A Merger?

Article excerpt

So the Eastern Shores Library System in Wisconsin is thinking of merging with another consortium in the state (see article, this issue). Good news, I suppose. I'm all for mergers. They save money in most cases.

But a merger of what? Library systems, that's what. A lot of states have library systems, originally formed, I think to ease interlibrary loan of materials. And to do that efficiently they had to have union catalogs so their collections could be identified for interlibrary loan. This was made possible in the 70s by computers, the Library of Congress and, that moneymaker, OCLC.

So many states, urged on by legislators who thought that sharing collections would save big bucks, passed enabling legislation to set up library systems, not only to share collections but offer consulting services, training and other cooperative ventures, usually supervised by the state library agency. Which was early funded in 1956 by the feds and for the first time enabled grants to public libraries through the states. That has been a huge success, and no one has cited the program as a candidate for "getting the government off our backs."

But interlibrary loan is expensive. Very expensive. I once estimated that it cost over $40 per item for interlibrary loan in our state, considering the cost of a union catalog and transport and delivery of the item. Not considering the labor the lending library had to do to travel to the shelves and put the item into the delivery stream. That's a lot of money - it would be cheaper for the state to subsidize purchase of books heavily by local libraries.

We're going to have these library systems around forever, I guess. I wouldn't be surprised if Wisconsin systems merge - it saves money and money is short these days.

The article states that "Illinois and Massachusetts and other states have already reduced the number of library systems to essentially two systems."

On first quick reading I thought "system" meant a single library, not just a cooperative system, and I thought, "Oh, a merger of libraries is good. Hope it goes through."

No such luck, and the reference to Massachusetts told me that. I know that Massachusetts has scores, if not hundreds of independent libraries. The largest are, I think, Boston and Springfield, neither of which is very large by national standards. The state is ripe for mergers of libraries into consolidated systems, but it's not going to happen. On a visit to Iowa some years ago, I estimated the number of libraries as about 500. That's a lot of single buildings to man, equip and maintain.

The reason that it's not going to happen is the same reason that "all politics is local." If you want to be a library trustee, Iowa and Massachusetts are the states to live in. Along with a lot of other states. There are lots and lots of trustee slots. The same goes, of course, for library directors and all other government officials.

There are two states where things are different: Hawaii and Maryland. …