Champaign library board considers options on user fee
CHAMPAIGN — No decision was made, but more information was exchanged on Thursday night as the Champaign Public Library board reviewed its policy to charge residents of the Tolono and Mahomet library districts $200 to use the Champaign library.
Board members discussed the user fee after its six-month anniversary, as they agreed to do when they approved the policy. In that half year, many factors have complicated the issue: the Lincoln Trail Libraries System, which acts as the conduit for sharing books and other materials among 117 libraries in the region, has pressured the Champaign library to drop the fee, while a new library system is expected to replace Lincoln Trail this summer.
The Champaign Public and Urbana Free libraries also plan to purchase their own material-tracking system separate from the new group of libraries, which would further distance them from other member libraries and make sharing more challenging between Champaign-Urbana and the rest of East Central Illinois.
Facing a complicated question with several members absent, the board decided to table the issue at least until June as they await further information from library staff about the potential consequences of a number of alternatives they may choose.
The library has sold the special nonresident cards to 84 households since it implemented the policy, said Library Director Marsha Grove. Library officials have collected $11,005 in revenue from the user fee (the fee is collected quarterly).
The user fee has worked for the purpose it was intended: the number of items checked out by residents of the Tolono and Mahomet library districts has dropped significantly, relieving some of the burden on a library staff with 12 vacant positions during a tight budget period.
Champaign has checked out 2,170 items to Tolono district residents during the past six months and 1,414 to Mahomet district residents, Grove said. That is compared to about 84,000 and 44,000 materials, respectively, during the six months before the policy was implemented.
"I would report to the board that it's really a good thing that our circulation did go down because, as you are well aware, we are holding 12 positions vacant, and we are struggling," Grove said.
Some residents of Savoy (the village is included in the Tolono library district) say the library should remain free for all cardholders of a Lincoln Trail member library.
"Champaign Public Library. The name 'public' is still attached to it, and that means it should be open to everybody with no financial implication," said Saood Khan.
Champaign library officials have maintained that Tolono and Mahomet district residents are overusing the Champaign library while they pay lower property taxes for their home libraries.
"While I appreciate it's the Champaign Public Library, public doesn't mean free, because it does cost money to run this library," said board member Rochelle Funderburg.
Some public comments did resonate with the board: Khan said his 5-year-old son is a "veracious" reader. "How do explain to my son that this is happening?" he asked.
And Savoy resident Todd Sweet said his son is a student at Carrie Busey Elementary, a Champaign school.
"Occasionally they'll come here on field trips, and he's not allowed to check out books here," Sweet said.
Board member Jan Simon said she would be happy to explore alternatives to the $200 user fee. She understands the library's budget troubles, she said, but it is also hard to hear about some of the children who are being denied materials.
"In my heart, I cannot bear to know that kids are not able — I'll just say that — I cannot bear that," Simon said.
The board is scheduled to revisit the issue next month after library officials gather more information about several alternatives. Among those options: establishing a program with Unit 4 schools to allow students to use the library, adopting a Lincoln Trail policy which would abolish the user fee but limit some nonresidents to five checked-out items or maintain the policy as-is.
Board members on Thursday gave no indication of which direction they might go.
Board President Rusty Freeland also suggested to the Savoy residents in attendance that they contact the Tolono library board to lobby for an agreement between the two libraries. Freeland said he offered to meet with the Tolono board to discuss a reimbursement plan, but "apparently, they just are not interested."
It is "as easy to solve with the Tolono library district as it is with us," Freeland said.
Also on Thursday, the board discussed its plans to join with the Urbana Free Library to purchase an "automation system" separate from that of a new group of libraries expected to replace the Lincoln Trail system this summer.
The automation system keeps track of checkouts and returns and provides a searchable catalog of library materials.
As it is right now, if a Champaign library user searches the catalog, that search will return results from the collections of every library in the Lincoln Trail system.
If the Champaign and Urbana libraries were to purchase their own automation system, those searches would only return results from the two libraries, Grove said. Likewise, patrons searching from outside of Champaign or Urbana would not see materials from the two libraries in the search results — they would be searching a separate database.
That would not exclude outside users from checking out materials from the twin cities' libraries — it would just make it more challenging and "not as smooth," Grove said.
She said it is not necessarily a strategy to limit sharing between Champaign and other libraries, but it will allow the Champaign catalog to maintain certain features it otherwise would not. Patrons may be able to submit book reviews to appear in search results, for example, or the library may be able to establish a mobile catalog for patrons to search for books on their cellphones.