Library patrons benefit from collaboration between branches

The public library is an essential part of any vibrant community. Beyond providing reading materials and promoting literacy among its constituents, it also offers services such as voting registration assistance. However, the traditional library model is changing.

Some libraries have become more interconnected to varying degrees. Whether it’s interlibrary loan systems or library consortia, public libraries are joining agreements with nearby libraries to increase the resources that they can offer while still maintaining their individual identities. Agreements have different limitations, but generally they allow all the libraries involved to broaden their reach.

A library consortium is defined as “a group of libraries which come together to realize a combined objective that usefully requires co-operation and the sharing of resources” with the main goal being “to achieve what the members of the group cannot achieve individually,” according to librarian Anju Saini in the International Journal of Digital Library Services.

New Jersey libraries have been participating in these agreements for more than four decades. The largest example is the Bergen County Cooperative Library System (BCCLS), which includes 77 public libraries with 81 branches in Bergen, Essex, Hudson and Passaic counties. Patrons are able to use their hometown library cards to access just about everything from other libraries in the system, as well as request books to be shipped to their home library for their use.

These types of library systems should be expanded to include more libraries and have fewer limitations on what patrons can and cannot do. My local library has had some degree of a shared library system since my childhood. Originally, it was called the Middlesex Union Reciprocal Agreement Libraries, and now it has recently joined the Libraries of Middlesex Automation Consortium, which connects it with even more libraries. 

Increasing the resources accessible to a community can raise members’ quality of life. Photo courtesy of Abby Chung, Pexels.

However, both of these systems are somewhat limited and confusing. Not all of the other libraries’ resources are available to visiting patrons, and some libraries require each visitor to register a separate library card. The process can and should be more seamless.

Library consortia can benefit everyone by making more resources available, but they are particularly helpful for libraries in small or underserved communities. Not all libraries are built the same, and what a library can offer to its community is largely dependent on how much money the local government has allotted to support it. 

A consortium can provide more support to help smaller and/or struggling libraries survive and expand. The primary missions of many U.S. library consortia are to facilitate resource sharing and increase efficiencies through collaboration, according to OCLC, Inc. By joining, libraries not only unlock a support system of other libraries but also have access to a wider breadth of patrons — and patrons are truly the lifeblood of libraries.

This expansion of resources equally benefits the people within the small or underserved communities because they will be better able to access books, research and programs that can facilitate literacy, education and relaxation, which is arguably the most important part. Who wouldn’t want to make everyone’s access to knowledge and resources more equitable?

It isn’t enough for me to simply advocate for library consortia to exist and for more libraries to join and develop them. Many libraries and people in power can see the value of consortia, evidenced by the fact that library consortia have existed for decades and continue to grow, at least in New Jersey.

Funding is a major concern for library consortia – as it always has been and will be for libraries in general. 52% of U.S. library consortia shared that funding is the largest challenge they face, based on the OCLC’s findings. Beyond funding, libraries struggle with threats of book bans from community members and state governments. Libraries are in a tough spot.

That’s why everyone should find ways to support their local libraries and library consortia. Financial and material support include joining the Friends of the Library, shopping at library book sales and volunteering. Political support includes advocating at municipal hall meetings. A third option is simply boosting circulation numbers by checking out a book. The only way that libraries can have the ability to grow and thrive is with the support of community members, like us.

Featured photo courtesy of Engin Akyurt, Pexels