Obligatory end-of-the-year heart-melting anecdote: While trick-or-treating this Halloween, my wife and I took our two-year-old son to our local library branch. There, instead of receiving candy, he was handed a Spanish-language book about colors. He started laughing immediately and was pumped to lay the book atop his pumpkin bucket, covering the Dum Dums and Kit Kats. On the way out, instead of wishing the librarian “Happy Halloween” he hollered, “Happy Book Day!” It was one of those great parenting moments when you want to look around at everyone in the room and say, “Look at how awesome this person is!” That night we read the book four times.
I’ve largely stayed out of the fray over the library cuts in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s budget, mostly because my wife works for Chicago Public Library, and we all know how much Chicago frowns upon mixing family and politics. In November, the mayor announced hundreds of layoffs in the library system and the planned reduction of hours for dozens of local branches. How a mayor who has proclaimed improving the city’s education a top priority could then undercut a public library system that is the largest repository of educational materials—for both kids and adults—in the city makes little sense. But it’s also an enormous tragedy for the literary scene.
Emanuel played the whole thing perfectly: He initially overbet on the number of layoffs and reduced them at a later stage in the negotiations, to prove just how reasonable he could be. He sat down for an interview with a cringingly credulous Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who wrote “I find ‘Rahmbo’s’ Chicago agenda intriguing because it’s a microcosm of what the whole country will have to do for the next decade: find smart ways to invest in education and infrastructure to generate growth while cutting overall spending to balance the budget—all at the same time and with limited new taxes.”
That would be intriguing, if that’s what Emanuel did. Instead, he cut the second-biggest educational engine in the city, and held on to the $500 million surplus sitting in the mayor’s discretionary TIF fund. In other words, the exact opposite of what drew Friedman’s praise. People protested, but Emanuel went ahead regardless. But if he’d taken a look at what’s happened around the city in the last year, he could have taken a cue from his constituents.
In the fall of 2010, parents of Pilsen’s Whittier School children staged a 36-day sit-in to get a library. That fight has continued this year, resulting in another sit-in in June, as the parents pushed to put the library in the school’s fieldhouse, rather than removing classroom space. In the same month, the Poetry Foundation opened up its new building in River North, housing a beautiful library full of 30,000 volumes of poetry. Last month the Chicago Underground Library rebranded itself as the Read/Write Library and for the first time opened its own independent space, which houses an impressive collection of self-published and DIY literature and encourages patrons to come and create some. Chicagoans, save its most powerful citizen, see the value in libraries so much that they are fighting for and building their own.
That will be the literary legacy of 2011, and will undoubtedly be a black mark on Emanuel’s legacy, as well. It was a year in which the people of Chicago prioritized libraries, and the mayor ignored them. On any given day the public library supports—via events with big-name authors in the Pritzker Auditorium or first-book Chicago authors in the branches—readers and writers in this city, a city that prides itself on its literary heritage to the point of enshrinement, but has done precious little to support the writers living and working in the city now. The library is the lone institution actively supporting contemporary Chicago authors while simultaneously fostering new readers and writers. Emanuel actively undercut that institution, and with it every writer and reader in this city, and any kid who devours books like candy.