The Sulzer Regional Library was the pride and joy of the city’s library system when it opened in 1985. It was an enormous, clean, well-lit facility, stretching for nearly half a block along Lincoln near Montrose: a bright example of the city’s commitment to the neighborhoods.

Circulation is now at an all-time high, but the staff, their numbers depleted by budget cutbacks, can barely keep up. For a while hundreds of books lay on carts, waiting to be shelved. The library didn’t have enough employees to label and stack the new books they bought. Worse, budget cuts will keep them from buying new books this year.

“It’s a disgrace what the system has let happen to this wonderful library,” says Victoria Khamis, a member of the Friends of Sulzer, a not-for-profit group. “Sulzer has become a desperately run library because of the shortage of staff. When you walk in and see a head librarian shampooing a rug–and I have seen that–when you go looking for the assistant librarian and you see him on his knees shelving the books, when you walk into the technical department and see that they have still not processed new books that they bought last year, then you realize that despite all the hardworking employees something is drastically wrong with the system.”

Library commissioner John Duff says such complaints are exaggerated. “I hear the same stories of gurneys filling up with books. It’s a busy system. We could use more people. But we’re all in the same boat. These are hard times. Every department is facing budget cuts. We’ve lost people. I still say our system is as good or better than any other in the country.”

The complaints from the patrons come at a time when Duff and the library board are basking in almost universal acclaim for the new Harold Washington Library. And Duff, who is stepping down this summer to become the head of Columbia College, oversaw the largest expansion of neighborhood branches in the system’s history. “There is a feeling going around that the Harold Washington Library was opened at the expense of the branches, and that’s simply not true,” he says. “Simultaneous to the building of the downtown library, we had built or renovated or enlarged some 34 branches in the neighborhoods. That makes it the largest branch-building program in the country. We have expended about $70 million for the branches.”

Most of the money for the neighborhood facilities–many of which, like the Lakeview and Chinatown branches, have been spectacularly successful–came from state Build Illinois funds. “Go to Hegewisch, go to Mount Greenwood, go to Pilsen and see those new libraries,” says Duff. “These branches weren’t here a few years ago. There are still some neighborhoods that are underserved. If you go to Edgebrook, say, they aren’t going to stand up and cheer and say, “Great, you have a new library in Hegewisch.’ But we have made an impressive start.”

However, Khamis and other critics note that the library work force has been almost halved in the last two decades–a process that began well before Duff took over–while the number of libraries has increased. As recently as 1979 there were about 2,400 budgeted positions in the library system. Now the number is down to about 1,560. But of that number, only about 1,375 are filled. Many of the laid-off employees had been paid out of federal funds, which were cut by the Reagan and Bush administrations. In addition, says Duff, the library system laid off about 34 employees this year to comply with across-the-board cuts mandated by Mayor Daley.

“All departments, except for police, had to make these cuts,” Duff says. “We are in the midst of a recession. It’s a fact of life. I will say that these cuts are not restricted to neighborhood branches. We have 513 full-time public-service workers in our branches–that means people who work directly with the public. When you add up the support and part-time workers, you have 1,000 employees in the neighborhoods.” In contrast, he says, the central- and district-office staff number 292. “You can’t accuse us of having a bloated central office.”

But many activists argue that the system needs more employees, if for no other reason than it has more libraries. “They keep pouring the cement, they keep building the buildings, and then they make no effort to appropriately staff them,” says Khamis. “What’s the point? We have more libraries, we have more books, we have more needs.”

This year, for instance, Sulzer’s staff was cut from 75 to 68, according to central-office statistics. Lost in the cuts were an archivist, who worked with local schools, and four clerks, who helped shelve and check out books. The backlog that resulted was immediately obvious to any patron.

“These aren’t libraries anymore,” says Khamis. “They’re multiuse facilities, and it puts a strain on the employees. They serve so many different purposes. They’re a repository for income-tax information–so on tax day you’ve got 10,000 people running in to say, ‘I need a 1040. Where is it?’ And there’s this poor librarian, trying to hand out these bloody tax forms, answer the phones, and deal with a long line of people who are getting upset because every time she answers the phone she has to stop helping them.

“I see employees who are harassed. It takes a genteel, sophisticated person to become a librarian. But a lot of them are becoming snarling little so-and-sos, and I don’t blame them. Because they aren’t allowed to do the job they were hired to do.”

The situation can only get worse now that the school budget crisis has forced many public schools to close their own libraries and send students to the public branches. As it is, on most school-day afternoons, it’s difficult to find a seat at Sulzer. “It’s great that so many students use Sulzer,” says Dick Bjorklund, another member of the Friends of Sulzer. “But if you’re going to encourage people to use the library, you have to hire the staff to help them.”

The issue that angers Bjorklund most is the book budget. In 1991 the system’s book budget soared to a record $11 million–in part to stock the new central library. This year it has been cut to about $3.3 million. “With that money all they will be able to buy are magazines, newspapers, and encyclopedias,” he says. “They’ll have to bypass the new books. I just read Gordon Wood’s book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution. It’s a fantastic book. Unless you read it, you can’t know what the American Revolution was really about. Yet Sulzer can’t buy it. That’s a tragedy.”

Part of the problem, activists say, is that the library board is too conciliatory in its dealings with Mayor Daley. “You look at this board–they’re a bunch of society deadheads or Daley cronies,” says Bjorklund. “The school board, for all of its problems, will go down to Springfield to fight for more money. But it’s a different story with the library. We saw this budget crisis coming last fall. All of the neighborhood library groups went to the City Council and raised hell. And where was the board? They were at a champagne and caviar party at the Harold Washington Library. What’s the point of having them if they aren’t going to stand up and fight?”

Duff defends the board, noting that its president, Cindi Pritzker, has helped raise millions of dollars in private donations. “Under Cindi’s leadership, the Chicago Public Library Foundation has raised $13.5 million,” he says. “Our goal is to reach $20 million. When we do that, we will use some of the interest to supplement the book budget. The money can be spent only for books. I should add that we are second only to New York in our endowment.”

In the meantime the prospect of new money for the libraries looks bleak–particularly now that the city will have to spend millions repairing damage done by the Chicago River leak. That will force libraries to become more dependent on volunteers (Sulzer’s number is 744-7616).

“I have mixed feelings about the volunteer program,” says Khamis. “I volunteer, and without the volunteers we wouldn’t be able to get the books off the tables. But volunteers have to be trained by a staff person. So it’s not only answering phones and passing out tax forms, but now you have to tell people where to put the books.

“I feel sorry for the kids. For me there was something magical about a library with all of its books. This was our heritage, our civilization–what tied one generation to the next. Kids today don’t understand that magic. They see libraries as places to go to write on the glass. If we keep going the way we are, there won’t even be books on the shelves or librarians to help them.”

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