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AE 17: Membership in the Library System

This Administrative Essential covers:

  • Benefits of library system membership
  • History of Library Systems in Wisconsin
  • Membership requirements for libraries
  • Membership requirements for counties
  • Required system services
  • How to be a good system member

Before the development of Wisconsin's public library systems in the 1970s, many state residents had no legal access to any public library. In addition, the service available to many other state residents was substandard at best. The goal of library systems has been to provide all Wisconsin residents with access to the high-quality library service needed to meet personal, work, educational, and community goals.

Benefits of library system membership

The basic dynamic of library system membership is simple, yet the results can be powerful: a public library agrees to certain membership requirements, including the agreement to serve all system residents equitably; in return, the library system provides a wide range of primarily state-funded services that enhance local library service. Ideally, through this relationship, all residents of the state gain improved library service, as well as the ability to use whichever library or libraries best serve their needs. Municipal libraries participate in library systems because residents benefit from this arrangement.

In return for agreeing to the membership requirements, membership in a system brings benefits to libraries and their patrons because state aid:

  • expands and improves the interlibrary loan network and other resource sharing
  • provides specialized staff assistance and continuing education opportunities to local library staff and trustees
  • facilitates delivery services and communications
  • guarantees mutual borrowing privileges
  • expands the use of new technologies
  • supports various other cooperative services and projects

History of Library Systems in Wisconsin

Wisconsin's library system law, providing funding for coordinated regional library services, officially went into effect in 1971 when Senate Bill 47 was signed into law. The creation of public library systems fostered the establishment of a strong network of resource sharing and mutually beneficial interdependence. The actual creation and development of public library systems in Wisconsin was a voluntary and gradual process. No county or public library is required to be a member of a library system; yet, as of this writing, all of Wisconsin's 72 counties and over 380 public libraries are library system members. Wisconsin's seventeen public library systems developed in distinct ways in response to the needs of their member libraries and area residents. The systems have continued to evolve as changes in society, resources, and technologies create new demands and opportunities.

The seeds for regional library services had been planted years earlier and several regional services had coordinated cooperative services. In 1956, the American Library Association published Public Library Service: a Guide to Evaluation with Minimum Standards, which introduced the library system concept. That same year the United States Congress enacted the Library Services Act (LSA) to provide federal funding for extending and improving public library service to rural communities. The Wisconsin Library Association and the Wisconsin Free Library Commission submitted a plan for LSA funding. Also in 1956, twenty-five public libraries joined together to form the Southwest Association of Public Libraries. In 1959 they obtained LSA funding to establish an ordering and processing center serving five counties, the predecessor to the Southwest Wisconsin Library System. Also that year, a regional library system was established in northwest Wisconsin serving five counties, the precursor of the Northern Waters Library Service.

In 1963, the Free Library Commission, WLA and the Wisconsin Library Trustees Association adopted A Design for Public Library Development in Wisconsin: Standards for Measuring Progress. The following statement from that document helps to convey the vision

"Simply stated, the library system concept means that only by working together, sharing services and materials, can libraries meet the full needs of their users. Each public library, whatever its size, is an important link in a system of libraries joined together either formally or informally."

That document described a shared vision of public library systems that ultimately led to the development and adoption of 1971 Senate Bill 47 through a series of events.

  • In 1965 the Wisconsin Library Commission was folded into DPI and became the Division for Library Services.
  • In 1966 WLA approved a legislative study program calling for legislation to "implement the library system concept and interlibrary cooperation in Wisconsin.
  • In 1968 the Library Development and Legislative Committee (LD&L) of WLA developed a report for the legislature.
  • In 1969 that report was introduced as Senate Bill 363.
  • The Senate Education Committee recommended the bill be revised, and
  • In 1971 Senate Bill 47 was introduced and, after extensive legislative efforts by WLA, was passed by both houses.

The bill included the following declaration:

"Recognizing the importance of making quality library resources and services readily available to all of the citizens of Wisconsin, the legislature, through this act, seeks to modernize library laws for public and school libraries, to promote development and improvement of public libraries through library systems and to provide maximum opportunities for cooperation among all types of libraries in order to encourage the most effective use of the library resources in this state."

Membership requirements for libraries

Membership in the library system has considerable benefits to the public library, but member libraries also have certain requirements and responsibilities. In addition, library systems provide a wealth of resources to assist public libraries and their directors in library administration and operation.

Your library must meet these six statutory requirements to be a member of a library system:

  1. Your library must be established and operated according to the requirements of Wisconsin Statutes Chapter 43. Among other things, Chapter 43 requires that a properly appointed library board control the library building, library expenditures, library policies, hiring and supervision of the library director, and determination of the duties and compensation of all library staff. (See other Administrative Essentials for details on these requirements, including Administrative Essential 3: Who Runs the Library?; 11: The Library as Employer; 14: Managing the Library's Money; 15: Policies and Procedures; as well as Trustee Essential 18: Library Board Appointments and Composition.)
  2. Your county must belong to the library system and must meet the system membership requirements for counties (see "Membership requirements for counties" below).
  3. Your municipal governing body (or county board for a county library) must approve a resolution authorizing your library to participate in the library system.
  4. Your library board must approve an agreement with the library system to participate in the system and its activities, participate in interlibrary loan of materials with other system libraries, and provide to all residents of the system the same services, on the same terms, that you provide to local residents.
  5. Your library board must employ a library director with the appropriate certification from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (see Trustee Essential 7: Library Director Certification for details), who works in the library at least 10 hours per week during which the library is open to the public.
  6. The library must be open to the public a minimum of 20 hours per week and must expend at least $2500 per year for library materials.

Membership requirements for counties

Your county must meet these two statutory requirements to be a member in a library system:

  1. Your county must approve a county library plan that meets the requirements of Wisconsin Statutes Sections 43.11(3) and 43.13(1) (see for details of these requirements).
  2. Your county board must approve an agreement with the library system to participate in the system and its activities and to furnish library service to county residents who do not live in a library municipality.

Required system services

Library systems must provide the following in order to receive state aid:

  • Technology and resource sharing planning
  • Referral or routing of reference and interlibrary loan requests
  • Electronic delivery of information and physical delivery of library materials
  • Training for member library staff and trustees
  • Professional consultant services
  • Support for library service to users with special needs
  • Backup reference, information, and interlibrary loan services from the system resource library
  • Planning with other types of libraries in the system area
  • Service agreements with all adjacent library systems
  • Agreements with each member library that require those libraries to serve all residents of the system area on the same basis as local residents

The Division for Libraries and Technology monitors compliance with these requirements. Each library system is allowed considerable flexibility in developing specific library system service programs so that each system can best meet the needs of the residents of its particular geographical area and the needs of its member libraries. For example, a system in a largely rural area with many small libraries will probably need to devote more resources to professional consultant services than a system in a largely urban area. Each area of the state will have unique needs that the library system can help address.

How to be a good system member

Having an effective library system is a result of not only the system staff but also the member libraries. You will get the most value from your system, and make the system more valuable to all the members, by being aware of system services, utilizing them when necessary, participating in system projects and programs, and contributing to the system by serving on committees or advisory boards. There are four components to effective system participation:

Evaluate: Find out what your system has to offer and determine how those services might be useful to your library. Also learn the roles of the system consultants, and what role the system resource library provides through its contract. As you use the system and become familiar with other libraries in your region, you will be in a better position to contribute suggestions for system services in the future.

Participate: Systems not only provide direct services to libraries, but also provide a framework for collaborative activities among the member libraries. Besides delivery, training and interlibrary loan, systems have also leveraged developments in technology and communications to maximize the benefits of library automation through sharing of integrated library systems. Some systems have discount purchasing agreements with vendors for databases or technology support; others coordinate group purchase and rotation of certain collections among smaller libraries such as large print or audio books.

Cooperate: Be prepared to work as a team. Remember, while system participation is optional, the benefits can be substantial for your library and your library users. But a system cannot be all that each of its members desires. In order to maximize the benefits from limited resources, you and other members of the system will need to cooperate on services and may need to compromise to find a common ground.

Also, library systems are a vehicle to explore and develop cooperation among other types of libraries in the region. In order to foster resource sharing with special, academic, or school libraries, your system may ask its member libraries to consider resource sharing or services that have appeal to a broader constituency.

Contribute: When possible, be willing to assist your system by serving on special committees or on the system advisory board. Or your system may coordinate mentor or advisor programs among its members, to help direct requests for expertise to members who can offer help. You can also help your system by staying aware of developments in the library field and suggesting how they might be incorporated by the system or its member libraries. Finally, your library can also contribute to an effective system by having your board members or members of the community participate on the public library system board.

Sources of additional information

Contact your library system staff. Contact information is available here: