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LSCA: A History of Innovation and Cooperation in Illinois Library Services


Sarah Rohrer

When Congress passed the Library Services Act (LSA) in 1956, the law was intended to expand public library services for the unserved and underserved residents of rural areas. With inadequate or non-existent library services in many parts of the United States, both rural and urban, LSA was an important step toward bringing library services up to par through federal legislation. LSA made headway for libraries in rural areas, and its success paved the way for broader support for public libraries. When the Library Services and Construction Act (LSCA) was passed in 1964, providing funds for public library construction and expanding support to include library services in urban areas, it exponentially increased the potential of libraries to serve their communities and cooperate with one another in innovative ways.

Through the years, LSCA did not remain static. Several amendments were made and a new emphasis was placed on serving special groups of people. With these changes, LSCA generated an increasing variety of programs, and the programs themselves evolved to meet changing needs of the people they served. One constant in the more than three decades of LSCA has been the movement to enhance and go beyond so-called traditional library services. LSCA funds have allowed libraries to exercise vision in the ways that they serve their communities.

In Illinois, among the innovative projects precipitated by LSCA grants, there are many examples of cooperative programs on state and regional levels. The concept of synergy (the whole is greater than the sum of its parts) is not a new one, and following this concept organizations have learned that working together will accomplish their goals more efficiently and effectively than if they work separately toward those same goals. Looking at a sampling of programs involving cooperation among libraries in Illinois, it's easy to see what a difference federal funding has made on library services.

When surveying the results of LSCA programs in Illinois, one remarkable feature is the rich diversity of services that have grown out of this legislation. These projects have initiated services for residents of one community or, perhaps, residents of the entire state. Many focus on particular groups of people, including children, seniors, parents, people with disabilities, residents of state institutions, residents of rural, urban or suburban settings and many others. Awareness of special needs and the ability of libraries to offer services to meet them have changed the environment of libraries, and many of these changes can be traced to LSCA programs.

Following are some questions that library planners, workers and supporters have had over the years that LSCA programs in Illinois have helped to answer:

What are some effective strategies for providing library service in areas that are not served by any library?

How can we help patrons who need information after the library closes when we are already stretching our resources to stay open the current number of hours?

How can we do a better job of answering questions from parents of children with disabilities?

Many patrons request audiovisual materials my library doesn't own. What's the best way to find audiovisual materials in Illinois that are available for interlibrary loan?

As a librarian within the Illinois Department of Corrections, are there ways we can work with the local public libraries to provide better service to my patrons?

As a newly elected trustee, how can I become better informed about the needs of my library?

Extending library services to unserved areas of Illinois is an issue that continues today. However, through the combination of LSCA funds, the Illinois State Library, regional library systems and public library districts, significant progress has been made in the expansion of basic library services. Project PLUS (Promoting Larger Units of Service) provided the groundwork for reducing unserved areas in Illinois. Federal funds allowed regional library systems or

* Sarah Rohrer, Member Services Librarian, North Suburban Library System, Wheeling.

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adjacent libraries to demonstrate services so unserved residents could see what services libraries have to offer. These "try before you buy" opportunities were contingent on communities agreeing to hold a referendum within a year to form a new public library district or to become a part of an existing adjacent public library district.

There have been many Project PLUS success stories through the years, further illustrating the impact of LSCA on promoting library service through innovation. As an example of partnership on the federal, state and local levels, each success story serves as a stepping stone to developing new services and new ways for libraries to work together. Also, the program provided a model for unserved areas that used local funds to set up demonstration services.

One of the ongoing problems for many libraries (once they've been established and actually have a building!) is that there aren't enough hours in the day to serve all their patrons' needs. With limited budgets and shortages of staff, staying open later in the evenings is not a feasible option for most libraries. Still, needs for service after the library closes and the wish to serve those needs have not gone away. In fact, with more Americans working, the more difficult it can be to fill patrons' needs during traditional library hours. Night Owl, Inc., an after-hours telephone reference service initially funded by an LSCA grant, has provided libraries in Illinois with an economical option for extending their services.

Night Owl has been operating since 1986 and after the grant funding ended began to offer libraries service by subscription. To subscribe, a library pays an annual fee based on its service-area population and receives telephone service for patrons from 9:00 p.m. until midnight on weekdays and 5:00 p.m. until midnight on weekends. Housed at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library, their team of experienced reference librarians answers a wide variety of questions from patrons across the state. Night Owl's evolution from a cooperative effort among public libraries to the agency it is today exemplifies how LSCA funding was able to start the ball rolling, allowing services to continue to grow with the changing times.

Answering reference requests in all different subject areas is one of the traditional services that public libraries offer patrons. A public library's level of reference service is restricted by its collection, therefore, there often are times when the collection is not deep enough to provide a patron with needed information. For people researching health-related topics, whether on their own or on behalf of a friend or a family member, looking for in-depth medical information at a public library can be a frustrating experience. One LSCA program specifically addressed people's needs for information on disabilities. Project SLICD (Statewide Library Information for Caregivers of the Disabled) began in 1988 as a network of materials and resource people providing information on disabilities. Available through five regional information centers, this free confidential service was developed so that caregivers could call a regional center directly or go through their local library's reference department. The LSCA-funded materials were also entered into regional union databases for the purpose of providing libraries with access. When LSCA was amended in 1966 to include services to the physically disabled, new channels for providing innovative services to special groups developed, and Project SLICD is just one example of the cooperation stemming from this focus.

As with Project SLICD, special materials in libraries throughout Illinois can only be useful if other libraries have a way of finding out about them. In the early days of bibliographic databases, audiovisual materials often were a low priority for addition to the database and, therefore, were not very accessible to libraries around the state. The Multi-Media Access Project (MAP) was developed in 1979 through LSCA funding with the goal of making interlibrary loan of audiovisual materials possible. To eliminate the barriers to resource sharing across systems, libraries needed to be able to identify collections and search a list of the contents of these collections. Another element of MAP was transcribing audiovisual materials from one format to another so that people could use the materials with commonly available equipment. In addition, the project pioneers worked to open the lines of communication among library staff by holding workshops to keep staff informed of recommended interlibrary loan procedures for these materials.

Resource sharing has long been a priority among libraries in Illinois and the development of multi-type library systems has certainly acted to expand the possibilities for resource sharing among public libraries and libraries of all types. Through LSCA, emphasis was placed on expanding library services to include service to residents of state institutions. Libraries were established in state prisons, but often had limited collections.

In the late 1970s, the DuPage Library System developed a model of integrated prison service through an LSCA grant. The idea was for small local public libraries to join together to provide services to a local prison library. The needs of prison inmates were not significantly different from those of public library patrons. The goals of the programs included having public libraries acquire, catalog and maintain the prison library collection so that it would meet certain basic standards. Other factors of the project included programming for

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inmates on a variety of topics and support for prison library staff.

Each of these programs provides examples of innovative problem solving through cooperation as a result of LSCA support and funding. To continue this trend, people on the state and local levels have had to join in with their support for libraries and with their understanding of libraries' needs. One way to maintain a good level of local support for public libraries is to have informed and committed library trustees. The LSCA 500 PLUS program offered a series of regional workshops aimed at educating trustees from Illinois public libraries. Workshops in the program covered topics such as governance, finance, law, public relations and more. Continuing education programs such as this one acted to strengthen the foundation of libraries statewide and here, too, LSCA provided the important initial support.

With the rich history of programs in Illinois made possible through LSCA, anyone associated with libraries has good cause to be optimistic about continued federal funding for libraries and the difference it can make. Of course, this rich history is just that, history, and as we look to the future and what the Library Services and Technology Act will bring, we must remember that the work of gathering support for libraries will never be complete.

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