The Champaign library has a new plan to ease the burden caused by checkouts by out-of-district residents.
Champaign library officials wouldn't have won any popularity contests in Mahomet, Savoy and Tolono after they instituted a $200 annual fee for residents of those communities who wanted to check materials out of the library.
Now they probably won't win any popularity contests after deciding to drop the fee but limit nonresidents to checking out no more than two items at a time. But given both the budget constraints and the demands for service placed on the Champaign library, the decision by library board members is understandable.
In a new policy that will go into effect on Thursday, the Champaign library is limiting checkouts to all nonresidents, with the exception of those in Urbana. Previously, the library had placed the restriction, in the form of the $200 annual fee, only on the residents of the Mahomet and Tolono library districts.
This ongoing dispute has placed the Champaign library at odds with, first, the Lincoln Trails Library System, and now its successor, the Illinois Heartland Library System.
Arguing that charging a fee to nonresidents is contrary to state law, Heartland recently threatened to suspend Champaign's membership in the cooperative organization, which allows for wide sharing of library materials. While not accepting Heartland's legal interpretation, Champaign acquiesced on the fee and countered with the checkout limitation.
The problem, in a nutshell, is that Mahomet, Savoy and Tolono are essentially bedroom communities to Champaign-Urbana. Hundreds of residents of those communities, many of them University of Illinois employees, drive to Champaign-Urbana daily, and it's more convenient for them to use the Champaign library, or perhaps Urbana's fine library, than their own.
In doing so, they put a burden on the Champaign library. Numbers show that in 2009-10 Tolono and Mahomet cardholders checked out 253,000 items from Champaign, far more than the 208,000 items checked out of their own libraries.
That's a problem, and it's unfortunate that Heartland refused to even acknowledge it as a problem. Finding a solution also has proved to be a problem.
It will be interesting to see how this standoff plays out. Heartland may object to the checkout limitation, although libraries certainly ought to be able to set their own rules regarding library materials.
Just as the library fee essentially forced Mahomet and Tolono residents back to their own libraries, the checkout limitation is designed to have a similar effect. Time will tell if it will work. Champaign library director Marsha Grove said she expects residents of those communities back in larger numbers than before because of all the media attention the dispute has generated.
Meanwhile, the Champaign library is wrestling with what to do about the relative handful of $200 library cards it issued to nonresidents. Should it refund the full amount or provide only a prorated refund?
Since library officials have reluctantly accepted the Heartland ultimatum, the best approach would be to refund the full amount. It if was inappropriate to charge a fee in the first place, it's equally inappropriate to return less than the full amount. Frankly, it's a minor point on which no more time ought be spent.