This is written in response to a December 6 letter from “a librarian with 25 years’ experience.”

That 25-year-veteran

says that before Dempsey, there were “numerous commissioners” and a lack of leadership. Leaving aside a few “acting” commissioners who served very briefly, there have been but three: Amanda Rudd, John Duff, and the present one. Mr. Duff was an utter contrast to Dempsey and made every effort to be personable. When the library first moved into its present building, it was short-staffed, so he and his assistants would even help out at reference desks when necessary. He did not merely sit on Mount Olympus, as his successor does, and hurl thunderbolts at his underlings.

says that the Harold Washington Library Center (HWLC) is not in the same league as the New York Public Library. Of course it isn’t. The NYPL is not a public library: it’s a privately funded research library. However, the HWLC is still the largest public library in North America.

concedes that HWLC has some “decent” collections. This is damning with faint praise. It has government documents, patents, maps, the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) collection, listening rooms and practice rooms, material in foreign languages, newspapers (ethnic and neighborhood, often in complete runs), the Municipal Reference Collection, the Harold Washington Collection, the Chicago Collection, the Blues Archives, and the Chicago Artists’ Archives. Is there anything like this in any of the branch libraries? All of these specialized collections (of which I’ve named only a portion) require specialized workers. And sending the specialized workers to the branches, to act as children’s librarians (and often as baby-sitters for latchkey kids) is like telling a thoracic surgeon to act as a pediatrician–or vice versa.

says that the Sulzer Regional Library circulates almost as many books as does the HWLC, and does it with a smaller staff. By this, he or she means to suggest that the former is more efficient. That’s absurd bureaucratic bean counting. A regional library is different from the main library. About 80 percent of the patrons of the HWLC come to do research (requiring intensive one-on-one help from librarians) and not necessarily to check out books. But this time and effort expended by specialized librarians does not show up in mere figures of book circulation. HWLC has lost staff and yet has more service points than any regional library.

defends “centralized ordering.” This technique does truly result, as critics have charged, in “cookie-cutter” collections in the branches, and these collections often fail to meet the needs of a branch’s patrons. For example, one branch, in an economically depressed African-American neighborhood, has half a shelf of Passover cookbooks, in an area where Jews are nonexistent.

charges that one of the librarians named in a recent article in your newspaper is a person “of questionable character.” Why didn’t he or she have the guts to name him? What is “questionable” about him? His only sin is that he has been a frequent critic of Dempsey’s reign. But his outspokenness does not mean that his character is bad.

Mary Dempsey loves gimmicks and advertising hype, such as ribbon cuttings at new (and superfluous and underutilized) branches and book-signings.

Incidentally, there are too many branches and they are too close together. They cannot be staffed except by kicking specialized librarians out of the central library and sending them to the neighborhoods. This has two bad results. First, the central library is deprived of librarians it needs. Second, the branches acquire press-ganged, dragooned, demoralized librarians who are not trained to work with schoolchildren.

In some of the neighborhoods that Dempsey has graced with new and understaffed branches, the money could have been much better spent for improving police protection, or schools, or Park District services, or social work.

Library employees (except those in the executive suite) are so demoralized that they are merely gritting their teeth and counting the months or years until they can retire. What was once an admirable profession has become, in the hands of Mary Dempsey, a mere job–and an unpleasant one, at that.

What does she get out of ceaselessly promoting turmoil and disaffection, out of throwing her weight around and flexing her muscles? She sits up on the tenth floor, surrounded by a flock of sycophants, and issues pronunciamentos. Handpicked favorites swallow up taxpayers’ dollars. Ironically, it’s the highest-paid employees in the library system who render the least service to the public.

Why does Mayor Daley put up with this poor manager?

A Discouraged Librarian