Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Indiana Public Libraries: serving the unserved


It probably comes as a surprise to many people outside of Indiana’s library community that a significant number of Hoosiers do not reside in an area served by a public library, nor do they pay a local tax for public library service. Annual report data collected by the Indiana State Library from 2006 estimates approximately 395,000 Hoosiers in 38 counties are unserved by a public library.

The report, “Streamlining Local Government” issued by Governor Daniels’ Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform in 2007 acknowledges the problem of unserved citizens and Recommendation #18 of the report proposes to: “Reorganize library systems by county and provide permanent library service for all citizens.”

The report, and some members of the library community have attempted to merge these two issues of library consolidation and unserved areas together when they are two distinctly separate issues. Consolidating existing library districts together will not automatically extend service to unserved areas, and other methods of attaining the objective should be examined if all Hoosiers are to be provided with library service.

Presently, areas not served by a library can voluntarily provide service to their unserved area via three different methods. First, an area, whether it be a city, town, township, or even an area as large as a county can decide to levy a tax and establish their own public library district.

It is important to note however, that until relatively recently, population size was not an obstacle to establishing a new library. Even though Indiana has a long history of developing their public libraries from the bottom up, representatives of larger library districts successfully lobbied the General Assembly to prohibit the creation of new libraries which would serve populations of less than 10,000. The rationale was that instead of creating smaller districts, areas wanting library service would be required to join larger existing library districts, bringing additional assessed valuation and presumably, additional wealth to the larger district.

It is recommended that the Indiana General Assembly revisit the issue of minimum library size and eliminate the restriction so that Hoosiers could return to the practice of building up their public libraries in our small cities and towns, and not from the top down where all we may have are large, inefficient consolidated systems in urban locations that are difficult for large portions of our citizens to visit.

As the Commission’s report noted, three-fifths (136) of all Indiana’s existing library districts serve less than 10,000 library patrons. Also, as the report noted, Indiana’s public libraries ranked second in the nation in 2004 in the overall assessment of library performance measures such as services, collections, revenues, and expenditures. The obvious conclusion must be that Indiana’s existing libraries are “right sized” for their populations and the continued development of small libraries should be encouraged, and not sacrificed to the unsubstantiated notion that bigger libraries are necessarily more efficient or better than smaller libraries.

The second manner through which library service may be extended to an unserved area is through a contractual arrangement. These contractual arrangements are negotiated between an elected board in the unserved area and a neighboring existing library district for level of service to be provided and the annual cost. A contractual arrangement does not require an entirely new district to be formed with a separate governing body or central administration. Service may range from simple access to facilities and materials, to bookmobile stops, to the operation of one or more service outlets in the area under contract.

A great advantage to this option is that the elected body in the unserved area can “shop around” between districts in area for the best bargain for their taxpayers. Contractual districts do not need to have abutting boundaries, nor do they need to even be in the same county so the contracting body has great flexibility to keep expenditures down. Contracts may also be renegotiated before a decision is made to renew, allowing the contracting area the opportunity to continue to seek the best service for the dollar they can find for their patrons.

The third manner by which library service can be extended to an unserved area is for the officials in the area to agree to simply join an existing district and be taxed the same as the citizens in the existing library. The citizens of the joining area would have the same borrowing rights and privileges as those citizens in the existing district, but there are no guarantees that once they join a district, the existing district might build or operate service outlets (branch libraries) in the newly expanded area.

These voluntary methods have been successful in some areas, but the desire for all Hoosiers to voluntarily tax themselves for library service is not universal so Indiana does not have complete library service. It is offered that the only way by which Indiana can have universal library service is through a state mandate, much like the mandate that every community be taxed to provide public education. Public libraries, like public schools, should be considered to be fundamental educational institutions and every Hoosier of any age should have access to the resources and services of a public library facility, conveniently located and ready to fulfill his or her informational needs. It is also vital to Indiana’s economy and the quality of life for its citizens for libraries to provide access to new information and communication technology.

Once it is accepted that the only practical way to provide universal library service is through mandate, a date for the commencement of service should be selected and legislated. In order to make the imposition of the mandate more palatable to taxpayers, the General Assembly should consider preserving the essence of the selection of voluntary options citizens now have about how library service may be extended into their area.

Consolidation of existing library districts by county, as noted earlier, has been mentioned by some to be a solution to the problem. Admittedly, consolidating all existing districts, coupled with mandating universal library service would solve the problem of unserved areas, but it is very likely the most expensive option for Hoosier taxpayers and the most distasteful option for many of the residents of the smaller existing districts. Not only would the new taxpayers of the previously unserved areas be likely to pay a higher tax rate than under other options, but all of the citizens of the consolidated district might also be likely to pay one of the statistically higher tax rates levied by larger libraries. The smaller libraries would also lose their independence and the great amount of local accountability they have in their communities.

According to Sam Staley, an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, a study conducted by the Review in 2005 reported, ninety percent of the expert researchers who studied local government consolidation concluded that consolidation would not reduce taxes and that consolidation makes it more difficult to obtain government services. He notes in an article entitled, “Local Government Consolidation: Why the Savings are Sometimes Disappointing,” that “economies of scale work in reverse in government.” Larger government tends to produce more bureaucracy, regulation, and overhead.

Indiana libraries have certainly seen this to be true in the case of the Indiana State Library. After the transfer of $600,000 from being distributed directly to public libraries and the transfer of the appropriation for the Indiana Cooperative Library Services Authority to the state library, the state library created many new staff positions, approved extensive new rules for the certification of library employees, and began enforcing standards for public libraries that had long been ignored.

If universal library service is selected to be mandated, it is recommended legislation be carefully crafted to preserve the options of the citizens of unserved areas to create new library districts tailored to meet the needs of their community, negotiate a contractual arrangement with a neighbor, or join an established library district of their choosing. This might even be done without regard for county boundaries if a cross-county configuration is determined to be the most efficient and economical model available. Competition such as this develops efficiency and all Hoosiers are deserving of efficient public library service of high quality.

Phil Baugher

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