‘Mega-library’ system flounders because of state's failure to pay

North Suburban Library System falls victim to state budget crisis

Today, Executive Director Sarah Long expects to walk out of the North Suburban Library System without a job.

A victim of the state’s budget crisis, Long said, the North Suburban Library System still will exist, but there won’t be any employees there to “make it go.”

The system, a consortium of more than 650 libraries in Cook, Kane, Lake and McHenry counties, is owed about $800,000 from the state, Long said.

“We were told we were getting a 16.5 percent budget cut, and we figured out a way to cope with that,” Long said. “What we haven’t been able to cope with is nonpayment.”

While the North Suburban Library System is a separate entity, patrons might begin to see changes at their local library.

Long compared the work done through the North Suburban Library System to that of a trade association.

“We negotiate agreements so that if you live in Cary you can go into the library in McHenry and you can make returns if you want to in Crystal Lake,” Long said.

Van delivery is the most visible service that the North Suburban Library System provides.

“[That] means libraries and the people who use them can have access to all the books in the region, all the videos, all of everything,” Long said.

The North Suburban Library System tentatively can fund van delivery through June 15. Libraries began to band together to keep it going for an additional three months, but a final decision on whether it will move forward with that plan has not been reached, Long said.

In 2009, North Suburban Library System vans delivered 157,846 items to the Crystal Lake library. The program goes a long way to supplement the approximately 200,000 items in Crystal Lake’s collection, Library Director Kathryn Martens said.

“The beauty of this is that it improves service for the entire population,” she said.

If the service is discontinued, it could mean fewer items are available to local patrons and longer wait times for materials, Martens said.

Lisa Dierker, who lives in unincorporated McHenry County near Crystal Lake, said her daughters, Alexis, 16, and Lauren, 13, constantly were requesting books from other libraries. They go to the library every few days to pick up new books.

The family, which pays an annual fee to use the library since they don’t pay taxes in Crystal Lake, would have to consider whether to continue as patrons if they no longer could get books from other libraries, Lisa Dierker said.

Laurie McDermott of Crystal Lake requests books from other libraries several times a month.

“It’s a terrific resource,” she said. “It turns your local library into a mega-library.”

Traveling to other libraries to pick up books and then back to return them wouldn’t make sense given her busy schedule. If the service ends, McDermott said, she wouldn’t be able to get those reading materials.

“It would be really hard without this,” she said.

The Prairie Area Library System also serves a portion of McHenry County. Its van service delivers 7 million items a year, Executive Director Michael Piper said.

The Prairie Area Library System’s financial situation does not appear to be as dire as that of the North Suburban Library System, but some services have been suspended, such as technology support.

“We’ll use our reserves, we’ll invoke a line of credit, we’ll have to cuts staff and services,” Piper said. “What we’re trying to do is get it down to bare bones so we can keep the operation going and live to see another day.”

Like the North Suburban Library System, the Prairie Area Library System receives about half of its funding from the state, or about $2.2 million a year.

Piper was hired to his position late last year after working in Indiana. Illinois, he said, is a library leader.

“I’ve actually worked in four other states throughout my career,” he said. “What’s happening here is happening elsewhere throughout the country.”

For example, New Jersey had a 70 percent cut in state funding, and Massachusetts is combining its library systems into one statewide operation, Piper said.

“Nobody is immune,” he said.

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