They came to City Hall in strollers and Baby Bjorns, dressed in princess and tiger costumes. Though many of them were scarcely old enough to talk (much less vote), Chicago’s infants and toddlers had a message for Mayor Rahm Emanuel: “Fund the library fully.”
OK, those were the grown-ups’ words, but the children were on hand to remind the mayor of who stands to lose the most if his proposed budget passes, with $10 million in cuts to the Chicago Public Library, translating into hundreds of jobs lost and reduced branch hours.
On Monday morning, more than a hundred library staffers, parents, youngsters and just plain book lovers crammed the hallway outside the mayor’s fifth floor office to deliver a “Save Our Libraries” petition with upwards of 4,000 signatures. Chanting “no more cuts, no more cuts,” these library supporters suddenly made books feel like a symbol of civil disobedience.
“The library makes reading affordable,” said Lincoln Park resident Diane Handelsman, who held aloft an “I Love CPL Books” sign. Handelsman, who uses the library “several times a month,” noted that the system is already operating lean, pointing to months-long waits for books on hold and the elimination of Sunday hours at most branches. Her book club had to cancel a recent meeting when members were unable to obtain enough copies of their chosen title. “It’s crazy that they’re cutting when they should be extending,” she said. While acknowledging that the city is facing difficult economic times, she said, “I think there are some things that are priorities and the libraries are a priority.”
Sarah Weisz and Heather Norborg, Lincoln Square residents who frequent the neighborhood’s Sulzer branch, boarded the Brown Line at Rockwell and schlepped their little ones downtown to the library rally. Pointing to her two-and-half-year-old son, Weisz said, “He has a new obsession every couple of months.” First it was monkeys, then trains. For each new fascination, she was able to supply tons of books from the library. “My nieces and nephews go through a book a day,” added Norborg. “Books are so expensive. Who can afford that?”
Norborg, herself a former reference librarian with the Evanston system, worries that drastic funding reductions will wind up costing the city far more than it gains from the budget cuts. In addition to the availability of books, which are critical to young readers, she pointed to the research and reference assistance that libraries offer, for free. “People think the Internet replaced libraries,” Norborg said. “It’s a great tool, but it doesn’t replace a librarian’s expertise.” Supplementary library services, such as homework help, also play a significant role in the quality of a child’s education, she added.
Then there’s the value of libraries as community hubs. “Libraries are one of the last public spaces where you don’t have to pay and you don’t have to buy anything,” Norborg said. “You can just satisfy your curiosity.” For her part, Weisz, a full-time mom, frequently relies on the library as a playground and social club. “It’s hard with little kids to not feel trapped in your house,” she said. With its puzzles and reading groups and set of stairs to climb (another of her son’s obsessions), Sulzer offers Weisz and her tykes a free alternative to other fee-based indoor play spaces around the city.
If Emanuel’s budget passes as proposed, Weisz can kiss story time goodbye. “We can barely keep the doors open now,” said Jeremy Kitchen, a librarian at the Richard J. Daley branch in Bridgeport. (And no, this particular branch is not paved with gold.) “We would lose all our programming,” he added, which includes more than storytelling and book discussions. At his branch, like others that operate in lower income neighborhoods, the library provides services such as “Options for Knowledge” workshops, which help parents navigate the complicated application process for the city’s magnet schools.
“That’s the problem,” Kitchen said. “The people who will suffer the most are already living in communities that don’t have anything.”
The notion that he and his colleagues are petitioning the mayor simply to save their jobs is one that Kitchen quickly dismisses. “For most librarians, this is not a job,” he said. “I believe in bringing literacy to children.” This past summer, 900 kids read 16,000 books at the Bridgeport branch, according to Kitchen. The branch routinely circulates 8,000 – 10,000 books a month (“People don’t have e-readers, they read books,” he said), all of which are re-shelved by a single page; under Emanuel’s proposal, all page positions will be eliminated.
Pain will be spread throughout the system. Ravenswood resident Matthew Genthe heads the Music Information Center at the Harold Washington Library Center, arguably Chicago Public Library’s crown jewel. “We’re busier now than we’ve ever been,” he said, but in looking at funding for 2012, “the programming budget was completely gone, and we’d have 30 percent less staff.” Marquee events, like a recent Q&A session with National Book Award winner Jennifer Egan, would fall by the wayside.
With the largest collection in the library system, HWLC services the entire city, including tourists and the growing number of college students living in nearby downtown dorms. “Librarians are there to make information accessible,” explained Genthe, who, like his colleagues, holds a master’s degree in library science. In the music center, he spends a good deal of time answering phone calls and emails and tracking down requests for sheet music. HWLC also manages six piano practice rooms, reserved by 50-100 people a day, according to Genthe. “It’s a lot of students, retirees and musicians in town for auditions. We have some very unique resources, but we need staff to provide access.”
Like many at the City Hall rally, Genthe understands “things are hard,” but is loathe to see a 20-year renaissance for Chicago Public Library wiped out in a single budget year. “It seems sad and misguided,” he said. The library system fills so many gaps for the city’s residents: Genthe cited free Wi-Fi, high-speed Internet access, computers and, last but not least, books for those who can’t afford to buy them.
“I’m not an accountant,” he said, ” but we need to look harder at the rest of the budget.” CPL makes up less than 3 percent of the city’s spending, but would shoulder a disproportionate percentage of staff cuts. “I don’t want to throw other departments under the bus,” Genthe said, “but we need to look harder.”
Budget Town Hall this Wednesday: Genthe singled out 47th Ward Ald. Ameya Pawar for his strong support of the library system. Not coincidentally, Ald. Pawar will host a Budget Town Hall meeting, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 6:30 – 8:00 p.m., at McPherson Elementary, 4228 N. Wolcott. Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey will be on hand, as will a representative from the police department. Residents are encouraged to attend to learn more about the 2012 budget and voice concerns.