How will we serve the unserved? by Dee Brennan

As I have traveled throughout RAILS during my first six months on the job , I have heard many questions, concerns, suggestions and hopes for the future of libraries in RAILS and throughout Illinois.


On my most recent trip to Macomb and Galesburg one issue in particular came up – serving the unserved.  This comes up regularly but on this particular visit people spoke quite passionately about the difficulties our complicated (convoluted?) public library structure presents for library users in Illinois.


The discussion focused on the impact on users, especially kids and families.  Kids who go to the same school, but those who live in an unserved area see their friends able to go to the local public library while they cannot.  Librarians say it’s hard to explain this to the parents who want their kids to have the same access to homework help, research materials, and librarian expertise that their friends and peers have.


It is hard to explain.


Yes, individuals and families who live in unserved areas can buy a card at the nearest public library, if the public library offers that service.  Never mind that it’s not always easy to figure out what the nearest public library is, some people just can’t afford a card.


These continuing discussions caused me to look back at the reason why this problem persists into the 21st century, past efforts to fix it, and what we might be able to do now to fix it.


Thanks to ILA Executive Director Bob Doyle for sending me “A Brief History of Efforts Concerning the Unserved Residents of Illinois” from 2005, I have a pretty good understanding of how this situation came about and know about the many dedicated, smart people who have tried to find a solution.

According to this report, there were “fewer than one million residents of the state not served by a public library because they reside outside of library taxing boundaries” in 2005. 

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, library systems and the State Library worked together to reduce this number through various programs.  System consultants were hired to bring service to the unserved. The State Library used LSCA (now LSTA) funds for Project PLUS and Project LIME; these grants supported extending service through the establishment of new districts and voter-approved mergers of existing districts.


There have been various reports written by various groups created to assess the problem and develop solutions.  These include “Strengthening Library Service in Rural Illinois” in 1992, “Public Library Service for All: a report from the Summit on the Unserved” from 2000 and “Universal Library Service by 2010” in 2002.

Needless to say, all this hard work and planning has never been implemented.

I hope and trust that this issue will come up as we go through our strategic planning process.  It’s very possible that the solution will require a major rewriting of existing library law, a daunting task for sure, but if we don’t start working on it, we will never get it fixed.

“Fewer than one million residents” is still a lot of people who need better, affordable access to public libraries. 

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