There’s nothing that matters more to librarians than providing access to books, movies, magazines and other content that is enriching to the public, and there’s generally very little controversy in their work.

But because of a geographical and financial dilemma, Clinton County libraries have found themselves between a book and a hard place. 

In an attempt to achieve fairness for all Clinton County communities, the Clinton County Library Association in May asked cities using the county’s six libraries to pay $8.40 per resident rather than a flat-rate fee per card issued.

The move was made after the association, which includes six libraries, realized earlier this year that there were discrepancies in how individual cities were being treated.

Some cities “were paying significantly less for the same library services that everyone else in Clinton County was paying for,” said Jillian Aschliman, president of the library association and the director of the DeWitt Community Library.

Part of the challenge stems from the fact that Iowa has a lot of smaller libraries, said Becky Heil, a library consultant with State Library of Iowa who works with libraries in both Clinton and Jackson counties.

“Iowa is second in the nation in how many libraries per capita we have. We have a lot of little libraries,” she said. “Because of the number of small, independent libraries, we have a Swiss cheese kind of a system. If one town has a library and another doesn’t, they have to figure out how to get the services.”

The state library recommends a per resident fee as it is more equitable, Heil said, adding that libraries get to choose how they charge. She noted that when a city provides library service, it is similar to roads – people don’t pay based on whether they use them or not.

The fee transition in Clinton County hasn’t come without some bumps. While most of the cities in the county have agreed to the rate, which is also the charge counties pay for each rural resident, Andover, Charlotte and Delmar did not. 

Instead, Charlotte and Delmar made an agreement with the Maquoketa Public Library to pay $35 for each card issued, which is less than the $50 per card that they had been paying the DeWitt Community Library before the per capita system went in place throughout Clinton County.

Because Iowa Open Access agreements allow residents with library cards to use services at any library in the state, the agreements with the Maquoketa Library technically allow residents of Charlotte and Delmar to access the DeWitt library “at an even further inequitable rate.”

As a result, the DeWitt Community Library Board voted unanimously this month to make what it called “a difficult decision” to deny library services of any kind to residents of Delmar and Charlotte.

“It really puts us between a rock and hard place. Obviously being a public library we want share resources and be as accommodating to the public as possible, especially to those who are in our school district, but at the same time if they are not paying their share of funding, we are a taxpayer based organization and is it fair to those who are paying?” Aschliman said.

 “It’s uncomfortable. It’s not fun. I’ve been fielding some really angry phone calls, but ultimately, again, we are a taxpayer-based organization,” she said. 

In the last fiscal year, Charlotte had 25 active cards with the DeWitt library. Delmar had 16 active cards. 

If Charlotte or Delmar decided to pay into the Clinton County Association of Libraries in the future, the rates would be $3,306 and $4,410 respectively, and services would be provided.

Delmar Mayor Patty Hardin said access to the Maquoketa Library “made more sense for us. Most of our students open enroll to Maquoketa, so access to the Maquoketa library made more sense for us. We didn’t realize it was going to cause such hard feelings, but we have to do what is most financial responsible for us,” she said.

She said she really believes that small, rural areas need to work together, and she understands the position of the DeWitt Community Library. 

“I understand that absolutely. They have to do what they have to do,” Hardin said.

Charlotte Mayor Kelly Snyder echoed Hardin’s thoughts. She said she hasn’t heard any complaints at this point from Charlotte residents who will not be able to use the DeWitt Library. 

“It’s nothing personal,” she said, adding that the cost is the issue. The amount Charlotte was paying three years ago increased to $900 from $300, and the $3,306 charge this year was more than officials felt they could afford. 

“We are a small city. We took the more feasible route and went with Maquoketa,” Snyder said. 

Katie Pauls, director of the Maquoketa Public Library, said that at the time the agreement with Delmar and Charlotte was made, she wasn’t aware of the controversy.