Ron Roenigk was in a meeting on August 20, discussing the fate of the Sulzer Regional Library, when a local librarian burst in. The city, she breathlessly announced, almost in tears, was loading up boxes of books–hundreds and hundreds of books–and carting them off to be destroyed.

Roenigk’s life hasn’t been the same since, as he and many of his neighbors have rallied to help their library–even though that has meant taking on library commissioner Mary Dempsey, one of Mayor Daley’s most influential allies. “They’re destroying books–precious books that cannot be replaced,” says Roenigk, who publishes Inside, a community newspaper. “I’m shocked and I’m horrified. How does Dempsey think she’s going to get away with it? I won’t let her. I’ve decided this is the hill I’m dying on.”

This battle has been a long time coming. Library commissioners have never been too cozy with Sulzer’s users, but tensions have grown in the past few years under Dempsey, who prides herself on having a firm–autocratic, critics might say–management style.

Sulzer users have never been fully satisfied with the facility at 4455 N. Lincoln, mostly because the city never came through as promised when it was constructed back in the early 1980s. As nice at it looks–it’s one of the city’s brightest and airiest branch libraries–the city lopped about 30,000 square feet off the original design. As a result, there’s never been enough space to house all the books, magazines, and newspapers brought over from the old site–now the home of the Old Town School of Folk Music–much less the growing collection. To make matters worse, the roof was built with a flaw that has yet to be corrected, and during major storms it leaks, creating puddles and causing sewage to back up in the rest rooms.

Sulzer supporters–many of whom are members of the advisory group Friends of Sulzer Library, which sponsors lectures, concerts, and poetry readings and has raised almost $100,000 to support them–see the leaky roof as a symbol of the central office’s indifference, condescension, and jealousy. These backers, a fiercely outspoken bunch who believe they know more about their library than the central-office bosses, point out that the Sulzer video collection, which is second to none in the city, brings in about $100,000 a year in rental fees. Its circulation is second only to the Harold Washington Library’s and may top that–which would be a major embarrassment for Dempsey and her loyal library-board commissioners, who desperately want the central library to be the centerpiece of the system.

Sulzer’s supporters also point to the system’s shortcomings, particularly its tightfisted and confusing book-buying policies: all orders must go through the central office, which is backed up. “It’s always a struggle to buy books and then get the books we buy,” says one Sulzer insider. “I know our collection is behind. I don’t blame readers for going to Evanston or Skokie if they want to keep up with the latest fiction.”

If the Sulzer supporters are loyal to any official, it’s Sulzer’s director, Leah Steele, who grew up in the neighborhood and knows most, if not all, of the local politicians and civic leaders. Their disdain for the central office is apparently shared by many employees at Sulzer, as well as librarians throughout the system. They say Dempsey is mean-spirited and retributive, punishing anyone who dares to speak out. “There’s a lot of paranoia in the system,” says the insider. “Most people fear their phones are tapped and that their E-mail’s being read.”

Moreover, there seems to be a growing philosophical disagreement between Steele and Dempsey over Sulzer’s future. Sulzer is one of the system’s two regional libraries–the other is Woodson, at 95th and Halsted–so it has a larger and broader collection than the typical neighborhood branch. “A regional should provide enough material to satisfy the needs of students up to the junior-college level,” says the insider. “Without Sulzer or Woodson, the central library would be quickly overburdened.”

Yet Sulzer staffers say that Dempsey has privately suggested that the system might be better off if the regionals were closed or drastically cut back. In 1998 she resisted efforts by a distinguished group of south-side professors to expand Woodson so that it could house the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American Culture. Sulzer’s backers fear she now wants to get rid of their video collection, though she recently insisted she doesn’t. “You get mixed signals all the time from Mary,” says the insider. “Through the questions she asks we’ll get the suggestion that certain services aren’t functioning or are no longer necessary. She’ll make comments that the role of the regional is changing and we have branches, so is that enough? And do we need multiple copies of classics? And shouldn’t we have more space for computers?”

In the first week of August, Dempsey offered Steele a new position as liaison between the library and the public schools. Steele refused the offer. The resulting stalemate–Dempsey says Steele resigned; Steele, who’s officially on vacation through September, says she didn’t–has left Sulzer without a director and the Friends of Sulzer up in arms.

This was the state of things when Roenigk got the word about books being destroyed on August 20. “We were having our Friends of Sulzer meeting, and this librarian from Sulzer showed up unannounced and said, ‘You won’t believe this, but they’re taking books out of the library,'” he says. “She said they’re hauling out 100 boxes a day. She was so upset she was trembling. I started to take notes, and she said, ‘Don’t write this down.’ She was afraid coming to our meeting could cost her her job.”

As the day wore on, other frantic Sulzer employees began spreading the word. “I got a call from an employee who was so devastated she was crying,” says Victoria Khamis, a longtime member of Friends of Sulzer. “I said, ‘Listen, sweetheart, darling, here’s what you do. Call Charlotte Kim [one of Dempsey’s top aides] and tell her that Victoria the Monster is in and is asking questions. Call as a snitch–they love snitches. They’ll probably give you a promotion.'”

On Tuesday, August 21, a crowd of people asking questions descended on Sulzer, including Khamis, Roenigk, 47th Ward alderman Eugene Schulter, Pat Butler, staff writer for the local Lerner paper, and David Harrell, Inside’s news editor. “When we got there we counted 66 boxes on the loading docks filled with books,” says Roenigk. “I had a camera, and I started taking pictures. I mean, it was mind-blowing. They had old books, new books, classics–everything. There was a new copy of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, which came out in 1999. There were two Mike Royko collections. There was the Koran, Better Homes and Gardens cookbooks, Schindler’s List, books by J.D. Salinger and Dean Koontz. They had ripped out the title pages and removed the bar codes so no one would know they were library books. It was the destruction of public property.”

Eventually, Roenigk and the others went to the basement, where workers were boxing more books. “One of Dempsey’s staffers got into a shouting match with Schulter,” says Roenigk. “She told Schulter, ‘You’re not supposed to be here–this is off-limits.’ And he told her, ‘I’m the alderman.’ He finally pulled out his aldermanic badge and said, ‘You get your superior right now!'”

The Dempsey aide left the room and returned with another central-office administrator named Jim Pletz. “We started firing questions at Pletz,” says Roenigk. “Within ten minutes Mary Dempsey is on the phone and she wants to talk to Pletz. The poor guy was sweating bullets. You have to understand, Dempsey’s never returned our calls. She always ducked our questions. She wouldn’t let any administrator answer them. Now we’re grilling Pletz–he had no place to go.”

After a testy exchange between Pletz and his interrogators–Khamis accused him of lying–the confrontation ended without resolution. “We realized that something was up when we saw all those boxes,” says Roenigk. “I talked to the guy who was driving the truck taking books, and he said he’d been moving 200 boxes a day. He said they had told him to expect to work though Labor Day. You figure the math. Each box holds between 20 and 30 books. That’s 200 boxes a day for, what? Three weeks. That’s a lot of books. Listen, this guy doesn’t lie. He’s just the truck driver, a lunch-box type. They don’t know how to lie and spin.”

The next day Dempsey met with Schulter, Khamis, and other members of Friends of Sulzer. Roenigk says Dempsey barred Butler, Harrell, and him from the meeting. “Mary said no media–she didn’t want it open to the press. That included me, even though I’m a board member of Friends of Sulzer in addition to being publisher of Inside.”

Later that day, Inside came out with an issue featuring Harrell’s account of the confrontation at the library, pictures of dozens of boxes of books being loaded onto the truck, and a satirical editorial, written by Roenigk and headlined “Gulag Dempsey: Commissioner gags staff as Sulzer Library collection now Gone With the Wind.”

With the issue out, Roenigk says he decided to go to a local restaurant for lunch. “I was eating when I got a call on my cell phone,” he says. “It’s a source at Sulzer, and they said, ‘Quick, get over here. Mary Dempsey’s in the library personally watching the weeding of the books.’ I ran right over, looked at the loading dock, and sure enough, there were 56 boxes of books ready to go. At that point two security guards confronted me and shooed me away. I went to the reference desk and said, ‘Can you please page Mary Dempsey?’ Then a little bird came over and whispered in my ear, ‘If I were you, I’d check the back door.’ So I sprinted out of the library and who do I see but Dempsey. I ran over yelling, ‘Commissioner Dempsey, I want to speak to you,’ like I’m friggin’ Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes. She’s there with two aides, and they’re walking toward a car, a gray Lumina. I caught up with them, and I told her my name. She asked if I wrote those stories, and I said yes. She said, ‘I certainly won’t talk to you.’ I asked her why she wouldn’t answer our questions, and she said, ‘I’m not in hiding. I talk to the public all the time.’ I said, ‘The story’s not going away just because you’re not talking about it,’ and she asked if I was threatening her. Then they got into the car and drove away.”

Roenigk’s account of the book removals was confirmed by Khamis, Sulzer staffers, and Butler’s account in the Lerner paper. According to the staffers, the central-office employees had thousands of books hauled away, including multiple copies of many classics as well as books with buckram binding. “Their attitude was buckram binding is the kiss of death–meaning, I guess, that people won’t check it out if there’s not a picture on the cover,” says one staffer. “What’s the point of that? Hundreds of classics are bound in buckram. If you want to read the book, what do you care how it’s bound?

“God only knows what valuable books they took. They didn’t ask us for our advice. It sickens me thinking about this. We spent a lot of time going to all the high schools, getting their reading lists so we can meet their needs. Then these people march in and take away the books. Their rules were idiosyncratic. One of them said, ‘I’ll leave you three copies of Moby-Dick because I like Moby-Dick.’ Who are they to say what goes up on our shelves? What do they know about the reading needs of this community?”

Dempsey was out of town and not available for comment. But library press secretary Margot Burke says there’s no need for Sulzer users to panic. She says that contrary to rumors, Dempsey has no plans to convert Sulzer to a neighborhood branch or get rid of its video collection and that eventually Dempsey will fill the vacancy caused by Steele’s “resignation” and create a new Sulzer advisory council that will include central-office administrators. She adds, “I understand they will meet with the commissioner in September.”

While it is true that some books were removed from Sulzer, Burke continues, that’s “a normal procedure known as weeding. They replace out-of-date books or damaged books with current titles in the same subject area. They replace classic books that have been damaged through excessive use. It’s a regular process that all libraries and bookstores do.

“I don’t how many books have been taken out or how many they intend to take out–they will have a count at the end,” she goes on. “Some of them have been computer books from the 1970s–it’s time for them to go. We obviously have experts on book titles overseeing this. Our adult-service director, Jim Pletz, looked through the fiction because that’s his speciality. I should add that such weedings will go on at all of our 78 locations, not just Sulzer.” She says she doesn’t know what happened to the books.

She says neither she nor Dempsey has any ill feeling toward Sulzer’s users, despite their harsh words and criticism. “They love their library, and they want it to remain a healthy part of their community,” says Burke. “That’s what we want as well.”

As for Roenigk, Burke says that his paper made one big mistake when it erroneously suggested that she was 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke’s daughter. “I’m not related to Alderman Burke,” she says. “I’m qualified for my position, which I received solely on merit.”

Roenigk apologizes for writing that Burke was the alderman’s daughter, but he says he’s not satisfied with her explanation of what happened at the library. “She makes it sound as though the neighborhood’s satisfied, and that’s not true,” he says. “Essentially, Mary Dempsey agreed to agree with herself. Dempsey says they’re going to establish a new advisory board, even though there’s already one in place–Friends of Sulzer. We’ve been raising money and helping Sulzer for years–and now she’s going to create a new group that includes library officials? Give me a break. What kind of credibility would it have? What kind of watchdog is that group going to be? They’ll be a rubber stamp, staffers will be afraid to talk to them.

“She says it’s a normal weeding. But carting out thousands of books is not a weeding, it’s a purge. And I don’t think it’s normal to have high-ranking officials doing it. It’s like sending in a general to clean the latrine. I think Dempsey wants to clean out the shelves as part of the first step in reducing Sulzer from a regional to a neighborhood branch with the typical cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all collection. I think Woodson should watch out. They’re next.”

How this ends will probably depend on which side has the most pull with Daley. Will the mayor force Dempsey to reinstate Steele? Or to bring back the books that haven’t already been destroyed? Daley has made no public comment on the matter, though he’s agreed to meet with the Friends group.

Both sides have clout. The Friends of Sulzer are backed by Schulter and 47th Ward Democratic committeeman Ed Kelly. And Dempsey is married to trial lawyer Phil Corboy, who’s both a friend of the Daley family and a big-time party fund-raiser.

Ironically, this conflict has erupted while the city has been receiving glowing write-ups in the national press for its efforts to have as many residents as possible read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird at the same time. “It’s bitter irony,” says Roenigk. “They’re calling so much attention to one book while they’re destroying thousands.”

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