On Jan. 12, Critelli Couriers abruptly canceled its contract with the Montana Courier Alliance, the statewide association that facilitates the movement of interlibrary loans around the state. About 40,000 items travel from library to library via courier every month, according to Cara Orban, statewide projects librarian at the Montana State Library in Helena.

Critelli was supposed to have the contract through June this year, Oban says, but canceled its contracts with both the courier alliance and the Department of Public Health and Human Service. Calls to numbers for the company in Billings, Butte and Missoula reached out-of-service messages, and the company’s website is down.

A temporary contract was signed with Moon River Couriers, which does business in Montana, Idaho and parts of Washington and Wyoming.

The Missoula Public Library is the largest hub in the MCA (Billings doesn’t participate in the alliance, though Orban says that may change), moving about 10,000 items every month. That’s about an equal amount in and out, says MPL associate director Elizabeth Jonkel. “Our monthly circulation is 60,000 to 70,000 items a month, so that does constitute a pretty good percentage of our circulation,” Jonkel says.

The library courier alliance mainly serves stops along I-90 and I-15, Orban says. The Missoula library gets a daily drop-off and pick-up of around 20 to 30 crates of books and other items (DVDs are the second-most popular type of media shared between libraries). That’s at least 600 items every day.

Missoula library users will likely never notice their use of the interlibrary loan system, because it’s integrated with the Missoula library catalog. Items from libraries in other cities show up in searches, and users simply request a hold and are notified when the book arrives. “Thanks to the courier project, those materials can get in the hands of people all over Montana so seamlessly that from the user side, they may not even know they ordered a book from Laurel,” Jonkel says.

Critelli didn’t show any signs of trouble before canceling the service, Jonkel says. The company also couriered medical supplies and blood samples for DPHHS.

The current alliance has existed since 2009, though libraries around the state have exchanged materials far longer than that, Orban says. “Before there was a formal courier — and this still exists in other parts of the state — they have used the bus system, beer distributor trucks that go from town to town, any mode of transportation from one community to the next,” Orban says. “Amtrak — we actually did look into that for Hi-Line libraries.”

It was up to individual libraries to figure out how to move materials around for the two weeks they were without a courier. “Everybody pulled up their bootstraps and we tried to think of ways to continue the service using our own resources,” Jonkel says. “ImagineIF Library in Kalispell was really instrumental in keeping that corridor open.”

Bidding will open next month for the annual contract, which is worth about $100,000, depending on the total volume of items moved, Oban says. Most of that amount is paid by participating libraries, with a small portion covered by federal funds.

Staff Reporter

Susan Elizabeth Shepard lived in Missoula from 2008 to 2011 before returning in 2017 to work at the Independent. She is also a two-time resident of Austin, TX, and Portland, OR, with an interest in labor, music and sports. @susanelizabeth on Twitter.

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