In his February 4 Reader article on the Chicago Public Library, Ben Joravsky, quoting a survey by “Chicago Public Library Advocates,” a self-proclaimed watchdog group from two north-side libraries, states that many of Chicago’s neighborhood libraries are “in dire need of renovation or repairs.” Certainly more renovation is needed for the City’s libraries, but the criticism completely ignores a neighborhood library building program which former Commissioner John Duff once described as the most ambitious and successful of any American city. As onetime President of the Friends of the Chicago Public Library, the largest of the Library support groups, I witnessed much of this achievement.
From 1985 until the present, over a dozen new full-service branch libraries were built to replace storefront operations; more than a dozen older libraries were completely renovated or enlarged. Most of the new building occurred on the west and south sides–a fact that has chagrined some of the so-called Advocates–but on the north side new libraries appeared at Sulzer Regional and Uptown, and complete renovations or enlargements took place at Logan Square, Lake View, North Austin, and Portage-Cragin.
Over the years, it had been south-side and west-side neighborhoods that had been short-changed for library construction. Thanks to the support of three Mayors–Harold Washington, Eugene Sawyer and Richard M. Daley–and most particularly to the efforts of Speaker Michael J. Madigan, over $40,000,000 in state funds were made available to improve neighborhood facilities. New buildings opened at West Lawn, Chinatown, Bridgeport (Richard J. Daley), Woodlawn (Bessie Coleman), Mount Greenwood and Hegewisch and Pilsen (Rudy Lozano). Other new facilities will open in the near future at McKinley Park, Canaryville, Clearing, and Auburn-Hamilton Park. Complete renovations have been undertaken at South Shore, Engelwood (Hiram Kelly), South Chicago, Altgeld Gardens, Pullman, Legler, and Beverly (Walker) with expansion to larger facilities occurring at East Side, Garfield Ridge, Marshall Square, and Gage Park. For a number of years, the disparities between the facilities on the north side and the rest of the city had drawn negative comments from neighborhood leaders and media. A correction of the mistake had long been in order and former Commissioner Duff and the Library Board of Trustees deserve a great deal of credit for what was accomplished.
One final point, contrary to an allegation in the article, the library book budget was not used in recent years “to stock the Harold Washington Central facility.” The branches have long received the larger part of the book budget and continue to do so. And, of course, as some “advocates” seem to forget, it is people from Chicago’s neighborhoods who patronize the Harold Washington Library Center.
Ben Joravsky replies:
1. Hope Daniels is a bit biased when it comes to the Chicago Public Library Advocates. She belongs to a rival organization. Her group, the Friends of the Chicago Public Library, is filled with insiders: the Advocates are activists. The Advocates conduct rallies where library officials are lambasted for silently acquiescing to City Hall budget cuts. The Friends hold fund-raisers where library officials are praised for working well under adverse conditions.
2. The Advocates are not limited to the north side. They’re an integrated bunch from neighborhoods all over the city.
3. Duff’s expansion program–the subject of at least three Neighborhood News articles–was financed by state construction funds. That is, money for buildings but not for books. In 1992, as the expansion was peaking, the library spent only $3.3 million on “books”–most of it for newspapers, magazines, and encyclopedias. At the same time the system was laying off clerks and cutting back hours. That meant shorter hours, longer checkout lines, and higher piles of unshelved books.
4. In 1993, for the first time in years, the branches got a greater share (57 percent) of the book-buying budget than downtown. Yet about 90 percent of borrowing is from the branches.