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Feature image for Beyond the Stacks with Jessie Bach shows maps indicating the regional library systems in Alberta.
Alberta’s Regional Library Systems

By Jessie Bach

“As American author and librarian, Vicki Myron has stated: ‘A great library is one nobody notices because it is always there, and always has what people need.’ This applies to library systems just as much as public libraries themselves.” — Jessie Bach

At any of Alberta’s more than three hundred public libraries, members have access to the newest books, movies and “things” in every genre, as well as eBooks, online databases and other e-resources, programs, research help, and more. Large or small, urban or rural, most public libraries offer members access to a similar set of core services. How is it that a small rural library, like the one in the Hamlet of Valhalla, with only one or two people on staff and serving a population of just a few hundred, can offer all these amazing services? The answer is membership in a regional library system. Library systems are municipal membership collaboratives that provide economical public library services and support for libraries in Alberta. They ensure that Albertans in small or remote communities have access to the same quality, cutting-edge library service as those in a larger urban centre like Airdrie or Grande Prairie

To really understand the role of library systems, we need to start with the basics of how libraries are established and administered. Library service in Alberta is governed by legislation called the Libraries Act, which is maintained and implemented by the Public Library Services Branch – a part of the Corporate Strategic Services Division of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs. Library services in Alberta are established at a local municipal level, which means it is up to each city, town, village, county, municipal district, or special area (among other municipality types) to decide to provide library service for their residents. Municipal councils must pass a bylaw to establish a library board which then becomes responsible for establishing and operating a municipal library.  

Operating a library is expensive and time-consuming, and that’s where Alberta’s regional library systems come in. The Libraries Act allows for library systems to be established when municipalities in a region make an agreement to pool their resources to provide service for their residents. A regional library system board is formed when each member of this agreement appoints a representative from their municipality. Once established, municipalities and school boards can join the agreement to get in on the goods. 

Library systems are funded by levies paid by their member municipalities and local library boards, as well as funding from the province of Alberta. The province provides a yearly operating grant based on the total population served by the library system. The levies paid to the system by the municipality and library board are based on the local populations that they serve. 

There are seven regional library systems in Alberta, that each serve municipalities in their geographic area. They are listed below, along with the location of their headquarters: 

Map of the Alberta regional library systems
Image provided courtesy of Marigold Library System.

Shortgrass Library System is the smallest, serving fourteen member libraries, and Parkland is the biggest serving forty-nine. Marigold, where I work, provides service to thirty-six member libraries in south-central Alberta – from Banff in the west, all the way to Empress in the east; High River in the south, to Consort in the north. Most of Alberta’s more than three hundred public libraries belong to a library system, with just a few exceptions. Calgary Public Library, Edmonton Public Library, Red Deer Public Library, and Wood Buffalo Regional Library do not belong to library systems, as they serve populations large enough to be self-sufficient. A few small municipalities, too, have chosen not to join library systems – the Village of Veteran, in east-central Alberta, is one example.  

Regional library systems provide myriad services to support their public libraries and their users. The services provided vary somewhat between regions, but there are some core services that are provided by all seven systems:

  • Bibliographic Services: Library systems support their members by providing centralized acquisitions, cataloguing, and processing of library materials. Centralized book buying allows library systems to take advantage of volume discounts and shipping deals that would not be available to an individual library with a modest books budget. Library systems also employ cataloguing specialists to create the records allowing patrons to find what they need in the library catalogue. 
  • Consultation Services: Consultant librarians are hired by library systems to advise and assist member libraries on any number of topics including library legislation, board governance, collection development, programming, advocacy, and more. Consulting librarians and staff will also often provide training for library staff on how to use the integrated library system (or ILS) software, e-resources, and other library services and topics. Libraries receive new materials in “shelf-ready” condition – this means they have all the stickers, labels, and protective packaging required and are ready to loan to members as soon as they arrive.
  • Delivery Services: Library systems support resource sharing and interlibrary loans by operating van delivery services between systems and libraries. This internal delivery system saves libraries time and money as they avoid the use of traditional mail or expensive courier services. 
  • The Integrated Library System, or ILS: The ILS is the database that holds patron and material information and is used to track and manage borrowing. By sharing an ILS, patrons have access to collections in dozens, or even hundreds of libraries beyond just their local branch. As a patron browsing the online library catalogue, you will see this when you click “Where is it” (or your library’s equivalent) on the record for an item – there will be copies at your local library, as well as many other libraries in your part of the province. A shared ILS also allows libraries to provide seamless interlibrary loan to members of all libraries in the same region. Implementing and maintaining an ILS can have costs in the millions – by belonging to a system this cost is shared among all the members.
  • IT Support: Library systems also provide IT support to member libraries. This saves each individual library from having to have their own IT expert on staff. Centralized IT services often include a ticketing system for general hardware, software and technology-related questions and issues. Library systems will also administer the public wi-fi network, library websites, e-mail services, file hosting and network services, and more. 

Library systems do not serve the public directly and they operate behind-the-scenes of public library service.  However, the services they provide are integral to many Albertans’ public library experience. Before I worked for one of Alberta’s regional library systems I was only vaguely aware of their existence, how they worked and what they did, despite being an avid user of the Standard Municipal Library (member of the Marigold Library System!) for many years. What I did know, though, was that the library always delivered my favourite books, provided a safe place to meet, read and hang out, and delivered a Summer Reading Program that I participated in every year. As American author and librarian, Vicki Myron has stated: “A great library is one nobody notices because it is always there, and always has what people need.” This applies to library systems just as much as public libraries themselves.

Photo of the Marigold Library System headquarters office.
Image provided courtesy of Marigold Library System.

Beyond the Stacks is a column about libraries in Alberta and the useful and necessary services they provide.

Photo of Jessie Bach, author of this articleJessie Bach grew up on a family farm in Southern Alberta, and is a life-long library user and book lover. She has a degree in history from the University of Saskatchewan, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. Jessie has worked in archives, academic libraries, corporate records management, and now public libraries. Her current role is Bibliographic Services Manager at Marigold Library System where she manages the team that does acquisitions, cataloguing and processing of library material for Marigold’s thirty-six member libraries. She currently lives in Calgary with her partner and, in true librarian fashion, four cats. Jessie likes to read (of course), knit, consume way too many true crime podcasts, and lift weights in the gym.