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Library id

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Special library card would go beyond books
Proposal to track all resources seen as a way to reform funding


Last Updated: Dec. 3, 2002

Waukesha - In a move some say would restrict access and invade privacy, Waukesha County libraries could soon require a special identification card that would track people's use of computers and other services.

The ID card would differ from the typical library card in that it would be used to gain access to all services, not just to check out books. It's among several proposals being discussed as the 16 libraries struggle with ways to best share $2 million in county funding.

The idea is to track visitors better so that libraries can receive county funding based on people who use public computers, attend children's activities and use other resources.

A state library administrator said libraries across Wisconsin are struggling with how to get credit for the services they provide - especially public computers - that never show up in circulation statistics.

"This is a hot issue in many places," said Cal Potter, library division administrator in the state Department of Public Instruction. "Libraries are trying to get a better handle on who is actually using their facilities."

But critics question whether the arrangement would conflict with the uninhibited pursuit of information by creating a record of materials that visitors read, Web sites they frequent and community meetings they attend.

"It's beyond the pale," Menomonee Falls Library Director Richard Crane said. "Can you imagine tracking where someone is going? It's terrifying."

Like the Milwaukee County Federated Library System, Waukesha County libraries use traditional cards that electronically record the withdrawal of books and other materials. Neither system keeps a permanent record of such transactions.

Some say changes are in order.

More innovations likely
While agreeing that privacy concerns could arise with widespread use of electronic ID cards, Maurice Freedman, president of the Chicago-based American Library Association, believes the technology can be harnessed so as not to infringe on the rights of those behind the computer terminals, in the reading rooms and using other facilities.

"Moving it up a notch or two to register people's use of the libraries doesn't surprise me," he said. "It makes a great deal of sense."

The ID card proposal will be considered Thursday by a special committee that is conducting a mandatory review of the Waukesha County Federated Library System. Under state law, the review must take place every three years.

Known as the Act 150 Library Planning Committee, the panel of library administrators and other civic leaders is scheduled to issue a report by March that will include any recommended changes. The County Board will have the final decision on any reforms.

The question of how the library system should allocate property tax revenue is one of the most controversial issues facing the committee. Each library in Waukesha County now gets funding from taxpayers in its local community, and the county then distributes an additional $2 million, with a greater share going to libraries that more often serve visitors from other communities.

Those visitors are calculated strictly using each library's circulation statistics.

Counting all uses
Oconomowoc Public Library Director Ray McKenna, the main proponent of the ID card concept, said at least 20% of his library's customers are computer users who never check out any materials and never show up on circulation reports.

McKenna said each library should have devices through which ID cards would be swiped each time a library service is used. Those devices would register activities such as parents bringing their children to story hours and users signing on to the Internet.

"There's a whole series of things that people come to libraries for that are not related to circulation," he said. "We need to get off this circulation-only merry-go-round."

In a hard-fought settlement reached during the system review three years ago, county libraries agreed to divide county funds based on circulation - a deal that averted defections or other disharmony within the federated system.

Thomas Hennen, director of the Waukesha County system, said he will present committee members with potential alternatives, including the ID card proposal.

But he doesn't support it.

"I don't think it makes any sense at all," he said.

Hennen said the $2 million also could be redistributed based on each library district's population, its equalized property value or other factors. He favors maintaining the status quo, however, because he thinks it gives each library a stable and relatively fair allocation.

Any change could upset the balance achieved three years ago, he said.

"There shouldn't be a roller coaster," he said. "Whenever you change a formula, there are winners and losers."

The Act 150 Library Planning Committee meets at 5 p.m. Thursday at the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, at Pewaukee Road and Rockwood Drive in the City of Pewaukee. The meeting is open to the public.

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