Mayor Rahm Emanuel has proposed the elimination of 363 positions from the Chicago Public Library. These cuts would include 60 professional librarian positions and likely involve the demotion of many librarians of lesser seniority. Following is a thoughtful piece written by one dedicated Chicago librarian who prefers to remain anonymous.
The public library is a perfect manifestation of our culture’s core democratic values. From the very beginning, the institution has been a resource for people from all walks of life to improve, inform, and educate themselves. Today, even as technology changes, we remain relevant to people and continue to provide the help and resources they need. As a librarian in one of the city’s most economically depressed neighborhoods on Chicago’s west side, with extremely high unemployment, crime, and poverty rates, low levels of education, and under-performing schools on academic probation, I feel that my work is more crucial and relevant than ever. Every day, my colleagues and I assist people who have neither access to the internet, nor computer skills. They need to fill out forms and apply for jobs and learn how to create email accounts, and they have no where to go but the library. At least once a day, we hear a comment about how grateful people feel for the library and how much they appreciate the help they receive. Our storytime programs for babies and children are well-attended and parents are very appreciative that they have such a warm, friendly place to bring their kids- with knowledgeable staff who help them select the very best books for children.
It has been implied that people don’t use the library that much anymore. That suggestion strikes me as almost funny at times because my branch is downright bustling. We have a line of people waiting outside every day and our computers are almost always full. Our librarians provide a variety of programs for children and adults throughout the month. It is not uncommon to have a line at the circulation desk. The library keeps track of the number of people in and out of our doors, the attendance at our programs, and circulation statistics. All of these reflect what the studies show- that Chicagoans, like people around the country, are most definitely using their libraries. It is well documented that in dire economic times, library use goes up. Record unemployment and increasing layoffs have left Chicagoans with tighter belts and fewer luxuries and they are turning to their libraries for internet access, books, DVDs, author events, books discussion groups, classes on job searching, and a variety of free programs for children.
This past Saturday, I was the only librarian on staff in my branch and there were a lot of elementary school students there working on projects. I helped one boy find biographical information on Descartes. He had been looking at an article on Wikipedia and said he couldn’t really understand it. I showed him how to find kid-friendly articles in SIRS Discoverer. Another boy was in with his uncle and grandmother, doing a report on the seven continents. After working with them for a few minutes, I realized that the adults with him couldn’t read. I was able to help him find all the answers he needed in an almanac. Last week, a mother and daughter were looking in the cookbook section and they seemed overwhelmed. I asked them if they needed help and found out that the child was working on a project about food in various European countries. I showed them Culturegrams, a great children’s database with information about what life is like in different countries around the world. They were so relieved to have the answers they needed. I have helped people create resumes, fill out online job applications, find information about health and legal matters, search for jobs and apartments. I have suggested great age-appropriate kids’ books for parents who look around at all the children’s books and don’t know where to begin. As an avid reader, I find it easy to recommend books to adults who are simply looking for something interesting to read. And librarians are doing these same things every day in every neighborhood of Chicago. People come to the public library for help of all kinds the staff there help them. It really is as simple as that. Without staff, the building means nothing.
The Chicago Public Library has experienced ups and downs through the years- times of plenty and times of scarcity- but never in its history has there been a threat to its very existence as serious as the budget proposed for 2012. The library is currently functioning with a significantly reduced workforce due to attrition and unfilled vacancies. Things are tight but we’re surviving and we’re serving our public. However, if the proposed cuts go through, we will lose about 30% of our staff. The budget calls for the elimination of all library pages (the people who shelve the books so you and I can find them) and a drastic reduction in the number of professional librarians. These are the front-line people who staff the library branches- the people who are there, working with the public day in and day out. These are the people who plan and perform the storytimes, buy the books and DVDs that their patrons want, help kids find books and articles for their homework projects, and help adults find information on a tremendous range of subjects. These losses will have a devastating effect on the quality of service we are able to provide. With no one to shelve the books, the remaining staff members will need to help people register for library cards and check books out while trying to get all the returns back in order and on the shelf. This leaves no time for all the other work: showing patrons all the wonderful databases we subscribe to on every conceivable subject, helping them figure out where the books they need are located, assisting them on the computer. What about our outreach? We currently have built relationships with our local schools and community organizations. Every library has professional staff presenting storytimes in our buildings as well as in a variety of other locations- reaching those kids who can’t make it to the branch. We also work with teachers to get their students library cards and give tours to introduce kids to the library and teach them how to use it. The proposed cuts will make all of these services to children impossible. Currently, almost every library hosts a book discussion group for adults. Often attended by seniors, these regular meetings offer people a chance to reflect on literature and their lives while connecting with people in their communities. Without staff to run them, they are sure to fade away, too.
I find it offensive that the public library, with its noble legacy of helping those who most critically need assistance, is being attacked so aggressively. We make up a small percentage of the total number of city jobs, yet are about to absorb the vast majority of the layoffs (363 of the 500 city jobs scheduled to be cut are at the Chicago Public Library). It is unfair to rob the public of such vital services at a time when they are relying on us more than ever. Please speak out on this urgent issue. The city council will vote on this proposed budget in a few short weeks and budget hearings are currently underway. The only way to stop the budget from taking effect is for the aldermen to vote it down. Many aldermen spoke out on behalf of the library at the budget hearing but it is crucial to continue reminding them how vital our libraries are. We need to call for NO reduced hours and NO layoffs. So please, write, call, and email your alderman and express your concern about the loss of staff (and thus, services) at the Chicago Public Library.
On behalf of all library patrons who use our services, I thank you.
Use this link to find your alderman: http://chicago.legistar.com/People.aspx