Magazine article American Libraries

Crisis at Chicago Public Library

Magazine article American Libraries

Crisis at Chicago Public Library

Article excerpt

Seven months after the Chicago Public Library celebrated the gala opening of its $144 million Harold Washington Library Center, the city's branch library system is in disarray, with no money to buy new books and enduring severe cutbacks in staff and operating hours. The result, publicized in accounts in local media, has demoralized staff and frustrated patrons.

Although many other libraries are facing cutbacks due to funding shortfalls, Chicago's problems strike many observers as to some extent needless; they blame the new downtown facility for draining scarce resources from the 82 branches, which serve the great majority of the system's users.

At the Sulzer Regional Library, one of the city's two largest branches, the situation reached a crisis point in March. Several thousand books had been returned, but no staff was available to shelve them. According to Director Leah Steele, Sulzer has lost over two dozen employees since January 1991. When the returned books overflowed carts and tables set up in the public area, they had to be piled up on the floor.

"The irony of it is that our circulation has never been higher," said Steele. "If we had all our books on the shelves we would've blown everybody out of the water." As it is, circulation at Sulzer already approaches that of the central library: In February, Sulzer circulated 57,824 items compared to 82,498 at the Harold Washington Library.

Systemwide staffing levels have plummeted over the past decade while the number of branches has grown. In 1979 CPL had some 2,400 budgeted positions; currently there are about 1,560, some 195 of which are unfilled. Since John Duff became library commissioner in December 1985, CPL has built or renovated some 25 branches; an average of three new branches were opened each year during that period.

Duff told AL the perception that the new Washington Library was opened at the expense of the branches was "absolutely inaccurate. We had to lay off 36 people at the end of the last fiscal year [Dec. 31, 1991]" due to across-the-board citywide cuts mandated by Mayor Richard M. Daley. "Except for three building engineers, all the cuts came from the central library. Not a single person was cut from the branches."

Duff said the city's last budget also mandated cutbacks in hours. The decision was then made not to fill vacant positions, since the service cutbacks would result in a need for fewer staff. The hours were restored in December after city aldermen complained about the cuts, but red tape has delayed the filling of the positions.

The staffing shortages have forced Sulzer, as well as other CPL libraries, to rely heavily on volunteers. Steel said that Sulzer had 70 volunteers who put in 184 hours in April. "But you can't run a library on volunteers," she added. "Their enthusiasm will wane.... They should not be used as day-in, day-out workers."

Despite the use of volunteers, the professional staff is forced to perform decidedly nonprofessional functions. Victoria Khamis, cochair of the Friends of Sulzer, told AL that Steele's title of regional librarian "means she gets to shampoo the rug and put books back on the shelves. She's put in more page hours than the pages."

The frustration that results when librarians are unable to do the job they were hired to do is apparent to Khamis: "They turn these quiet, introspective people into snarling alley cats. …

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