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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Feb 21, 2012, 12:40 pm

‘There’s a Ripple Effect’: A Chicago Librarian Speaks Out About Cutbacks

BY Kari Lydersen

"John," 67, has been a librarian since 1973, much of that time spent in Chicago’s currently embattled library system. Working in a branch in a low-income neighborhood, John—who asked his real name not be used since he’s not authorized to speak to reporters—sees firsthand the important role the city’s libraries play and how library workers and residents have been affected by more than recent 100 layoffs and cuts in service hours.

As I wrote previously, the libraries have become one of several high-profile battlegrounds between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and public-sector unions, including AFSCME Council 31, which represents library workers. Although past retirement age, John keeps working in part because he loves the job and the interaction with local residents. He especially enjoys working with youth—"they keep me feeling younger than my actual years," he says. But he’s frustrated that the city’s administration doesn’t seem to respect the importance of libraries today, or the needs and well-being of library workers and patrons. I recently talked with him about the issues:

How have the layoffs and cuts affected librarians who are still working?

Almost all the library staff at all levels feel somewhat demoralized. There’s seeming indifference, and a lack of appreciation of the important role libraries have in the city and their communities.

What role do libraries play in Chicago communities these days, especially low-income communities like the one around your branch?

In the economically depressed areas there’s an even greater need for the services libraries provide. I have community college students and elementary and high-school students who come in to do their homework assignments. We serve preschoolers up through community college and college graduates and beyond.

People are increasingly turning to libraries to borrow books instead of paying at a bookstore—people say they don’t have money in their budget for buying books now—it’s a symptom of the economic times. Over the past few years, increasingly people are turning to the library as a cheap resource for just recreational reading or viewing of movies.

Does the library provide a refuge for youth, given the violence in many neighborhoods?

It’s a place where young people trying to get away from activity on the street come in after school. They find a relatively safe environment until a parent who’s working gets home. We do care for a fair number of students who aren’t able to go straight home because a parent is at work.

We also have older users who are a little needier—especially in a community like mine, some people are feeling a little out of place in the library setting. They have to be helped along a little more than if you were working in a different community with a higher education level.

Citywide, how have the cuts affected the public?

It has an impact in so many ways. In the morning many branches would have preschool story hours—in my branch we’d have 10 to 20 kids for each story hour. Now because we don’t open until 12 on a couple days, story hours are being reduced. In some places the librarian conducting story hours was laid off, so that’s had an effect.

I’ve got a concept I call "intellectual capital." There’s frequently talk about how there’s need for capital expenditures, the mayor is talking about the need for infrastructure. Well there’s also the intellectual infrastructure—libraries are part of that. It’s another resource being diminished by this reduction in hours and by lesser staff, lesser service.

We also have a lot of community groups we serve, we have CAPS (Community Alternative Policing) meetings. These have all been hampered by the reduction in library hours. There aren’t as many evenings we can offer up for meetings.

Each year we have a summer reading program to help students on summer break continue reading…it’s an attempt on the part of libraries with the schools to maintain a level of retention. That is being scaled back considerably this year. There are a lot of things that are not going to get done just because of lack of staffing.

What do you think of hours being restored on monday afternoons?

Since the library staff is being asked to volunteer to work that sixth day in a week—I volunteered for the first one – according to our union contract we’re being compensated in overtime. That’s one of the advantages of having a union contract. But from an economic standpoint it makes no sense to be paying overtime when you had your lower-paid workers and part-timers (before the layoffs) to open the branch.

You have to have a certain number of people in a branch to open up each day. After the layoffs they couldn’t open up each day because of the reduction in numbers. At the West Pullman branch, where the mayor announced we would open Monday afternoons, there are only two regularly assigned people. In order to open they’ll have other people substituting from other branches.

But that means the branches they’re coming from are a little short-changed—you’re robbing from Peter to pay Paul. We’re getting by on a shoe-string budget at this point. It’s only because most of the staff is cooperating and trying to provide the library services. Library employees are very dedicated and want to provide the best level of service possible.

A page who has been laid off told us that Monday mornings—when libraries are now closed—were the most popular time for people to come in searching for jobs. Is that true?

The 9 o’clock opening for Mondays was really important for the adult users. We would have people lined up outside the library in the morning; now they have to wait until 2. We have a lot of adult users who would prefer to be able to get on computers when children are not around. Access to computers is crucial for those who are jobless -- you can’t apply for a city job without getting on a computer; libraries are primary job search areas now. Books have become somewhat secondary; access to the computers, especially for those who don’t have a computer at home—this is maybe their only way of getting free access to a computer.

People can bring in laptops for access to Wi-Fi if don’t have an Internet connection at home. Increasingly even in economically depressed areas like my branch, people will bringing laptops and use. Some branches have a position called cyber-navigator where individuals can get private classes—how to set up an email account, how to use the computer for searching on the Internet, even helping getting directions through Mapquest.

Has your job become more taxing since the cuts?

Every single library page was laid off, so the other staff have to take away from their normal responsibilities to shelve books. I shelve books on a daily basis. That means I’m taking away from my day-to-day responsibilities. We’re being forced to do the work of other people who were laid off. It’s become more stressful because we all want to do the best job we can. If I choose to do one thing, it means I’m taking away from another.

Have you heard what kind of effect the layoffs are having on pages and other staff?

Oh yeah, there’s a ripple effect. The library has a private security firm. Because their hours are being reduced, you have one security officer talking to me about how she only got 17 hours in that week because of the reduction in library hours. Not only are library employees being affected, other companies that provide services to libraries are being impacted. She was talking about how she’d have to move to Indiana or someplace else because she can’t afford the rent now.

What do you think of the high-profile battle between the mayor and AFSCME on this issue?

The union is trying to stand up for the employees. My own perspective is the mayor doesn’t seem to recognize a lot of the issues involved here—he seems to be blaming the union for the problems. It’s really not the union creating the problems, it’s the layoffs and the attitude that libraries aren’t that important.

The mayor is talking about his commitment to children and trying to lengthen the school day. I don’t think a day goes by without one library user saying it doesn’t make sense to cut library hours while they’re increasing school days. Almost all librarians feel we supplement and work together with the schools in providing educational resources.

Many of the schools don’t even have adequate school libraries—that includes the community colleges—so students come in for resources they don’t have at their own library. It’s all connected, and now we’re just weakening one of those strands that holds the whole community together.

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun and the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis. Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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