Interlibrary loan service to return, but funding questions remain

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When local libraries announced in April that the popular interlibrary loan service—which allows patrons to borrow books from other libraries across the province—would be suspended and perhaps permanently cancelled due to budget cuts made by the provincial government, reaction from patrons was swift and primarily critical.

But there is good news on the horizon. Although the Southern Ontario Library Service’s provincial operating grant has still been reduced by $1.6 million, SOLS issued a statement this week to notify libraries that they had found a partial solution—the online system used by libraries to coordinate the service will continue and SOLS will provide some reimbursement to libraries for delivery costs through Canada Post. Previously, drivers delivered the books between participating libraries.

Libraries that reinstate the interlibrary loan service will be required to pay a portion of the Canada Post shipping costs.

“It’s a step forward, but it’s not the step we were hoping for and it still leaves a lot of questions,” says Deborah Duce, CEO and Chief Librarian at Huntsville Public Library. “It will have an impact on our budgets and we need to figure out what we can do. It’s not that the government provided additional funding to SOLS—SOLS has had to make greater cuts to other areas to provide the reimbursement at year-end.”

Uncertainty about how much of a rebate libraries will receive means that they can’t fully plan for how to reinstate the interlibrary loan service. “As of this date, they [SOLS] are saying there is some money for reimbursement but we don’t know what that percentage will be,” says Cathy Fairbairn, CEO of the Township of Lake of Bays Libraries, and Branch Librarian in Dwight. “Until we can figure out what amount of money is coming, I can’t spend money when I don’t know where it’s going to come from. We are going to reinstate it, however we are going to take some time to figure out where the money is coming from because our budget was approved back in January so we don’t have money at our disposal to fund the postage.” Fairbairn is hopeful that that information will be shared with them very soon so that they can then determine where the remaining funds will come from.

“We are going to take a month to figure that out,” says Fairbairn. “I think it’s really irresponsible for us to spend money that we don’t know where it’s coming from.”

How the service will look when it returns may be different at each of Muskoka’s libraries, says Duce. “We are with different municipalities and the budget process is different for each municipality, as is access to funding for each of us. It will mean having operational procedures to help us get the materials that people want and be cost-effective in our budgets. I don’t think our municipalities want to hear us saying ‘could we have more?’.”

Although some patrons have said interlibrary loans are a service they’d be willing to pay for, under the Public Library Act libraries are not allowed to charge a fee for lending materials. They can, however, accept general donations and those donations could be used to offset or completely cover the library’s cost for the service.

Duce is somewhat wary of the precedent that option might set, however. “We have had people ask if they could make a donation, but it’s hard because public libraries are spaces to provide core services and collections for free to help users. To start accepting donations for a service, it puts you in a position where you might become dependent on that.”

In the interlibrary loan system, it’s the lending library that bears the delivery costs—they pay return postage for a book or other materials to be sent to another library and for it to be returned to them at the end of the loan.

Last year, the Township of Lake of Bays Libraries lent out 828 items to other libraries. Through a deal with Canada Post, each item cost them just over two dollars for a return shipment. “It’s an amazing deal,” says Fairbairn, “it’s just money we don’t have budgeted. No library does because our budgets were approved in January.” There are also other costs to the libraries including packaging materials and staff time to prepare the items for shipping and take them to or retrieve them from the post office.

Huntsville Public Library borrowed 2700 items for its patrons last year and lent almost 3500 to other libraries.

Huntsville Public Library and the Lake of Bays branches in Dwight and Baysville already allow reciprocal borrowing, notes Duce, adding that they could perhaps make that process more robust and even look at coordinating their collection development plans in the future to enhance sharing of materials.

Both libraries are grateful for the support and patience of their patrons and want all to know that they are working toward a solution.

“I want to thank our communities for being so supportive of us with read-ins and letters, and for their patience, understanding and ideas,” says Duce.

“We are going to have to figure out a way, because it’s an essential service,” adds Fairbairn. “We all agree it needs to be reinstated and that’s what we’ve been fighting for.”

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