IN PRAISE OF: THE BEST LITTLE LIBRARY SYSTEM IN THE WORLD
For 22 years I worked in an Iowa library that by the blessings of God and geography was part of an Illinois library system, the River Bend Library System, whose directors always worried less about boundaries and more about how to provide maximum service to their library users. They didn't worry about boundaries of type, either; the system embraces three colleges, four community colleges, schools, hospitals, corporate libraries, and public libraries spread over three counties in Iowa and four in Illinois, not separated but joined by a river.
Over the years, it matured from a system that navigated all those libraries' separate catalogs to figure out who had the books we needed and get them to us, to a system that built a joint online catalog and circulation system (Quad-LINC -- for Quad-City Libraries IN Cooperation) that allowed us to borrow directly from each other online; more, it expanded to a system that allowed patrons of any library to check out books online from any other library in the system, and have them delivered to their chosen library for pickup. Everyday, a River Bend van shuttles between libraries, delivering materials.
Next River Bend produced a union list of the serials held by all participating libraries, and initiated a joint collection development program; knowing that my library, for instance, would keep key Catholic publications like Commonweal forever, other libraries were free to keep more limited runs of these, and save their space for long runs of other titles more basic to their users' needs.
Several years ago, the state of Illinois began to offer free FirstSearch databases to all member libraries, including full-text services (recently the state of Iowa has begun to provide free full-text databases as well). It offers home users telnet access to Quad-LINC, so they can look to see who owns a book, or check their own library accounts; River Bend has recently made it available as a web-based catalog as well.
On its web site it offers a directory of area services and a collaborative reference desk, where librarians across the Quad Cities link in a few carefully chosen sites within their subject areas. Its newsletter and calendar, posted here, keep local librarians apprised of upcoming workshops, videoconferences and other training opportunities that River Bend pays for and often hosts.
But River Bend's management does not come down from on high and decide that these are the services we need. Everything it does is decided by librarians from all over the Quad Cities, working in committees that do everything from setting policies to choosing databases. Those committees are a splendid opportunity for librarians across all types of libraries to get to know each other and find out about the kinds of resources available for all of us to share.
The benefits for Iowa libraries who participate in this are obvious; we pay our own fair share, but still get to piggyback onto major capital investments made up front by a well-funded Illinois system. But Illinois citizens also benefit from this ignoring of arbitrary geographical lines. They draw heavily on the holdings and knowledge of many Iowa libraries and librarians.
More to the point, though, people in the Quad Cities think of them as a seamless whole. We travel freely back and forth across our bridges and boundaries. QuadLINC and the River Bend shuttle system allow us to see the libraries of the Quad Cities as a seamless whole as well, open to all comers.
Not only that: we take this seamlessness for granted. We tend to think all systems operate like that, and are puzzled by the "mine, mine, mine!" attitude of other libraries, the needless barriers thrown up against people who don't fit inside a narrowly defined service community.
Praise goes to the unusually collaborative, forward-looking, service-oriented people who run the River Bend Library System. But ideas and enthusiasm can only go so far without adequate funding. Which is why full credit must be given to the state of Illinois, which thinks it's important to make information widely available to its citizens, and thinks libraries are the key to doing so. Illinois' government is a generous funder not only for day-to-day activities, but for grants for special projects that require upfront capital, like the building of our joint online catalog. As the world becomes ever more dependent on swift access to information, River Bend and the Illinois State Library are models for what other states and communities could and should be doing for their citizens.
RESPONSE FROM RIVER BEND'S DIRECTOR, BOB MCKAY
Robert McKay, System Director, River Bend Library System
Thank you for the opportunity to preview your glowing article about the River Bend Library System! The RBLS staff and board really appreciate your comments.
I think there is a stronger business case for bi-state library cooperation in the Illinois-Iowa Quad Cities than you chose to develop. That is, our board, staff, and Illinois members have made cooperation with Iowa libraries a high priority for many reasons, not the least of which has been enlightened self-interest. First, the ongoing cost of our regional system automation project, known as Quad-LINC, is shared by the libraries that participate in the project. Iowa libraries pay a little more than half the total shared operating costs. Without the participation of Iowa libraries our Illinois members would pay more and get less.
Second, Iowa libraries make voluntary contributions to help defray the cost of our library delivery service. Illinois libraries do not make contributions or pay fees for delivery because that service is provided with money from the State of Illinois.
Third, some of the brightest people in our area work in Iowa libraries and they contribute countless hours of high level, library consulting service on many shared projects for which the State of Illinois and the River Bend Library System never pay. It is a pleasure to work with them (as it is with you) and the staff of Illinois libraries would suffer greatly if we did not work together. Together we make better decisions, provide better service, and get more done within the area through cooperation.
I sometimes wonder how much of what we do at River Bend and in the Quad City library community is due to our contributions and how much simply reflects a pedestrian reaction to circumstances by those of us that are actors in this play. I have worked in library systems for more than 20 years and I can't imagine working in a library environment any more gifted by external and internal characteristics than the Quad Cities.
The balance of library resources in our area provides a powerful precondition for cooperation. The population of the Quad City area, about 350,000, is pretty evenly divided between Illinois and Iowa. Quad City library resources are also pretty evenly split between the two sides of the Mississippi River. There are many excellent local collections and staff, but no collection is so large and powerful that its managers and staff can provide all of their customer's needs. The area has several fine private colleges and community colleges, but no major state or private university with a huge collection and staff. Davenport Public Library is a Major Urban Resource Library, but it is not the Chicago Public Library. No one library is so strong that it can meet all its customer's needs by itself. Every area library can see how cooperation within our area can improve service to their primary clientele.
The Quad Cities has created a powerful resource sharing ethic that sustains and builds on itself. All the area's major academic, public, and special libraries participate in the River Bend Library System automated circulation project, known as Quad-LINC. Quad-LINC is managed by the libraries that participate and is operated by River Bend. Quad-LINC has more than 2.5 million items and one million titles. This means we have a relatively large bibliographic pool that is also relatively shallow.
Reciprocal borrowing has become a very popular program with library customers and managers -- one out of every six items borrowed through Quad-LINC is borrowed by a customer from another library. Visiting another library and getting what you want makes navigating the broad, shallow lake of our area's bibliographic resources a pleasurable, rewarding experience for area customers. After more than three decades of successful library cooperation, area library customer's expectations foster even more cooperation and program integration. Again, thank you for your kind comments.
I can hear the library humming in the night,
a choir of authors murmuring inside their books
along the unlit alphabetical shelves,
Giovani Pontano next to Pope, Dumas next to his son,
each one stitched into his own private coat,
together forming a low gigantic chord of language.
Billy Collins. "Books." In The Apple That Astonished Paris. (And if you only read one book of poetry this year, or this decade, I recommend this be the one.)
You are welcome to copy and distribute or e-mail any of my own articles (but not those by my guest writers) as long as you retain this copyright statement:
Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.