When the temperature in the old Lakeview library climbed past 90 one summer day in 1982 and the building had to be closed, the bosses downtown decided the time had come to rehabilitate the 40-year-old building at 644 W. Belmont.

So they, put together $1.8 million in state, federal, and local funds, while 44th Ward Alderman Bernard Hansen rounded up enough dollars from the city to open a temporary branch. They painted, removed asbestos, knocked down walls, laid new carpet, installed an elevator, built a ramp for wheelchairs, and added an atrium to the front. Basically, it’s the same building, but it’s brighter, it holds more books, and it has air-conditioning. On December 8–with a slew of beaming officials on hand–it opened to the public. “This is a beautiful branch,” says Cynthia Kralevic, the branch librarian. “This is a library the whole community can be proud of.”

The renovation is part of an ambitious neighborhood-branch-expansion program launched by library commissioner John Duff–an impressive three-year achievement that’s been largely obscured by the fact that the central library, shipped to three different locations in the last two decades, is a civic shame.

Since 1986, the library board has spent about $13 million building or renovating branches in Bridgeport, Lakeview, Hegewisch, West Lawn, Logan Square, Mount Greenwood, and Pilsen. If all goes well, 11 other projects–including the much-talked-about Chinatown library–will be completed by 1992. “I’m not afraid to criticize the system, and Lord knows we have problems,” says J.S. Fuerst, a member of the library board. “But we’ve done a smashing job. These neighborhood libraries are beautiful.”

The success has come in the face of many obstacles. Construction funds come from different state, federal, and local sources, thus multiplying the paperwork. At times contractors complained that their paychecks were delayed when blueprints went through two or three stages of review. Money for one project–the Logan Square library renovation–was delayed by a feud between Governor Thompson and Mayor Washington. Construction of the Pilsen library stalled as library officials scrambled to find a Hispanic architect. And through it all, library officials have had to deal with mind-numbing indifference on the part of many Chicagoans.

Members of New York City’s society crowd take great pride in their central library–even if they don’t use it. In contrast, Chicago converted its central library into a cultural center in 1974 and stuffed its collection of books into the top three floors of a dreary old warehouse. The books sat there–with hardly a whimper of protest from civic leaders or the leading newspapers–until last year, when they were dumped someplace else.

True, library supporters did create a Chicago Public Library Foundation to raise money to buy books and materials. But despite the hard work of some board members, they’ve been able to raise only $4.5 million (their goal is a $20-million trust, the interest from which will be spent on supplies). And yes, the City Council appropriated money to build a new library at the corner of State and Van Buren, but that won’t open until 1991–at the earliest. Besides, there’s no guarantee that the money needed to staff and operate the new library won’t be be cut from the branches’ budgets.

In the face of such indifference, the emphasis on neighborhood libraries is important, since the people who depend on the branches–unlike most lawyers, scholars, and journalists don’t have access to private collections.

“The neighborhood library is the people’s university,” says Duff. “[Trotsky] once wrote to someone in London that he had never experienced anything like the New York Public Library–that great collection of books for all men and women, rich or poor. It’s where you go to help you find a job, or bake a pie, or learn to dance, or play a musical instrument, or to just stir your imagination.”

All told, about $35 million, or 65 percent of the library system’s annual $50 million budget, goes to the 84 neighborhood branches. They employ more than 1,000 workers–nearly 70 percent of the system’s work force–whose biggest challenge is how to stock their collections.

A rule of thumb is that libraries in small cities or suburbs should have a collection that can at least satisfy the reading needs of a college undergraduate. In this regard, Chicago is more than well served by its two regional libraries (Woodson, at 9525 S. Halsted, and Sulzer, at 4455 N. Lincoln), which have more than twice the staff, space, books, and budget of any neighborhood branch. In fact, Sulzer–whose overworked and underpaid staff is courteous and efficient–may be the finest public library of its size in the metropolitan area. An informal survey shows that Sulzer has many recently published important books–Sterling Stuckey’s Slave Culture, for instance, and Marina Warner’s Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism–that aren’t found in some outstanding North Shore suburban libraries.

A neighborhood branch, however, has a different purpose. “A neighborhood library must meet the needs of the people who use it the most,” says Fuerst. “This means collecting books that people want to read and gathering materials that help them with their lives. In this regard the libraries of London, Toronto, and Paris are way ahead of us. You go into a library in London and you can find books and material on drugs, abortion, AIDS, unemployment, raising children–things that people have to deal with every day.

“I think our neighborhood libraries should also deal with the problem of illiteracy. I know, it’s true–libraries cannot be expected to teach people how to read. On the other hand if the libraries are getting so little use because people can’t read, we have to deal with that. We have some great literacy programs in a lot of our branches. In general a good librarian has to know his or her community.”

In Lakeview that means stocking a collection for an economically and ethnically diverse community, whose housing ranges from brick bungalows to lakefront high rises. “My job’s easier than other librarians’ because I know my community,” says Kralevic. “I’ve lived in Lakeview for seven years. I love my clientele. I respect them.”

She stacks her magazine racks with a variety of general-interest periodicals as well as publications–such as Value Line, a weekly report on the stock market–that meet more specific needs. “Lakeview is diverse and cosmopolitan. It’s home to more off-Loop theater groups than any other community,” she says. “A lot of the city’s artists live here. So I have a special theater collection. We also have a Judaica collection, since many residents are Jewish. We have materials in Spanish. We have pamphlets and material on the history of Lakeview.”

Last year the Lakeview branch received $36,000 (an amount that should increase this year) from the library board to buy books, newspapers, and magazines. The library has 78,000 books in its collection. “The real challenge is keeping up with what my clientele is reading,” says Kralevic. “There are some conventional ways to find books. I read the trade journals, like McNaughton Book Service or Publishers’ Weekly.

“I also read the popular book-review sections. I buy just about any book on the New York Times best-sellers list. Anything by Sidney Sheldon or Judith Krantz I know I must buy. Anne Tyler is really big in Lakeview. Mysteries are popular, so are diet books. People love to read self-help and pop psychology. My readers also love nonfictionalized accounts of unusual murders. Right now, we have a lot of reserve slips for Murder in Little Egypt, which is about a doctor in some downstate Illinois town who took out a big insurance policy on his sons and then killed them.

“The problem with these books is that there’s always an immediate demand. Initially I’ll get dozens of people asking for The Sands of Time [Sheldon’s current best-seller], but in a few months the demand will drop. And in a year or so you just don’t know who will be reading it. So I can’t order too many of these hot sellers. It’s very tricky.

The hottest book last summer was Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, about life in New York City. “We had dozens of reserve slips for Bonfire, I had to buy two copies to meet all the demand,” Kralevic recalls. “At the same time, the demand for Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez wasn’t so hot even though it’s a good book. So I started pushing Love in the Time of Cholera on the people who wanted Bonfire. I would tell them ‘Listen, while you’re waiting for Bonfire, I’ve got this hot read. You want something stimulating, something that will impress your boss, then read this.’ And they would come back and say ‘Thank you. That is a good book.'”

In addition to hawking best-sellers, Kralevic has also organized two weekly story-telling hours for toddlers. The Lakeview branch also rents videos. It shows children’s movies on Friday afternoons, allows community groups to use its auditorium and two meeting rooms, and displays the works of Chicago painters and photographers. “We want people to use our facility,” says Kralevic. “I love looking out in the reading room and seeing all the chairs taken.”

“It sounds funny to say this, but we need all sorts of gimmicks and promotions to get people into our libraries,” adds Fuerst. “We have to encourage citizen participation. And it’s hard. It’s not just Chicago. Neighborhood planners in London, Toronto, Rotterdam tell me the same thing. You’re going to put a glue factory in someone’s neighborhood or a school for delinquent children, then everybody comes out to raise a big tsimmes [fuss]. But when it comes to getting them to help build a library, or to even use it, oy vay iz mir, it’s like pulling teeth.

“With the Pilsen library, we had 175 show up for the board meeting when we decided what to name it. I looked at all the people, and I said: ‘It’s very nice that you care so much about your library’s name. I only hope that when it opens, you go down there and check out some books.'”

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