Here’s how old I am—I actually remember when Mary Dempsey took over as commissioner of Chicago’s library system.
That was in 1994, when then-mayor Richard Daley picked the librarian/corporate lawyer/wife of legendary personal injury attorney Phil Corboy for the gig.
Corboy, as it happened, was also a good buddy of Daley’s. Something tells me the connection didn’t hurt Dempsey’s chances of getting the job.
Let’s take a time out to extol Phil Corboy. Pound for pound, he’s the best personal injury lawyer I’ve seen. One time I saw him convince a jury to make an airline pay thousands and thousands of dollars in damages to a judge because the judge was bumped from a flight he planned to take to Kentucky to watch his prized mare give birth.
Or maybe get inseminated. You know, my memory’s not what it used to be.
Hey, hold on—this is supposed to be an article about the wife, not the husband.
So as I was saying, when Dempsey got the gig I wrote an article called “Checking out the new library boss.” It came out February 3, 1994, when half the people who are now reading, editing, or tweeting this article were still watching Sesame Street.
Give Dempsey credit—she came in swinging. She issued declarations like: “I’m willing to do what it takes to build a world-class library system.” And: “I will fight for more staff.” And: “I don’t think corporate leaders have been as vocal as they could have been when we faced cuts.” And: “Volunteers are great, but you cannot depend on them to operate a system.”
I won’t lie to you—over the years I had my share of run-ins with Dempsey over her often heavy-handed attempts at centralizing the system.
But I’ll say this—she loved building libraries and promoting books.
As did her mentor, Mayor Daley. Together they built 44 new neighborhood branches and instituted the One Book, One Chicago program, which actually encouraged people to read real books, as opposed to tweeting their thoughts of the day.
Dempsey had so much clout, I’d never thought she’d leave the way she did—basically shoved out the door by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who seems to be much more of a Twitter kind of guy.
In his first budget, Emanuel proposed to cut the already woefully understaffed library system by 363 positions.
Dempsey let it be known in terse comments at October’s budget hearings that she was not happy with those cuts.
The mayor backed off and restored 251 of the jobs. This prompted his aldermanic flunkies to fall to their knees and thank him for funding the libraries even though the libraries actually had dozens fewer employees than they did before.
Obviously, Emanuel wasn’t pleased with the whole concept of dissent, even from the well-connected wife of one of the city’s great personal injury lawyers.
Wait a second—I just remembered something about lawyers. As brilliant as Corboy is, I think he may actually be the second-greatest trial lawyer I’ve ever seen. Shout out to the late Eugene Pincham, one of the finest courtroom orators of my lifetime.
Anyway, it was only a matter of time before the inevitable occurred. On January 25, Mayor Emanuel announced that Dempsey was stepping down to be replaced by a 37-year-old librarian out of San Francisco named Brian Bannon.
At the press conference Emanuel praised Dempsey and Dempsey praised Emanuel as though they hadn’t actually spent the better part of the last few months privately cussing each other out. Because as every civic leader knows: you never, ever say anything bad about the boss in public, even when the mayor’s leading the city over the cliff.
Just a little something we have in common with other great democracies, like Spain under Generalissimo Francisco Franco.
Unfortunately, the system she leaves behind is as woefully broke as the one she inherited.
To be fair to Mayor Emanuel—hey, I’m trying—a lot of the money issues go back to Mayor Daley, who was not very good at funding operations in the libraries he built.
It’s all part of the larger philosophy, shared by Daley and Emanuel, that money paid to bond lawyers, developers, and construction trade guys to build things like libraries is prudent economic investment, while money paid to employ people to work in libraries is waste.
At the moment, Mayor Emanuel and his new best friend, Mr. Bannon, appear to be feverishly plotting to bring the libraries into the “digital era” while firing the people who work in them.
Good luck with that one, fellas.
In 2010 Mayor Daley fired 100 or so library pages. Those are the employees who make about $11 an hour to put the books away.
He also cut library hours from 64 to 48 a week.
Guess what happened?
Fewer people started coming to libraries and fewer books got put away.
And then along came Mayor Emanuel, who vowed to “reform” the libraries. Which means firing more of the $11-an-hour pages who hadn’t already been fired by Daley. Because as everyone knows, reform means firing the lowest-paid people who have the least amount of clout.
Then Mayor Emanuel closed the libraries on Mondays on account of the fact that he’d fired so many employees there weren’t enough to open them without demanding that librarians work a six-day week.
Then library users from all sides of the city—including his beloved yuppies on the north side—erupted in protest.
Which prompted the mayor to do what he does best—blame shit on unions. In this case, he said that if the librarians were willing to work six days a week, he could open the branches on Mondays.
Then he kind of changed the subject and started saying that this wasn’t really a dispute with the unions—it was just part of his larger mission to redefine the mission of libraries for the 21st century.
Translation: I’ve got to get myself out of the corner I painted myself into by underestimating the public’s love for libraries and assuming everyone ordered their books from Amazon and read them at Starbucks.
At the moment, the libraries have 1,011 employees on the payroll. In 2008, they had 1,369 employees on the payroll. To give you some perspective, there were 2,400 people on the payroll when Dempsey took over back in 1994 and said the system was understaffed.
All these cuts mean longer waits to check out books, longer waits for books to be reshelved, more librarians doing the reshelving in the absence of pages, and longer waits for books to be shipped from one branch to the other. And that means fewer staff available for helping people find the information they need to become smarter and more informed.
We wouldn’t want that.
All because the mayor fired the $11-an-hour guys who put away the books so he’d have more money available for stealing jobs from the suburbs.
And so we end the Dempsey era pretty much where we started. Only this time there is no advocate vowing to fortify the library system.
Best of luck to you, Mary. I hope you prosper in whatever lies ahead.
As for the rest of us: fasten your seatbelts. I fear this trip’s bound to get worse.