Bad idea: closing the Municipal Reference Library | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Bad idea: closing the Municipal Reference Library 

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In two months the shelves will be cleared, the books, magazines, and precious historical documents will be packed, and an important piece of city government will be lost to the public. That's because Mayor Daley has proposed closing the one city operation that virtually everyone, regardless of political persuasion, agrees works well: the Municipal Reference Library.

Other public libraries in the city are feeling Daley's budget cuts--hours will be cut at almost all the branches--but no operation has been hit as hard as the MRL. Under Daley's plan the bulk of the library's collection will be moved by January from City Hall to some still undetermined location in the Harold Washington Library--where the public probably won't be able to use it. The rest of the collection will be open only to city employees--not the general public--and its staff will be cut from 23 to 6. All in the name of saving $400,000--a tiny fraction of the city's $3.3 billion budget.

"This is a disgrace," says Lewis Kreinberg, a veteran Chicago activist, writer, and frequent MRL user. "How can we call ourselves a world-class city if we limit access to important information? It breaks my heart that such a valuable resource would be closed for such meager savings. I can't believe that somewhere in this enormous budget they can't find the money to keep the reference library open."

The library was created in 1901 as a reference service for the mayor, aldermen, and other city employees, though the enabling legislation required that it also be open to the public. In its collection of 50,000 documents are the proceedings of every City Council meeting going back to 1858, inaugural speeches of mayors, reports on race relations and riots, planning documents, city contracts, census surveys, books (fiction and nonfiction) about Chicago, as well as columns written by such journalistic luminaries as Mike Royko and Jay McMullen.

Many great librarians, including Clare Greenberg and Carolyn Moore, have worked there. More than 30 years ago Greenberg began clipping the downtown dailies and scores of neighborhood papers, filing the articles by subject. The result is the city's most extensive collection of easy-to-find, alphabetically arranged information on all subjects--from neighborhoods to politicians--no matter how obscure.

It is to the Municipal Reference Library that political candidates go to read up on their opposition. And it was at the MRL where Chicago writers John McCarron, Gary Rivlin, and David Fremon began their research. Each year about 20,000 people use the library, according to city records. On any given day its cramped, stuffy, 25-seat reading room is crowded with users who range from scruffy students to natty attorneys.

"It's not just writers who use us, although a lot do," says Joyce Malden, the MRL's chief librarian. "Aside from city employees, many of our users are local business people, lawyers, and developers. We have material on budget, personnel, and planning. We collect documents from other taxing bodies, like the Park District or the Board of Education. We collect material on hot topics. When the third airport was being discussed, we collected documents on new airports all over the country. At the moment we're collecting a lot of material on casinos."

Many of the library's users want to study basic documents, such as the city code. "We'll get someone who is starting a business and wants to see the code that regulates that business," says Ellen O'Brien, an MRL reference librarian. "Or we'll get someone who wants to know his rights as a landlord or a tenant. A lot of times we'll get developers or lawyers for developers interested in a certain city project. We're not trained as lawyers. We can't interpret the code. But over time we've learned to read these codes. We can get them the document they want and help them find the specific passage they're looking for."

It was at the MRL that Kreinberg and Frankie Knibb, then working for a consortium of neighborhood groups, found the documents they needed to mount a campaign against the proposed World's Fair. "You can't just start a campaign with the assumption that something is corrupt or poorly planned--you need to investigate, you need the facts," says Kreinberg, who was trained as a historian. "When we were researching the World's Fair, we found information to show that other areas of the city--away from where they planned to build the fair--were not getting their fair share of improvement subsidies. That was critical information, the kind you need to make an intelligent decision, so you're not just blasting away."

Though earlier activists had gathered information at the MRL that was later used in campaigns against city-backed projects, no previous mayor ever attempted to close the library. "Some mayors might not have let some material go there," says Kreinberg. "But the library was always open to the public. You have to respect our mayors for that."

In October Daley's budget makers told Malden that in view of a looming budget deficit, the library would have to be closed. "I protested," said Malden. "I said, 'Who will provide information for city agencies?' You can't operate city government without information."

The administration relented a bit, leaving Malden with enough of a budget (about $617,000) to maintain a staff of six. But the MRL was to be moved to the Harold Washington Library so its current location (on the tenth floor of City Hall) could be used by another department.

The Daley administration contends that the public will still have access to essential documents. "The collection will be more accessible than before because it's at the main library, which is centrally located," says Noel Gaffney, the mayor's deputy press secretary. "These are tough times. We have had to ask for a property-tax increase, and before we do that we want to make sure we economize by cutting back on all but the most essential services."

The library's users, however, argue that an essential service will be lost in the move. Technically the collection in the library will be open to the public, but as a practical matter it will be very difficult to find anything in it. "The central library doesn't have the staff to maintain our collection," says an MRL employee who asked not to be identified. "There's no point of access because these documents aren't on their computer. Things will be stored somewhere, but no one will be able to find them." Kreinberg adds, "A library is not just a place where you store things. It has to be organized. You have to have a card-catalog system. Most important, you need good people who know the collection and can help you find what you are looking for. You can't just dump this collection at the central library. The staff over there won't know how to find anything. And I'm sure they have other things to do."

The clipping files are also to be moved to the central library, where no one will keep them up, and where they're likely to be quickly stolen if they can be accessed. Some of Daley's aldermanic allies suggest that the files have outlived their usefulness in the computer age. But very few neighborhood papers are indexed on computer. And even if the paper someone is looking for is computer indexed, most computer services charge a search fee.

Without the MRL or some other central repository of city documents, people searching for information will be bounced from office to office in the City Hall bureaucracy. And those agencies will be flooded with requests for information, the cost of which may well cancel any savings gained from closing the MRL. "A lot of the people who come to us looking for help on something like the city code will be going to the Planning Department or the Law Department," says O'Brien. "I don't know if those departments have the staff to help the people."

There are other information branches in City Hall--notably the press office and the Mayor's Office of Information and Inquiry--but these are political operations. Their main function is to enhance Daley's image. They're not staffed by librarians who know how to collect and then store documents so they can be easily retrieved.

Some observers wonder if Daley is using the budget crisis as an excuse to ax the MRL and so limit the public's access to information about his administration. Others, like Kreinberg, are more charitable. "I doubt if the mayor even knew what was done to the library. He probably gave a general order to cut the budget, and the decision to cut the library was made by some staff member."

There's some hope that the cuts will be restored. City Hall sources say 14th Ward Alderman Edward Burke has become a behind-the-scenes advocate for the library. And the Tribune has published an editorial urging Daley to keep the full collection open to the public.

Perhaps some of the city's writers who have been supportive of Daley--Andrew Greeley, Mike Royko, Saul Bellow--will take up the cause. "This should not be a political issue," says Kreinberg. "I don't want to embarrass the mayor. I think all of us can recognize that libraries are needed now more than ever. We need information about the present and facts about the past if we're going to make good decisions in the future."

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

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