About 81 percent of Illinois public libraries spent less than $10,000 per year on book materials, and 74 percent held a book collection of less than 25,000 volumes. Of the 521 Illinois public libraries, only three served an area as large as one county, “even though Illinois counties are comparatively small.” Excluding Chicago, the average population served by an Illinois public library was 8,502. This small size led to “large duplication in cataloging costs, reference book costs, [and] special periodical costs,” and allowed few libraries to provide microfilm files, phonograph records, bookmobile service, reference resources, and adequate copies of high-demand books. These features were common in large libraries.567

A shift in population was also affecting Illinois libraries. During the 1950s, larger numbers of Illinoisans (like other Americans) began to move from rural to suburban areas. Rohlf astutely recognized that “although many of these people settle in areas defined as rural, in actuality the areas are urban in nature.” Many of these newcomers settled in small towns surrounding some of Illinois’ largest cities. Rohlf realized “suburbia does not apply only to the Chicago area. It applies to Springfield, Peoria, Moline, Decatur, and to smaller communities of Bradley, Hoopeston, Princeville, and Plano – to mention only a few.” The shift in population not only affected demand in libraries, but also their tax base and nonresident usage.568

But surprisingly, Rohlf discovered the most serious problems were created by libraries themselves, particularly the State Library. In his exhaustive investigation, Rohlf found that cooperation among Illinois libraries was practically nonexistent. It was not a new problem. “Illinois,” declared Rohlf, “has no successful history of worthwhile cooperation” among its libraries, a problem “unique in its region with, perhaps, Indiana.” While part of the blame was due to the poorly written and obsolete library laws of Illinois, which led library boards and municipalities to “fear the loss of control” over their libraries, Rohlf also pointed the blame at “librarians themselves.” He charged a “lack of leadership” by librarians “who have failed to take the first step to convince village and city officials that cooperative efforts, as proven successful in other states, are a way to give the taxpayers a much greater return on the dollar.”569

Certainly, Illinois had not made the most of its tax dollars in terms of library development, but few had pinpointed that failure as clearly as Rohlf. He also believed that cooperative efforts would not only cure problems such as space shortage – a common complaint among libraries – with “cooperative storing of little used materials,” but would also ease the strain of increasing materials costs. From 1941 to 1961, the average cost of a history book had doubled – from $3.89 to $7.84. The cost of biographies jumped from $3.30 to $6.23 in the same period, while fiction had risen from $2.58 to $4.33.570

With regard to the State Library, Rohlf found that many librarians complained about the “lack of a statesponsored long-range, wide-scope plan for library development.” Past efforts had been “one-shot” plans for library development, “with no overall plan for libraries to aim for.” Indeed, the failed demonstration program of two decades earlier was doomed by a lack of organization and vision. And it was certainly not the only State Library-backed program to suffer such a fate. Rohlf argued that the State Library, which “reacted generously to service requests” from schools and needy public libraries, had actually restricted the incentive for library development. Since the State Library regularly made “more or less permanent loans of books, including fiction” to small libraries, there was little incentive for “the development of larger units of library service other states have initiated.”571

This was reflected in findings in the 1956 survey, which had introduced the same idea. As a result, municipalities saw little reason to take on the burden of library development, which brought increased taxation and effort. The lack of incentive was summarized by one local official quoted by Rohlf who said, “Why should we increase our library tax and strengthen our local library service when we can receive more books as we need them free from the state?” The end result, Rohlf argued, was the need for a “uniform, consistent, long-range policy for the development of strong library service units.” If such a policy was not created, Rohlf warned that “smaller public libraries will either collapse or will have to be supported by the state directly,” causing “the large libraries to be hampered even more.” This result would have required the state of Illinois to provide direct aid for libraries, something it was not currently doing. States such as Michigan and Ohio spent hundreds of thousands of dollars per year on library aid, with Pennsylvania just starting a plan to distribute over $6 million of “instate aid.” In contrast, Illinois was spending no state money on direct library aid.572

Rohlf clearly stated his case and produced evidence of myriad library problems. While the number of libraries had increased steadily, much more needed to be done to ensure library development, as well as to protect existing libraries. Rohlf correctly noted that Illinois lagged behind other states in library development. “One apparent trend” in other states was the development of library systems.573

Library systems were conventionally defined as “a public library serving more than one city or village or town.” The area served could be as large as 5,000 square miles, with governance from a single library board or by a board “composed of board members from area member libraries,” and run by a “single governing agency or a loose cooperative existing by the will of its member libraries.” A library system was defined by its ability to levy taxes or receive financial support either from the state or from member libraries. Many states were following this trend, but their library systems comprised different formats, with basis on the state, county, or city levels. One common thread tied together all library systems, regardless of composition. All states that had some “consistent state-wide plan for library development,” which “constituted the majority in 1963,” had “accepted a share of the financial responsibility in support of public library service.”574

Rohlf argued that state financial support was not only logical but necessary. He stressed that “the public library is primarily an education institution, and education has long been the responsibility of the state.” Since states customarily subsidized education, it followed that they should also aid public libraries and their development for their educational role. He felt that the cost of public libraries should be split between the local and state governments. His second argument was equally compelling. “The very existence of a state library,” asserted Rohlf, “is acknowledgment by a state of its concern and responsibility in seeing that all of the residents of the state have access to at least a minimum level of library service.” This argued for placing state libraries in the driver’s seat for library development, more clearly defining their role as vital to the delivery of library service for its residents.575

Twenty-eight states had taken financial responsibility in the creation of regional and district library sys-tems at the time of Rohlf’s investigation, and he looked to these states, particularly those in the east, to see what the future held. The state of New York began organizing library systems in 1950. By 1964, 97 percent of New York residents were served by systems, on which the state spent $10.2 million a year. Total funding for New York public libraries was $3.63 per capita. In 1961, the state of Pennsylvania implemented the findings of a 1959 survey into its own Library Code. These movements reflected a nationwide trend. The 1950s and early 1960s saw much – interest and activity in the development of libraries, which was a result of the Library Services Act.576

Rohlf applauded these moves and cited many advantages to library systems. He believed that the problem of nonresident use would be ended, since libraries would receive money as a member of a system to aid in serving people outside their boundaries. The systems would encompass large areas, and hence the problem of overlapping political jurisdictions – the chief hindrance to the 1943 District Library Law – would be relieved. Systems also allowed residents to easily use any library in the system that could serve a specific need.577

Centralization and pooling of resources were also key. Rohlf noted that “the needless duplication of reference materials, films, special subject materials and the like is avoided” when a system made them available to all member libraries. Specialized personnel in fields such as adult education and children’s literature would also be “pooled within the system and thus become available to all member libraries.” Similarly, specialized materials, such as business, science, art, and foreign languages, could be more easily purchased and used through a system than by an individual library. Cataloging and processing could also be done at “one central system point” and relieve that burden from individual libraries. A system could also provide bookmobile service that would otherwise be economically unavailable through individual libraries.578

As a result, library patrons would have access to a reference collection that was much greater in both quantity and quality than a local library could provide alone. Those collections could also “be more readily tailored to local needs with less demand material available from the system.”579

Rohlf recommended a four-point plan for Illinois library development. In addition to library systems, which received the most emphasis, he stressed the need for a “state aid payment of an equalization nature,” as libraries in Illinois were not always able to raise needed money through taxes, while the state offered no financial support to make up the difference. Because of this, Rohlf recommended a plan of equalization aid to libraries that could not raise the sum of $1.50 per capita. Local libraries were required to levy a tax of at least 0.6 mil. If that levy did not raise $1.50 per capita, the state would pay the difference. The state would “assume the responsibility to guarantee a bare minimum level of local financial support,” with $1.50 per capita “the minimum level…in order to provide service of any adequacy.”580

The Rohlf plan also proposed the creation of reference centers within the state. These reference centers were intended to provide a level of service unavailable at the system level. One observer in 1967 called these centers “the last resource for satisfying the reference needs of the individual citizen.” The concept of reference centers stemmed from many of the same problems that Rohlf listed in his recommendations for library systems. As resource materials were “tremendously accelerating” due to the “quantity and depth of the published output” of those materials, most libraries were unable to acquire enough of those materials to create an in-depth reference collection. Libraries would “pool their resource collections” and “assume specific subject responsibilities” rather than engage in the “sheer folly of…duplicating their acquisitions.” Rohlf recommended the establishment of reference centers at the Illinois State Library, the University of Illinois Library, Southern Illinois University Library, and the Chicago Public Library. Citing a similar successful plan in Pennsylvania, Rohlf further recommended that the head librarians of each center, as well as the chairman of the Illinois State Library Advisory Committee, work to develop long-range plans to enhance the “strength and uniqueness” of each collection while avoiding duplication. Rohlf hoped the centers would not only improve interlibrary loan and “copy service of research material,” but also “allow their research collections to be used by legitimate research people regardless of their connection or lack of one with the particular institution.” This, too, was a reflection of his library systems plan and its intent to serve patrons with no connection to an individual library.581

Another portion of the Rohlf plan also called for specific action by the State Library and related to resource sharing. Rohlf recommended that the State Library compile and maintain a “Union Catalog of all adult nonfiction titles” in 10 to 20 of the “largest public, special, and academic libraries” in the state. Similarly, it was recommended that the State Library compile and maintain a “Union list of serial holdings of the same libraries.” In creating these lists, Rohlf envisioned a more “efficient use of the reference resources of the state” and enhancement of interlibrary loan capability.582

But it was the library systems themselves that were at the center of the Rohlf plan. These were to be both voluntary and cooperative, and comprised of existing libraries joined “to create a larger unit of service.” Rohlf recommended that “fully approved systems” should either serve a minimum of 150,000 residents or 4,000 square miles. Financing for the systems would be governed by the Illinois State Library Advisory Committee. Payments were set at 40 cents per capita for the entire population served or $5 per square mile served in one county “in whole or in part plus an additional $3 per square mile for each additional county served,” up to a maximum of $14 per square mile. A one-time “establishment grant” for start-up was recommended, allowing $25,000 per system serving one county and $15,000 for each additional county “as it joins a system.”583

Rohlf believed the “principle of voluntary cooperation, local initiative, and local control” would guide the formation of the systems. Rather than autocratic state control in organization and development of systems, Rohlf wanted local creation and administration for each system. Rohlf also envisioned a gradual integration of the project, recognizing that not all libraries would join systems at once, or that all systems would be formed simultaneously. Rohlf noted 10 advantages to library systems, and identified eight library problems specific to Illinois that would be “solved or alleviated.” The nonresident issue was among them, as was “quality service through pooled personnel and collection use.” That way, declared Rohlf, “the fact that you live in a community of only 2,500 with a local library of limited resources would not penalize you. Your local library as a system member would have immediate call on the specialized personnel and collection of the system.”584

Further, 2.1 million residents without public library service would now be served and “Illinois could thus achieve one hundred percent library service.” Local libraries retained control of their services and finances while gaining access to more resources, thus enjoying a greater return on the tax dollar. Boundary problems resulting from school consolidations would be solved, and smaller libraries could utilize the benefits of system personnel that they could not otherwise afford. Finally, “an orderly long-range plan for full library service to all Illinois citizens” would be ensured.585

Rohlf believed that 21 systems would be sufficient. Each proposed system contained one to 15 counties, with 18 of the systems containing populations in the 200,000 to 300,000 range. Three proposed systems in Cook County were much more heavily populated. While participation in the systems was not mandatory, Rohlf’s plan contained strong words of encouragement. Any library serving less than 10,000 in population within its taxing area would not be eligible for equalization aid unless it became a system member within two years of first applying. In areas where systems were not formed, libraries were allowed five years to form a conditional system, or else lose their equalization aid. Rohlf deemed it “neither wise nor fiscally responsible” to continue payments to small libraries that “cannot do the job demanded today… when a more reasonable solution is available.”586

Just over $4 million in area grants were distributed. Local taxation would increase library income from $18.4 million to $21.5 million. With $6.2 million in state funds, local library support would rise to $2.79 per capita, with $2.13 coming from local funding and the rest from the state. In view of Illinois’ relative wealth – the state had the eighth-highest per-capita income in the nation in 1961 – Rohlf foresaw no problems. Only 57 cents per capita in total state funding was needed with maximum participation.587

Indeed, Robert Rohlf’s plan changed not only Illinois librarianship, but also the State Library. Rohlf called for interlibrary loans to become decentralized, handled through the systems rather than the State Library, and the mailing of collections to cease. “It is precisely this type of service,” Rohlf wrote, “that a system library can do, and do better on an area basis than a state agency can do from a single source or even from a few state regional libraries.” Rohlf’s plan also called for more emphasis on State Library consulting and recommended a heavy increase in consulting service staff in Springfield.588

Some library scientists of the time believed that state libraries would decline in importance as their functions were swallowed by regional systems. But Rohlf made it clear that the Illinois State Library would have a definite and important role in system administration.

“It has sometimes been said in the literature of librarianship that the role of the state library is to work itself out of existence. I do not believe that this should happen in Illinois. The proposals…do however forecast a change in the present State Library services. A change that should actually strengthen the agency. Many of the library services now rendered to local libraries can and should be turned over to the system libraries.

“This change in State Library emphasis can best be summarized by saying that the activities of the State Library under this program will be concentrated on those duties and responsibilities which are unique to its position and to those which it should be able to do better than any other agency…specialized collections [and] specialized consultants whose backgrounds and experience guide those libraries working far beyond their own political limits.”589