If you want to see a nationally acclaimed author visit your public library, it usually costs the library thousands of dollars—something that many smaller library systems are out of budget.
A small group of librarians from across Illinois came together in the spring of 2021 to address this issue and came up with a pilot program called Illinois Libraries Present.
The program allows users of 192 member library systems to access virtual library events.
Novelist Silvia Moreno-Garcia spoke in January and novelist Jasmine Guillory in February. Moreno-Garcia spoke about her latest book, “Velvet Was the Night,” and its “genre-defying blends of cultural noir and Lovecraftian horror,” according to the program’s website. Guillory, the author of six romance novels, spoke about modern romantic comedy.
Comedian and author Jenny Lawson will talk about her new book, “Broken (in the Best Possible Way)” at 7 p.m. on March 30.
Actor and comedian Nick Offerman will join musician and Belleville native Jeff Tweedy at an event on April 27. Michelle Zauner is scheduled for May 18 and Kwame Onwuachi for June 22.
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The events are free for library users.
Because member libraries pool their resources, they are affordable on a sliding scale. Those with an operating budget of less than $250,000 can sign up for $40 for six months. Those with operating budgets over $5 million join for $1,150.
Jill Pifer, director of the Fairview Heights Public Library, is on the steering committee for the Illinois Libraries Present. He held a series of informational meetings in the fall, showing potential library members what a budget would look like and what the fees would be. The response was enthusiastic.
“We hadn’t booked any presenters,” she said. “So it was a bit on faith.”
Customer response has also been enthusiastic. About 1,000 people signed up to see and hear Moreno-Garcia, and about 900 for Guillory.
“These are speakers and authors who would never have been available to our customers without this program,” said Kate Niehoff, a Eureka native who is the president of marketing for Illinois Libraries Present and works for the Schaumburg Township District. Library, just outside of Chicago. “It’s a surprise to people. When people see these really big bestselling authors being promoted as library events, they’re thrilled.
If attendees can’t see the speaker live, they receive a link to view a video of the presentation, which is usually live for about 10-14 days after.
Programs can cost Illinois Present Libraries about $10,000 each, including paying moderators to ask questions. The program has a budget of $114,450, which comes primarily from membership fees, but also from grants from the Illinois Heartland Library System and the Illinois State Library.
Illinois Libraries Present provides libraries with marketing materials that they can use to post on message boards and social media. The group even rents out its high-capacity Zoom license if member libraries want to host their own events.
Library directors think the program is unique and have not seen anything like it on this scale.
“It just goes to show that the whole idea that collaboration is key — that’s what libraries do,” Pifer said. “We share resources. We share materials. This is an important piece of advocacy that legislators need to see, to continue to fund libraries, to continue to fund initiatives that libraries support, to continue to listen to what libraries say that their issues are.
Planners have members across the state from different types of communities to serve on different committees, including marketing, programming, data and numbers, and event production. They take suggestions and look at new books coming out when deciding which authors to ask for. They are deciding who to hire for the fall and are looking for more library systems to join the official program which begins in September.
As it becomes safer for people to meet in person again, they see no desire to end virtual programming. Niehoff has asked many clients to continue hosting virtual events, making it easier for them to attend.
It makes Pifer think of the evolution of the Internet in the 1990s, and people wondering if libraries were going to disappear. But they’ve evolved to offer things like hotspots and computers that people can check out, she pointed out.
“You have to evolve to stay relevant,” she said. “Now we’re just trying to all elevate ourselves at the same time, and not leave the programming to people who have bigger budgets. People all over the state are interested in these writers. It’s good to to do something to bring the people of Carbondale and the people of Rockford together, to have people from all over the state doing something at the same time is great.