Check it out

November 20, 2008

I can understand people having strong objections to consolidating school districts or combining city and county governments. There is a sense that government will get so big and complicated that the ordinary citizen’s concerns will get overlooked. But consolidating libraries at the county level — having a county library system with numerous branches instead of a county library and several city libraries — seems like a logical move to me. The last two places I lived — in LaPorte County and here — have consolidated their libraries, and as a result have better services, more materials and better value for the taxpayers. But many members of the Indiana library community don’t see it that way:

Since December 2007, when the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform issued a report on streamlining local government, many library leaders expressed wariness about the report’s call to reorganize library systems by county and to ensure that unserved residents get service. Many librarians suggest that giving up local control for a “one size fits all” strategy is wrong, with some of the most vociferous blogging at Save Our Small Public Libraries.

[. . .]

The Indiana Library Federation has expressed caution, stating that, it “supports legislation that will provide additional options for unserved areas to be afforded libraries.” However, it also “supports a thorough evaluation of the cost-savings of the recommendations and an approach that allows each library and or library district input into the determination as to what is the best approach for it and its patrons. The Federation encourages legislation that allows for local variations in public libraries.”

It’s natural for the librarians to want local control and the ability to respond to the specific needs and desires of their patrons. But everything I’ve seen in LaPorte and Allen counties indicates that those libraries’ patrons are being well taken care of, and I don’t know why it would be any different for other counties that might come under the commission’s recommendations.

Libraries are facing enormous challenges right now, and might find it harder and harder to justify continued taxpayer support. The Internet and the digital revolution have eaten away at many of the libraries’ core functions. People can do far better research themselves and in much quicker time than by relying on the library. Why check out a video and face the hassle of returning it when you can just download it? Libraries are going to have to rethink their basic missions — perhaps more strongly emphasizing the gathering-place function, for example. Consolidating at the county level might turn out to be part of the answer for them, not a threat to overcome.

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