Funding Levels Off

When the Illinois library systems celebrated their 25th anniversary in 1990, the progress of the past quarter-century was obvious. In 1968, there were a total of 268 public libraries in the network. Twenty years later, that number had exploded to 2,146 and consisted of 618 public, 172 academic, 829 school, and 527 special libraries. The systems headquarters collectively held nearly 1.7 million volumes as well as 6,302 subscription titles, over 67,000 recordings, and nearly 2,000 film titles. Staff in the 18 systems totaled 475.845

About 96 percent of reference requests were filled by the network, which was nearing an internal goal of the State Library. In its 1983 Meeting the Challenge update, the library declared its intention to acquire materials not only to satisfy 99 percent of requests from state government, but also for interlibrary loan requests or ILLINET information requests. The systems were successfully processing 85 percent of interlibrary loan requests. Total circulation in Illinois public libraries rose 40 percent between the systems’ inception in 1965 and 1988, while per-capita circulation jumped from 4.8 to 6.5.846

Funding had also risen dramatically since the inception of the systems. In 1971, 93.5 percent of Public libraries were taxing below the maximum allowable tax rate. In 1988, that figure had dropped to 22.6 percent. While maximum tax rates had been raised in 1970, Illinois residents were also showing a greater willingness to pay for quality library service. This was reflected in the legislature, as the systems continued to receive consistent funding.847

While the picture was still rosy for Illinois libraries, funding levels for the systems were beginning to stagnate. After total system funding jumped to nearly $22.5 million in 1979-80, the monies flattened for the next three years, dipping to $21.8 million in 1982-83. As the 1981-82 recession dissipated, funding levels rose for a time, topping out at nearly $28.4 million in 1984-85. But the next year brought a cut of nearly $2.6 million, followed by another drop of over $1 million in 1986-87. The total systems funding of over $24.5 million in 1986-87 was four-and-a-half times larger than the nearly $5.4 million allocated in 1968-69. However, the stagnation in funding levels  slowed systems growth and, for the first time since their development, there was concern about the level of services the systems could offer, forcing directors to take a hard look at how to spend their money. One place that experienced cuts in the late 1980s was the Illinois Blind and Physically Handicapped Library Network, a hallmark program of the State Library’s commitment to services for the visually impaired. Many considered the Illinois program to be a national model, and the 1980s witnessed an explosion in library services to the blind. In addition to continued development of the Illinois Regional Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Chicago, the Radio Reading Services program was expanded to give the visually impaired another means of enjoying library materials. The move was soon made to cassette tapes and flexible discs. The Illinois waiting list for cassette players was eliminated by 1984.848

Promotion also continued in earnest. The week of Jan. 13-19, 1985, was designated by Governor Thompson as “Illinois Library Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped Week,” and BPH staffers were given colorful new jackets and book bags to help “put the show on the road, become visible to the public and promote the service at every opportunity.” In 1989, the State Library funded “Lift Up Your Hearts…Open Your Doors,” a program to promote greater use of the statewide library program by visually impaired and physically disabled children. The program also sought to lay a foundation for the successful, first-ever summer BPH reading program in the state in 1989. Another radio program, the Radio Information Service, brought newspapers and magazines to the blind with reading from volunteers.849

However, some of the subregional BPH centers, established in most systems in the early 1970s, were not keeping up. Reduction of BPH services became a hot-button issue in the Illinois library community. Bridget Lamont had proposed a consolidation of BPH centers early in her tenure, a suggestion that was met with heated controversy. As a result, Lamont – who had never intended any elimination in services, only a reduction in the number of centers – was forced to travel statewide with Secretary Edgar’s press secretary, Mike Lawrence, to meet with local news writers and radio personalities, stressing that services would not be slashed. The episode caused a rift between the State Library and the systems that was a long time in healing.850

An 18-month evaluation of the system in the mid-1980s showed that the centers were “not performing services in a uniform manner statewide” since they were serving fewer patrons and had less circulation than other states, despite record levels of funding support. It was also noted that less than half of the existing subregional libraries had sufficient staff to “perform the vital outreach mission envisioned” to attract new patrons. As a result, the decision was made in September 1987 to consolidate the 15 subregional libraries into six larger, full-service Talking Book Centers that would be charged with providing uniform service. On June 30, 1988, the subregionals ceased service.851

The State Library provided LSCA funding to the Talking Book Centers to reorganize local service, cover the cost of expanded staff, and notify patrons of the service changes. Although controversial, the elimination of the subregional centers was in line with national trends. By 1990, only Florida was expanding its subregionalization, and Illinois was once again declared to be “a national model for progressive, evolutionary development.” The consolidation in Illinois proved wise. In March 1991, many of the six Talking Book Centers reported increased usage, and the Chicago center declared that the downsizing proved to be “cost-effective and service efficient.” The Illinois Talking Book program eventually became a national leader and, in 1992, over $1.8 million was awarded by the State Library to maintain its level of quality.852