Volume 26, Number 2, Summer 2004

The Story of the Light Bulb Group

Keeping the Glorious Vision Alive

Sarah Long, North Suburban Library System

Library cooperation is hard work. But for those who have witnessed the power of libraries working together and observed the enormous benefit to library users, tilling the fields of library cooperation is certainly worth the effort. Those who lead cooperative library efforts must always keep the glorious vision in their heads because the libraries they would encourage to work together are necessarily fixed on their own agendas and sometimes forget why cooperation is so important.

In 2000 Linda Crowe was President of the California Library Association (CLA), but her day job was the director of the Peninsula Library System. She decided to use the leadership opportunity to schedule a panel session highlighting library cooperatives as part of CLA’s Centennial Conference. The speakers were Dottie Hiebing, Metropolitan New York Library Council; Karen Hyman, South Jersey Regional Library Cooperative; Tom Sloan, South East Florida Library Network, and myself. After it was over, we all went out to breakfast and traded stories of what we were doing and what we were dreaming of doing. Individually our enthusiasm for our work was heightened by the enthusiasm of the others in the group. We were buoyed by the notion of cooperating together to further the cause of library cooperative projects nationwide. With the addition of Linda Crowe who had brought us together, that was the beginning of our loose confederation, later named the “Light Bulb Group”.

As individuals, each of the “Bulbs” is professionally active in his or her state. There is some variation in how each of the participating cooperatives is organized and funded. All of the systems are multi-type, but some of us are primarily funded by our respective states while others exist primarily on membership fees. Despite the differences, we share a belief that library cooperatives continue to be the wave of the future.

We get together when the spirit moves us to undertake activities that will further the cause of library cooperation. One of our first projects was an effort to take a nationwide snapshot of library cooperation. Each library cooperative contributed some money and we hired library consultants Ethel Himmel and Bill Wilson to survey how the roles of library systems have changed since their inception and what factors determine a library system’s success or failure. The result was an insightful report which is available at www.libraryconsultant.com/LibrarySystems.htm. From this effort we learned that the definition of a library cooperative or system is very illusive. In the end, Himmel and Wilson gathered information from forty-four systems including both multitype and federated public library systems in sixteen states. We learned that success is closely linked to creativity and a willingness to be entrepreneurial and that the future of library cooperatives may well depend on their willingness to assume a leadership role rather than simply respond to the expressed needs of their member organizations.

We’ve also worked together to present two conference programs under the auspices of ASCLA. We planned these events via e-mail or on the telephone or in hasty meetings at the ALA Annual Conference and Midwinter Meetings. We decided we needed more quality time to develop our ideas. In April 2002, we met for two days in the SEFLIN region in Miami. Barbara Weaver, consultant and former state librarian of Rhode Island, was our facilitator. Since we all like to talk, we needed a facilitator to direct our agenda and keep us on target. In the end we came up with some ambitious ideas.

The most significant outcome of that planning was an ASCLA pre-conference in June 2003, entitled “Thinking Outside the Box; Entrepreneurial Leadership in Libraries and Library Cooperatives.” We chose this topic because we each knew from experience in our own states that money from the usual sources was scarce. We felt that the time was right for those who were following the glorious vision to diversify their funding sources. More than thirty people attended the preconference—most of them from library cooperatives—and it was a “money-maker” for ASCLA.

We identified other goals and activities during our two days’ meetings in Florida; however, as yet we haven’t implemented any of them. The “Light Bulbs” continue to meet at ALA conferences and meetings, and sub-sets of the group meet at various other times and locations. We keep in touch by e-mail and occasional phone calls. All of us continue to monitor the state of affairs for library cooperatives and systems around the country and are ready to support the “glorious vision” of cooperative library efforts where and when necessary.

For more information on the Light Bulbs, contact Sarah Long at North Suburban Library System, Dottie Hiebing at the Metropolitan New York Library Council, Linda Crowe at Peninsula Library System, Karen Hyman at South Jersey Library Cooperative, or Tom Sloan at SEFLIN.