A patron looks for a book at the Waterville Public Library on Wednesday. Library officials there say that the expected six-week disruption in the interlibrary loan program will be hard on its patrons. The library is reminding them about access to CloudLibrary, ComicsPlus and other virtual services available through content licensed by the Maine State Library. Anna Chadwick/Morning Sentinel

On any given day, the Scarborough Public Library receives up to a dozen crates packed full of books borrowed from other libraries across the state and sends out nearly as many. Over the course of a year, nearly 60,000 books come and go from the town library through the statewide interlibrary loan program, which allows patrons to borrow books from other libraries at no cost.

But that borrowing is on hold at more than 200 public, school, academic and special libraries across Maine – and is likely to be unavailable for most of the summer – while the state navigates a legal appeal over its contract for the delivery of those books.

Sarah Schultz-Nielsen, library director of Lithgow Public Library, packs interlibrary loan pouches back into a shipping bin Wednesday at the Augusta library. The bins were full of Lithgow items that had been returned from other libraries. She says that the items will be checked in and returned to the shelves later this week. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“We feel like we’re trying to thread the needle a little bit. We’re trying to be understanding of all sides of this issue, and our patrons are as well,” said Chip Schrader, director of the Scarborough library. “But it’s a big hiccup in services for us. It’s definitely going to interrupt the natural flow and is making our staff a little anxious.”

The current state contract had already been extended for a year and ends on June 30. The Maine State Library, which is in charge of arranging this service, went through a competitive request for proposals earlier this year and selected STAT Courier to take over delivery starting in July. But an unsuccessful bidder filed an appeal and the state library cannot sign a new contract until that appeal is settled.

Maine State Librarian Lori Fisher said she could not name the unsuccessful bidder or talk about the bids because the attorney general’s office has advised her not to. Fisher also would not disclose the amount of the winning bid because of the pending litigation. In a post on its website, the state library said all bids came in “considerably higher” than current costs and that the annual cost for libraries to use the service is still being calculated.

Maine InfoNet, which coordinates library systems statewide, notified all libraries on Monday that it was turning off all new requests the following morning, and it could be offline for at least six weeks.

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“This will help get as many items back to their owning libraries as possible and will help ensure materials are not stranded in the delivery system,” Maine InfoNet said in a message to libraries.

DISPUTED CONTRACT AWARD

According to a post on the Maine State Library website, STAT Courier was chosen as the winning bidder in part because it provides the same type of service in 16 other states and its trucks, drivers and sorters only deal with library materials. It has three sorting hubs in Maine that will help with efficiency and has a 24/7 customer service line, according to the state library.

An unsuccessful bidder filed an appeal shortly after the winning bid was announced, forcing the state Division of Procurement Services to issue a stay on May 17. After an appeal from the Maine State Library and its liaison at the attorney general’s office, who said they requested the agency reconsider because of the considerable public impact of the service, that stay was lifted on May 28, according to the state library. 

But even though the state can now negotiate a new contract with STAT Courier, Fisher said it can’t be signed until the appeal is settled. The state library has requested an expedited appeal hearing, but not been notified when it will be held.

Fisher said she is limited in what she can say about the situation because of the litigation. But she said the Maine State Library is doing its due diligence and followed the state procurement requirements for the bid process.

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‘THIS IS JUST GOING TO HURT’  

As libraries post about the situation on their websites and social media pages, patrons have been quick to say they’ll miss the convenience of interlibrary loan. Reactions from visitors of the Auburn Public Library have ranged from frustration to feeling caught off guard by the minimal warning that the option was being discontinued, said Library Director Donna Wallace.

Jerry Pomeranz, of Auburn, reads “MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios” Wednesday at the Auburn Public Library. Pomeranz said he visits the library once every few weeks. “I get a bunch of books out. Sometimes they get read. Sometimes they don’t,” said Pomeranz. “Books open up a whole new world.” Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

She said the patrons of the Auburn and Lewiston libraries will still be able to check out books at each location, but they must return the book to its home library.

“Our customers are fortunate to have this option, so they may go to Lewiston to check out an item and Lewiston customers/patrons can come to APL,” Wallace said.

Library directors say the situation is a challenge regardless of the size of the library and it’s unfortunate it is happening as they push out their summer reading programs. Some anticipate buying extra books – especially the most sought-after titles of the summer – to keep up with the demand.

Sarah Curra Schultz-Nielsen, director of the Lithgow Public Library in Augusta, said members have been accustomed to quick turnaround times for items they have requested, since they have delivery five days per week. But now they will only have access to Lithgow’s collection of about 80,000 items, which Schultz-Nielsen described as “decent … but not comprehensive.”

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“The ability to order from 60 other multitype libraries means that you have access to diverse collections, with niche titles and materials or titles more academic in nature than our public library collection,” she said. “Lithgow is a net lender in the Minerva system, so our collection is heavily requested as well. This is a testament to the good work of our librarians to curate a collection that is sought after. The impact of not sending our items out in the meantime means that our users have a first crack at checking out new materials.”

Lewiston Library Director Joseph Houston said the library’s cardholders can still visit other libraries in the state that use the Minerva system, like the Lithgow library, but they have to go in-person.

“Reciprocal borrowing will still work, which means a patron from another Minerva consortium library could come to Lewiston and check out our books using their library card and patrons with Lewiston cards could go to other Minerva libraries and check out their books with their Lewiston card,” he said.

Davis said South Portland patrons are fortunate to have one of the largest public library collections in the state, so they should still have plenty of books to choose from. They will also still have access to e-book services and can borrow books directly from libraries in Scarborough, Gorham, Cape Elizabeth and Westbrook. But the impact will be much bigger for smaller libraries, he said.

“I feel for the patrons of small, more rural libraries in the state who will be cut off,” he said.

At the Lyman Community Library, Director Leila Roy said she is gearing up for a challenging summer. Patrons of the small town library have been enthusiastically borrowing books from other libraries and it’s been hard to tell them that option is being taken away temporarily, she said.

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“This is just going to hurt us and hurt our patrons at the busiest time of year,” she said.

Schrader, the library director in Scarborough, anticipates libraries will be looking for creative solutions to make sure patrons can borrow the books they want to read.

His staff is already working to make sure the five book groups hosted by the library have the books they need because they typically rely heaving on interlibrary books, he said. It’s a similar situation when it comes to getting extra books the school library needs.

At the Louis B. Goodall Library in Sanford, a core group of patrons relies heavily on borrowing through interlibrary loan and the library sends out a large number of books, said Director Ann Thomas. She knows not having the service will be an inconvenience, but she’s trying to look on the bright side.

The Goodall Library is encouraging patrons to take advantage of its reciprocal borrowing program and go to other local libraries to check out books. Thomas said the library will order extra copies of books that are in high demand this summer.

“As hard as it is for us as libraries putting books in people’s hands, and as hard as it is for patrons looking for books, we will find a way,” she said.

Sun Journal Executive Editor Judy Meyer and Central Maine Managing Editor Scott Monroe contributed to this report. 

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