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Cooperation in Transition by Jan Ison

July 23rd, 2010

The past two years have seen a lot of change in library organizations in the United States, and most of those changes seem to be related to funding. That, of course, is a sign of the economy. For libraries and other public institutions money problems are likely to continue for one to two years after the rest of the economy comes back. That is certainly what Keith Fiels, Executive Director of the American Library Association, predicts. Mr. Fiels said in a recent letter that he sent to ALA staff “With library funding lagging the recession by perhaps two years, it is unclear when the library economy will ‘bottom out’, or when we will start to see a rebound in library funding nationally. In the meantime, everything from advertising to conference attendance has been affected. ALA is in the midst of a two million dollar revenue shortfall.”

With everyone facing difficult financial situations it is really not a surprise that cooperative organizations are sometimes forced to make changes in services, programs, structure and, yes, money. Illinois has been viewed as the leader in library cooperation. The view is not unfounded – we were the leader. The question is whether or not we can maintain that leadership so that the people of Illinois get the resources that they need. Some are predicting demise and no wonder – systems have announced that they are laying off all staff but those associated with delivery and shared automation services, one system is moving to a 4-day week and others, like Lincoln Trail, are asking very hard questions about their programs.

Does the current funding crisis mean that cooperation is a dying service? Actually the number of shared integrated library systems (LLSAPs) and cooperative arrangements are growing faster than ever. Because of budget situations and mostly because we are more and more aware that we cannot get everything our users need, we must cooperate. It’s an age that demands more cooperation but cooperatives that have been in existence for more that 25 or 30 years will struggle. Why is that? Perhaps it is because Illinois Library Systems are not new and exciting. Forming a new organization or cooperative is exciting and innovating. Reinventing an older organization is just plain work. The reason for that is we have history, history, history and we are hard pressed to give up our old ideas of what Systems used to be. Up until only three or four years ago, I still had people complain because Lincoln Trail was no longer buying Books In Print for libraries. Never mind that it wasn’t needed and it was a local responsibility if it was desired, but we had also stopped that program more than 28 years ago. We do have long memories. So change is not easy and we all love the good old days – but the good old days (if that was what they were) are over. We have to do services and programs in a different way and think about things differently and, yes, we need to re-invent cooperation for Illinois. This will take everyone giving up something and everyone changing and most importantly, everyone contributing ideas. In one of the Lincoln Trail polls, we asked about what is the most important value in cooperative organization. Nearly half (44%) of the respondents say that it is Honest Communications. Three other responses were pretty much equal: Respect, Sharing,Trust. These are important values for us to take into our future planning.

What has happened in Illinois to date shows the dire straights that library cooperation is in. The crisis is all related to the financial situation. The state isn’t paying its bills to library systems or to many important and essential public institutions. We need funds to be released to maintain critical services for our users – those services of resource sharing through shared automation systems and the delivery of those materials to libraries. We need to be sure everyone knows about our needs – especially legislators, the Comptroller, the Secretary of State – and know these are important.

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