Activists break library quiet, protest funding cuts | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Activists break library quiet, protest funding cuts 

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Two months have passed since Mayor Daley slashed the library budget, forcing libraries across the city to trim hours and lay off staff. A handful of activists and scholars protested the cuts, but few City Hall insiders figured the anger would spread, particularly since Daley had framed the issue as a choice between libraries and higher property taxes.

Yet opposition to the cuts has grown. It's now headed by the Chicago Public Library Advocates, an unlikely coalition of librarians, City Hall independents, and neighborhood groups, including some from Daley's base on the southwest side. They want Daley to redirect $4 million from other parts of the city's budget to restoring library hours, buying more books, and reopening the Municipal Reference Library, the city's central information repository that Daley closed to the public in December. They have held press conferences and organized rallies, and they're planning a candlelight vigil for April 21 in Daley Plaza.

"We must make sure that the mayor understands how much Chicago needs libraries," says Kang Chiu, president of the Friends of the Rogers Park Library. "Take away access to books, and you deny people the opportunity to better themselves and become a part of the larger culture."

Daley blames the cuts on Governor Edgar, who slashed state library funds to the city by $3 million. "It's unfair to blame Mayor Daley for these cuts," says Noel Gaffney, a press officer for the mayor. "We aren't the ones who took $3 million out of the system--the governor did." She points out that Daley actually added $890,000 to the city's portion of the library system's $66 million budget; the city now pays $61 million of that budget. "The library system is just one more case where the city is stretching to cover gaps left by the state. It will only get worse if Edgar follows through on his threat to make more cuts in state aid for the cities."

This argument is echoed by library officials, who remain loyal to Daley. They've even ordered staff to remove from checkout counters petitions that call on Daley to restore the cuts. "When people ask why we don't speak out I say, 'What do you want me to do? Lie down in front of the mayor's car?'" says Robert Remer, acting library commissioner. "We didn't picket the mayor's house, but there was strenuous discussion. And let me tell you, Mayor Daley was very sympathetic to our needs. But because of state cuts, the city had some painful choices--the blood was on the cutting floor in the budget office. The mayor did all he could to restore the money that the state cut. I don't know why people are not madder at Edgar."

And why were the petitions removed from checkout counters? "We have a standard rule against these petitions, whether it's Save the Whales or whatever," says Remer. "This is a public building. We have to take a nonpartisan role."

Most activists seem to think library officials caved in too easily to Daley, and they refuse to let the mayor off the hook, even though they're also angry at Edgar. "That's nonsense to blame everything on the state," says Lew Kreinberg, a researcher for the Center for Neighborhood Technology. "It's a matter of priorities. The mayor obviously doesn't think libraries are important. You can't tell me that there isn't more money in that budget for libraries. What about all the ghost payrollers eating up huge salaries or all the money we spend on parades each year? It's embarrassing that a supposed world-class city would not have any sense of culture or civilization. Where are our leaders?"

The cuts are the culmination of years of negligence, critics say, pointing out that it took the city nearly 20 years to build a central library after the old facility was converted into the Cultural Center in the early 1970s. Over that period the main collection was stored in a couple of hard-to-reach locations while city officials vacillated about where to build a new library and how much it should cost.

Then less than two years after the Harold Washington Library was finally opened, Daley cut its hours. Once open six days a week, the central facility is now closed on Sunday and Monday; its hours have been trimmed from 62 a week to 40. On top of that, many books have been stolen or simply lost. And for the last two years the city hasn't been able to find enough money to buy new books. "The money crunch hurts us in a number of different ways, big and small," says David Williams, a reference librarian at the Harold Washington. "We're only open at night on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which makes it difficult for students or people with day jobs to use us. We don't have enough staff to cover all the service desks that we have, so you have to deal with longer lines."

The library doesn't even have enough pages to reshelve books. "We are constantly backlogged," says Williams. "There are usually thousands of books lying in gurneys or sitting in shelving trucks. The most unpleasant aspect of my job is having to explain to people that the book they're looking for--the book the computer says should be on the shelf--is probably stolen, sitting in a gurney, or misshelved. Some people get incredulous. They say, 'You mean I came all the way downtown for one book and now it's not here?' Meanwhile, there are ten or more people waiting in line for service. You have to take the heat. It's like being the social worker who has to tell a welfare client that his benefits have been cut."

The cuts have also been felt at the neighborhood branches, where weekly hours have been slashed from 64 to 48. For instance, the West Lawn Branch, 4020 W. 63rd, used to be open four nights a week; it's now open only two nights. "High school kids go to West Lawn library to study. Now where are they supposed to go?" says Joe Damal, an organizer for the Southwest Community Congress, which has joined the Chicago Public Library Advocates. "We are proud of the West Lawn library. It's a beautiful branch. But what's the point of building branches if they're not open when people want to use them?"

The cuts come at a time when more and more groups would like to use the branches as sites for meetings and adult-education classes. "We used to have several GED classes at the Rogers Park library," says Kang Chiu. "I can remember seeing 40 or so Russian immigrants sitting in the children's section listening very carefully to their English teacher. It was an inspiring scene. Now those classes have had to be cut because the library is only open two nights a week instead of four."

The Municipal Reference Library used to be one of the city's most popular and widely used services. Yet to save $450,000 Daley cut its staff and ordered it closed to the public. After the outcry that followed, he agreed to move most of the collection from City Hall to the Harold Washington Library, where it would be open to the public. For the last three months MRL staff have been sending boxes of books, magazines, and city records to the central library. There they sit, unopened, while library officials wonder where the collection should be stored and who will maintain it.

"I find myself writing Freedom of Information requests for information I used to get from the MRL," says Lew Kreinberg. "Today I'm writing a request to find out how much is spent for police and other services when the city has a parade. We have 16 parades a year, you know. But of course there is no money in the budget for libraries. I don't know if I could have found that information at the MRL. But when you can't get basic information you start thinking that something secret's going on--that the mayor's trying to hide something."

Kreinberg and other members of the Chicago Public Library Advocates support 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore's resolution that calls on Daley to spend $3 million to reinstate library hours, as well as $500,000 to buy new books and $452,000 to reopen the Municipal Reference Library. "It would not be hard to find $4 million in our current budget," says Moore. "You could trim some of the fat at the Office of Inquiry and Information, which handles nothing more than public-relations functions."

But Daley adamantly opposes spending any more city funds on the libraries, and few aldermen seem willing to buck him. The last time the City Council seemed ready to revolt on this matter was in January, when 30 or so aldermen lined up to support Moore's proposal to restore $400,000 to the MRL's budget. Word immediately went round that any aldermen who voted with Moore could expect to have friends or relatives on the city payroll fired. So ended that insurrection.

"It's really up to the people of Chicago to see to it that the library funds are restored," says Chiu. "Mayor Daley isn't going to restore these funds out of the goodness of his heart. The people have to speak up."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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