For 28 years Marsha Huddleston was a librarian in the children’s division of the downtown public library. According to her colleagues, she helped build the collection and knew it as well as, if not better than, anyone else in the system.

Yet last month library commissioner Mary Dempsey ordered Huddleston sent to a branch on the city’s far southwest side and replaced her with a young librarian who hadn’t been on the job long. “They took my 28 years of experience and traded it for someone with two,” says Huddleston. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Huddleston’s transfer is part of a radical transformation of the library system engineered by Dempsey and Mayor Daley. In the last month, 24–roughly a quarter–of the reference librarians at the Harold Washington Library Center have been sent to various neighborhood branches. Dempsey and her aides say the Harold Washington can absorb the loss without diminishing services, but many librarians say the changes will result in longer lines at reference desks and fewer books on shelves. “This is a crisis point for the library,” says David Williams, a reference librarian who was sent from the Harold Washington to a south-side branch. “They’re losing years of experience as they put good librarians out to pasture. The public should be warned–the future of the central library is at stake.”

Tension between Dempsey and the Harold Washington librarians has been building for years, as the commissioner’s made it clear that she wants to expand the role of the library. According to her, libraries should be much more than places where people get books. They should also be civic meeting places where residents can gather for book groups and lectures and, most important, have access to the Internet. And so she and Mayor Daley have overseen a $50 million campaign that has built or renovated 27 branches over the past seven years. She’s now trying to promote libraries as fun and exciting spots–like Starbucks or Barnes & Noble–where young professionals can congregate.

Many observers outside the system have lauded Dempsey’s efforts. Her program “One Book, One Chicago”–which encourages residents across the city to read and discuss such classics as To Kill a Mockingbird and My Antonia–has been imitated in several other cities. And largely because of her efforts, Library Journal, a national trade publication, named Daley “politician of the year” in 1997. “No American political leader more thoroughly reflects the effective use of the political process to build a strong library system and service than [Mayor Daley] of Chicago,” the magazine stated in announcing the award.

Yet expansion has a price. It costs a lot of money to build, stock, hook up, and operate new branches. As a result, staff vacancies have gone unfilled at many new and existing branches, including the Harold Washington, and the system’s book budget has shrunk from about $4.3 million in 1995 to $2.5 million in 2002.

“As book prices go up our book budget has gone down–how can we possibly maintain our collection?” says Huddleston. “I’m not just talking about keeping copies of old classics. I’m talking about keeping up with hot titles.” As an example she cites Lady Knight, a recently published novel for young readers by Tamora Pierce: “We didn’t have any money to buy it, and that’s a well-received and popular novel–the fourth in a series.”

Her comments are echoed by other librarians. “The irony is that Daley wants to be known as the book-lover mayor,” says Williams. “But it’s one thing to build branches. It’s another to stock them. I believe we’re dumbing down the collection.”

According to Williams, the central library has been particularly hard hit by cuts in the book-buying budget. Joel Dickman, another recently transferred reference librarian, says, “The downtown library should be able to meet the research needs of a college student, and there are a lot of students at Roosevelt and Columbia who use Harold Washington as their main source for books. But without the books we can’t meet this critical need.”

A random survey showed a surprising lack of depth in the liberal arts collections. The library has, for instance, five copies of Charles Beard’s classic study An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, but it doesn’t have any copies of We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution, Forrest McDonald’s neoconservative critique of Beard’s analysis. In other words, any student hoping to research the most basic college term paper on the Constitution would be out of luck.

“I suspect if you did a survey you’d find embarrassing holes,” says Williams. “But there’s never been a thorough study.” One key to maintaining a collection, he says, is to hire enough librarians to keep up with the stream of new books being published each year. But the library has had a hiring freeze for over a year, in part because of the city budget crisis brought on by the recession. In July, Mayor Daley asked city employees to take a one-week furlough, and when the employees said no he ordered department heads to make cuts. That’s why Dempsey had the librarians sent from the Harold Washington to fill vacancies at the neighborhood branches. As she sees it, the transfers, which she calls “balancings,” enable the system to fill vacancies without wasting desperately needed money on new salaries.

The Harold Washington librarians say the transfers defy logic. For instance, Dempsey sent veteran reference librarian Linda Porter to the Hall branch, at 4801 S. Michigan, to work as a children’s librarian. “I mean no disrespect to children’s librarians–I appreciate the important role they play,” says Porter. “But I have no experience as a children’s librarian. My expertise is patents and trademarks. I know the collection, and it’s an important collection. We are a federal depository for patents. Why would you take a patents librarian and put her in the children’s section?”

Dempsey sent Williams to the Bessie Coleman branch, at 731 E. 63rd, even though he’s worked for 26 years in the downtown library’s social science and history department and helped build the psychology, sociology, law, and occult collections. Dickman was sent to the South Chicago branch, at 9055 S. Houston, where his expertise is of little use. “Basically I function as a children’s librarian at South Chicago,” he says. “Kids say to me, ‘Where are the dinosaur books?’ And I show them. My years of experience are being wasted.”

Like the other librarians, Dickman learned he was being transferred in early October, when he was called for a private meeting with personnel chief Donna Maloney. “It was an ultimatum,” he says. “Donna wasn’t asking whether I wanted to go. I pointed out that this was a violation of the union contract, which stipulates that seniority govern such transfers. She said they had consulted their legal department and legal had said they do not have to follow that part of the contract.”

Williams suspects Dempsey is using the budget crisis as an excuse to punish outspoken employees by transferring them. He’s been a vocal critic of her book-buying policies, and he’s part of a dissident slate that’s challenging the leaders of the library employees’ union in a November 22 election. The president of the union, Evelyn Stewart, happens to be the head of the Coleman branch.

“They called me in for my meeting and said, ‘You’re going to Coleman,'” says Williams. “I said, ‘Donna, you’re kidding. This has got to be a bad joke.’ I mean, why would they put me and Evelyn in the same branch? I said, ‘You know Evelyn and I are archenemies in the union.’ I said, ‘This is a serious conflict of interests.’ And Donna managed to keep a straight face as she said, ‘I hope you can be professional about this.'”

Huddleston suspects Dempsey had another motive for the transfers. “I think they wanted to force older librarians to retire so they could save money on our salaries by replacing us with younger librarians who make less,” she says. “That’s why they sent so many of us who don’t drive–like David Williams, Linda Porter, and myself–to libraries far from our homes.”

Huddleston lives on the far northwest side. “But the library called me in and told me they were sending me to the Mount Greenwood branch, which is about as far southwest as you can go and still be in Chicago,” she says. “They gave me a packet with a CTA map and a piece of paper with talking points on it. One of the points said something like, ‘Think of this as an exciting job opportunity to expand your experience.’ The final point said we could talk to a city counselor if we feel the need to talk about these changes.”

Huddleston says she all but begged to stay at the Harold Washington. “I said, ‘Donna, you know I can’t get down there. You know I don’t drive. That’s got to be a two- or three-hour commute from my house.’ But she just kept on talking. I said, ‘If I don’t accept this, what happens?’ She said, ‘You’re terminated.'” So Huddleston visited Mount Greenwood. “The people were very nice, but it’s an impossible travel situation that would add close to $200 a month in transit fees. So I retired. I was hoping to stay on another two years to max out on my pension, but I just wasn’t ready to face that commute.”

Huddleston says the librarian who replaced her lives on the southwest side and had been working at the Mount Greenwood branch. “Now let’s follow the logic,” she says. “They were taking a woman who lives on the northwest side and sending her to the southwest side, while taking a woman who lives on the southwest side and sending her downtown. I can only think they wanted to force me to retire. If that’s so, they got what they wanted.”

Dempsey and her aides dismiss such allegations as groundless. “This is a balancing of the workforce based on a department-wide analysis of resources and needs that determined which locations were chronically short of librarians,” says Karen Danczak Lyons, the system’s first deputy commissioner. “The division chiefs [at the Harold Washington] looked at their resources and looked at the particular skills that were needed, and then determined where we could balance.”

Were some librarians transferred as punishment for their activism?

“No–that’s absolutely not true,” she says. “We’re looking at the best use of librarians.”

Lyons says service won’t suffer at the Harold Washington–even though fewer employees will be shouldering the work, particularly in the children’s department. She says they’ve brought in three children’s librarians to replace the 24 who were transferred. “We are refocusing the [children’s department] to be a training ground. New librarians will go there so they can be mentored.”

But reference librarians say service is bound to suffer. “They’re asking fewer librarians to do more work,” says Dickman. “In my old department there were 19 librarians. Now there are 11. As it was, we often had people lined up waiting for help–and that was before the cuts. They claim service won’t change. That’s simply impossible.” (The librarians plan to protest at the library board’s November 19 meeting, at 10 AM at the Harold Washington; the meeting is open to the public.)

Huddleston says she’s already been getting phone calls from new staffers at the downtown library. “They’re looking for books or they want to know about titles–they don’t know the collection,” she says. “[Dempsey] says they’re using the children’s department as a training ground? If that’s so, they’ll never have a permanent staff. You know what really bothers me? Look at the library budget. They not only have a press secretary, but they also have a marketing director. Why hire a marketing director when you’re getting rid of librarians? Where are their priorities? They talk about “One Book, One Chicago.” The way they’re going they’ll have only one book in the whole library and no librarians who know where it is.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Fogelman.