Universal Library Service: Serving the Unserved

Last updated: January 25, 2022

Introduction to the Issue: 

A message from RAILS Executive Director Deirdre Brennan

As long as even one Illinois resident does not have access to a public library, our state is not meeting its basic obligations to educate all residents.

Since systems were established in 1967, Illinois librarians and stakeholders have been discussing how to establish universal library service in our state. In the Illinois Library System Act which established the systems and still governs them, responsibility is specifically given to systems to find ways to serve the unserved.

Many studies and reports have been done since then. Links are included below for your information.

Access to public libraries is a crucial part of early childhood literacy, lifelong learning and academic success. Illinois residents are at a disadvantage with other states that have universal service when they compete for college admission or jobs throughout their lives.

RAILS takes this responsibility very seriously; it is part of our strategic plan and our Board has established a universal service committee to raise awareness and discuss new possible avenues of service. We provide this information for you to use when seeking to expand service and in navigating the complex laws and rules surrounding non-resident cards and unserved residents.

If you have comments or questions about the issue of universal library service, please add them to the Comments section at the bottom of this page. (Login required to comment.)

The Latest News

Illinois News

  • New Administrative Rules: Nonresidents. November 30, 2020, Illinois Register. The Illinois Register is the official state document for publishing public notice of rulemaking activity initiated by State governmental agencies. The Register is a weekly update of the Illinois Administrative Code (a compilation of the rules adopted by State agencies). The November 30 edition includes the new sections to the administrative rules on access to electronic resources for nonresidents, the Cards for Kids program, and reduced or free nonresident cards for disabled veterans. (See page 46 on PDF, page #18660+ in entire document.)

Cards for Kids Act

Historical Reports and Background Information

What RAILS Is Doing: 

Universal Service Plan and Committee

Information From and For RAILS Members

Statewide Proposals

Draft Amendment to Permit Additional Merger Authority for Public Libraries

In May 2019, RAILS asked our attorney, Ancel Glink, to review the Local Library Act (75 ILCS 5/1-0.1, et seq.) and the Library District Act (75 ILCS 16/1-1, et seq.) to determine the best way to help more unserved residents obtain library services and make it easier for two or more economically distressed municipalities to merge public libraries into one library district.

The draft amendment below would allow two contiguous municipalities to merge their public libraries into a single library district without requiring voter approval. The amendment would also permit two noncontiguous municipalities, separated by unserved territory, to merge their public libraries to become a single library district upon approval of the residents in the unserved territory.

The amendment adds a new Article 22 to the Library District Act.

The Illinois Library Association's Public Policy Committee is currently reviewing this information and will determine next steps.

Proposal for Statewide Access to Core Database Suite for All Illinois Libraries

In November 2019, RAILS asked the Illinois Library Association and the Illinois State Library to support a $2.5–$5 million annual appropriation for a suite of databases to support all Illinois libraries of all types and sizes. A national survey reveals that Illinois is currently one of the only states in the country that does not offer statewide access to a core group of vital online information resources for residents.

Under this proposal, the selected databases will be available without charge to the 12 million Illinois residents currently served by public libraries and to the over 1 million residents who currently do not receive public library service.

RAILS is waiting to hear details about the FY 2021 Illinois state budget to see if it includes an appropriation for the database suite.

What Can You Do?: 

Current Approaches for Libraries to Serve the Unserved


I agree that all kids should have access to the public library but let's face it, nothing in life is really free. Someone has to pay for the services the public library offers. I think Illinois should take a hard look at how this is being handled and quit trying to do a work around. Legislators should stand up to the strong lobbyists who are against everyone paying taxes to support the public library. We all pay to support public schools while they are closing or under staffing school libraries. Public libraries are expected to fill that void without any increase in tax revenue. If our society valued libraries as much as they value sporting events we wouldn't be having this discussion.