MCPL Board Votes to Leave Wisconsin Valley Library Service, Remaining Libraries Want Answers

Jan 29, 2021

Demmer Library Director Erica Brewster checks in returned books.
Credit Katie Thoresen/WXPR

Demmer Memorial Library Director Erica Brewster stands at a computer behind the front desk as she checks in recently returned books.  She’s proud of services the Three Lakes library has continued to offer throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A lot of libraries are working to do creative services and outreach during the pandemic, homeschooling support, and other services that really we’ve had a great opportunity to learn in this year from the pandemic experience and we think we could come out of this so much stronger,” said Brewster.

She fears some of the services could take a hit with something out of her control.

“It would have a dramatic effect on us,” said Brewster.

This week, the Marathon County Public Library Board 4 to 3 to end its membership with the Wisconsin Valley Library Service [WVLS]. The board of trustees made the vote a week after a task force dedicated to the issue made the same recommendation.

The decision still must go through multiple steps including a vote by the Marathon County Board of Supervisors before the move can happen.

Wisconsin’s Library Service Districts

Right now, Marathon, Clark, Taylor, Lincoln, Langlade, Oneida, and Forest Counties make up the Wisconsin Valley Library Service.

Map of the Wisconsin Library Service system.
Credit Wisconsin Valley Library Service

It’s one of 16 Library Service Districts in the state.

Marathon County wants to join the South Central Library System [SCLS] which is headquartered in Madison and currently comprised of Wood, Portage, Adams, Sauk, Columbia, Dane and Green Counties.

The basic idea behind different districts is that libraries within them can pool resources, share costs, and support one another more easily than a statewide system.

Usually, smaller libraries like Demmer Memorial Library depend on what are referred to as resource libraries like Marathon County Public Library [MCPL].

Concerns of Libraries in the WVLS

Brewster fears if MCPL leaves WVLS it would limit the resources available to people who use the Demmer Library.

“Probably the most obvious to our users right away is that a third of our library collection items that they’re able to go onto the catalog to request and hold would no longer be available in that same way in a very easy, go online or give us a call and reserve an item,” said Brewster.

Brewster also says the Demmer Library wouldn’t be able to offer as many of its program.

One her biggest concerns is the impact behind the scenes.  

“Under the service there would be a lot of changes structurally,” said Brewster.

If MCPL leaves, so does a lot of money, both in what it pays into the WVLS and the grant money WVLS gets for having the population of Marathon County included in its funding.

“Best case scenario is that is that that transition goes fairly smoothly and in a couple of years we’re pretty much back to a standard, but it would be a stripped-down system. We probably would have fewer of the extra services,” said Brewster.

Worst case scenario Brewster would have to completely overhaul the Demmer Library system and balance funding cuts.

Those concerns and others are shared with other libraries in the WVLS.

Dominic Frandrup is the Director of the Antigo Public Library. He’s worried about the disruption of services to people who live in Langlade County and work in Marathon County or vice versa.

“Disruption of service would be by far biggest thing and then how to rebuild or reform after that would really determine how services played out for our library patrons,” said Frandrup.

He also said Antigo Public Library and the others would lose leadership of MCPL.

Frandrup and Brewster said they’ve sent letters and tried to communicate with MCPL about the issue and have gotten little to no response.

“We have sent I believe five letters and at least one email and we’ve received one response and we still don’t know why they’re making the decision to move,” said Frandup.

They hope there’s some way to meet the needs of MCPL and keep it in the WVLS.

But to even start that process, they need to know why MCPL wants to make the move.

It’s an answer they say hasn’t been clear.

“They’ve given us some reasons that they say are reasons but none of them come down to the how is this better and how is this more cost effective for the patrons and the library users in Marathon County,” said Brewster.

Marathon County Public Library Decision

Marathon County Public Library Director Ralph Illick started looking into this option more than three years ago.

“I asked our board that if we could start in the beginning of 2019 to just take a year to look and to review what our options might be,” said Illick. A task force was created to look into the issue

Illick says it comes down to three major things. He says in the long run it will be more cost effective for Marathon County to make this change, his staff will get the support they need that he feels WVLS can’t give them, and by joining the SCLS there will be more libraries similar in size to MCPL.

“We would like to be in a system that has similarly sized libraries that we could work with and collaborate with about shared interests,” said Illick.

The Cost of Switching Library Service Districts

Opponents of the change argue the move will cost the county and taxpayers more money to be part of SCLS.

In an August 13, 2020 letter to the Marathon County Task Force dedicated to looking into the change, Brewster said she did some research. She said the move itself would cost taxpayers $60,000 in setup fees and then an additional $100,00 annually as the fee to the SCLS.

Illick argues it would actually save the MCPL and the county more money in the long-term because the services offered by the SCLS would eliminate the need for several staff positions that are currently open. He pointed mostly to positions that support the catalog and IT, something he says WVSL doesn’t have the ability to support MCPL with.

“We would be able to reorganize, nobody would have to lose their jobs at all, we could just reassign folks,” said Illick. “No one would have to lose a job, but we come out on the other end with fewer staff and saving our county probably over a $100,000 in total actual cost.”

Equity of Services

There’s also the impact of the $80,000 Marathon County would no longer be paying to WVLS in service fees and the $375,000 in state aid WVLS would no longer get with Marathon County being part of its system.

Division for Libraries and Technology Public Library Administration Consultant Shannon Schultz voiced concerns about this in a letter to the task force dated November 3, 2020.

She said the loss of the funding would require WVSL to reduce services and some staff that offer them.

Schultz also said it goes against the mission of the Public Library System Redesign project, saying quote,

“The mission of the PLSR project is to ensure all Wisconsin public libraries have the capacity to provide equitable access to excellent library services regardless of the race, ethnicity, income, gender, or employment status of the people they serve, or their location within the state. A reduction in services would push WVLS libraries farther from this goal.”

Credit Katie Thoresen/WXPR

Illick doesn’t think that’s a fair argument. He says the remaining libraries would need to make changes but could still work with other systems and the Department of Public Instruction to get the needed resources.

"They’d adjust. They’d look around in a year after all the dust had settled and they’d go, 'Wow. This isn’t bad at all it might even be better' and that’s probably how it would go," said Illick. 

Additionally, Illick doesn’t think the way it is right is very fair. He says both the fee they pay to WVLS and the state aid is based on population. Since Marathon County has a larger population it makes up for a large portion of those funds.

“I would argue that disproportionately that money doesn’t go to MCPL anyway it goes to WVLS and it goes more to help the other libraries in the system than it does to us,” said Illick.

Illick says Marathon County Public Library makes up 48-percent of the population within the WVLS and pays a higher percentage of dues owed to it, but only has the voting power of one when it comes to making decisions, even though eight branches and the main library make up the Marathon County Public Library.

“We don’t generally see ourselves as a priority we see ourselves more as sort of an outcast, outcast probably isn’t the right word, but we’re an outlier, let’s put it that way,” said Illick.

Next Steps

At the end of the day, Illick says patrons of the Marathon County Public Library would notice very few changes, most of it would be operational and behind the scenes changes.

Overall, he feels the move would be the best for the library and his staff.

“We’re comfortable and confident in the process we took to get here. It was fair. It was reasoned. It lasted for a year,” said Illick. “We had a years’ worth of meetings over this. That’s what the task force voted for and those folks were trying really, really hard to be balanced and fair.”

No matter what ends up happening, Illick says the Marathon County Public Library will still support libraries that need it.

“We are happy to help anyone who’s a community partner and especially a library. I don’t care where they are, we will help them and we would never, ever, ever stop doing so,” said Illick.

Erica Brewster back at Demmer Memorial Library understands having to make the best decision you can for patrons and staff, but ultimately hopes they can work on a compromise that keeps in MCPL in the WVLS.

“If the public hearing comes out and it is very clear that there is a benefit to Marathon County library users then we will support it and we will deal with the fallout as it may be, but we want to have that question answered for Marathon County. We want them to make the decision that’s best for them,” said Brewster.

The decision about the potential move now goes to the Marathon County Extension, Education, and Economic Development Committee for consideration.

There will still need to be a public hearing, a date for which has not yet been set, and vote by the Marathon County Board of Supervisors before the change can happen.

Credit Katie Thoresen/WXPR