Chicago's neighborhood libraries in a bind

Cuts will slice hours, force higher-ups to shelve books instead of helping people

11/30/2011 10:00 PM

Contributing Reporter

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A man reads a newspaper at the Manning Branch Public Library on Hoyne Ave.
Photos by J. GEIL/Photo Editor

All but one table was occupied at the Roosevelt branch of the Chicago Public Library, 1101 S. Taylor St., on Monday as patrons leafed through books and newspapers and accessed free public Wi-Fi.

Two front desk librarians handled patron requests as well as carts of unshelved books and CDs. At 3 p.m., a wave of students arrived, filling up one first floor reading room.

Library use is up across the country due to hard economic times. Yet these hard times have led to major cuts at Chicago’s libraries, outlined in the municipal budget that passed City Council Nov. 16. The libraries will see almost 200 layoffs and reduced hours at 77 of 79 branch libraries.

The rollbacks could strain a system that endured a round of layoffs and cost cutting in 2009.

About 11.6 million people used Chicago libraries in the past year, according to a Nov. 2 letter signed by 28 Chicago aldermen to Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Nationally, library use increased 10.4 percent in the past year, according to an American Library Association survey.

Marcia Warner, president of the library association, said that the increase is due to a few factors like libraries growing as a resource for early childhood education materials. But the biggest is that libraries are a sanctuary for the low-income, unemployed and under employed who use the free Internet and employment reference materials.

“Usage almost goes up proportionally with the unemployment rate,” Warner said. “The worse it gets, the more people are coming in.”

Emanuel’s first budget — which the City Council approved 50-0 — will cut the libraries’ budget $8 million, to $82.3 million a year.

The budget cuts weekly hours at all but two branch libraries from 48 to 40 a week during the CPS school year. Four hours will be cut from both Monday and Friday.

The budget also calls for letting go 184 of CPL’s 1,128 full-time employees, effective Jan. 2.

This comes after almost half of what were the system’s 279 pages — who primarily shelve books — were laid off two years ago.

The majority of the 184 laid off in this round of cuts are again pages or library clerks, who are also tasked with shelving as well as patron assistance and checking out materials.

Anders Lindall, spokesman for AFSCME Local-31, which represents library workers, argued that the layoffs will overwhelm librarians.

“The demands placed on librarians to merely keep books on the shelves will sharply decrease the time and attention they can devote to helping patrons,” Lindall said.

“We saw the same two years ago, when Mayor Daley laid off more than 100 library employees,” Lindall added. “After trying to muddle through for three months, he cut branch hours by 16 a week because employees were burning out.”

CPL acknowledges the challenge ahead.

“Obviously having fewer staff means the remaining staff will have to pitch in and do more, wearing several hats as they help to shelve books, empty book drops and such — just as we did after the layoffs in 2009,” said Ruth Lednicer, director of marketing and press at CPL.

As for specific consequences, Lednicer said that there might be delay in processing transactions like holds and returning items to the shelves.

But while disappointing to CPL, AFSCME and patrons, the cuts are not surprising.

In fact, the political focus has not been on how these cuts will affect library branches like Roosevelt or Chinatown or Lozano in Pilsen, but that Emanuel did not make even greater reductions. An original budget proposal suggested trimming $11.3 million from the yearly budget and making 284 — instead of 184 — layoffs.

The American Library Association’s Warner said that library systems are a typical casualty of budget rollbacks, regardless of merits.

“The places that cut libraries first are ill-advised because we can partner other departments in cities like education,” Warner said.

“We are the education pillar of the community that’s free,” Warner said. “If you are not going to community college or if you’re not in public school, this is where you go.”

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