Nostalgia for the library card catalog still abounds. You see it in merchandise, iconic photographs on the internet, and in the occasional oak card catalog cabinet still found in some libraries — the fixture repurposed for use as a seed library, obituary file or just an attractive antique.

In its day, the heavy card catalog, with its neat grid of drawers containing standard-sized punched cards held in place with removable rods, was quite an advance in library organization. Multiple access points to titles, authors, subjects and series made it imperative to use cross references and file accurately. A few library users still miss rifling through the cards, reluctant to acknowledge the value of online catalogs. I have professional experience with both types and I’m here to tell you online library catalogs can’t be beat.

A prime example is the online catalog shared by libraries in the Valnet consortium. There are at least nine regional library consortia in Idaho. Valnet was launched in 1985 in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley. The Latah County Library joined in 2006. We are now the northernmost library system in Valnet, which extends west to Washington’s Asotin County, as far east as Pierce and Elk City, and south to Grangeville; a larger area than some U.S. states.

What began as a regional group of a few public and school libraries sending and receiving items through a courier network has evolved into much more. Physical materials in the form of books, magazines, DVDs and Blu-rays, CD audiobooks, music CDs, book club kits and nontraditional items, such as mobile hotspots, are available to library users who search the Valnet catalog. Each of the 20-some library systems in Valnet purchases materials out of its own budget, and catalogs and processes its own items. Once that’s done, information is uploaded to the Valnet catalog and sharing can begin.

The membership fee each library system contributes to Valnet pays for the courier company that transports materials among participants. This service allows a patron in Moscow to use a smartphone or other device to request a DVD sitting on the shelf at the Lapwai Library, and pick up that DVD a few days later at the Moscow Library. Working as a team in different geographic places, library staff and the courier do their end of the work necessary to move the DVD from one place to another, while keeping track of its whereabouts so it can be returned home without a hitch. Sharing through a library consortium is simpler and more transparent than traditional interlibrary loan, where a staff member must reach out to libraries outside its normal circle of contacts.

The answer to your logical next question is “yes.” There is still great demand by all ages for physical library items. But Valnet’s sharing philosophy doesn’t end with the material world. The annual membership fee also pays a large portion of the consortium’s OverDrive service. If you’re not yet familiar with OverDrive, it provides downloadable books and audiobooks at no cost to registered Valnet patrons. Kanopy, our newest shared online service, lets patrons stream movies, documentaries, and The Great Courses to their preferred device. The Valnet directors board meets monthly to tackle problems together, share ideas, and approve the bills. Three committees representing Valnet staff meet regularly to discuss shared issues related to cataloging, circulation, and software.

Back to that card catalog: When libraries made the transition from cards to online catalogs, they had to deal with the technical issues involved. Many libraries use proprietary catalog platforms for which the technical work is done largely by the company paid to provide the service. Latah County Library had had two different platforms before joining Valnet, while Valnet has also gone through a couple of fee-based catalog vendors. Now the shared catalog operates on open source software called Koha. This means authorized Valnet staff can customize Koha, make improvements, and fix many problems on their own. While Koha is cost-free, another portion of Valnet membership fees pays for a support vendor to manage major upgrades, add requested enhancements and solve more complicated problems.

The team-based approach of the Valnet consortium is a powerful tool giving member libraries the ability to provide a robust array of library services in a cost-effective manner.

Chris Sokol is director of the Latah County Library District. “At the Library” is a column written by directors and staff at from the Latah County Library District, the Whitman County Library, District and Neill Public Library in Pullman. It appears weekly in Slice of Life.

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