Exclusive: Chicago's cultural community speaks out against library budget cuts

Image: Courtesy Audrey Niffenegger

With the mayor's budget proposal contemplating library funding cuts so deep that a majority of aldermen have spoken out against them, and calls for the city to cover the gap by declaring a larger TIF surplus, we asked some of the city's notable cultural figures why they think libraries are worth fighting for.

We kick off with this from National Book Award finalist Aleksandar Hemon:

"People who care about books—whether they read them or write them—have consistently made this city great. To abandon that tradition is to abandon the belief in the greatness of Chicago."

Read on for some more convincing commentary:

"The public library in Enid, Oklahoma, the land of my birth, was both sanctuary and garden.  Located on Maine Street (which one might expect of a small town civic institution, but not likely expect the spelling), my best friend Russ and I plotted our then dissonant roadmaps to writing and education via a geekdom borne of spending every hour of Saturday daylight from age 8 to 16 interpreting dreams provided free of charge from books, charts and librarians.  I was home recently for the first time in several years. The library looks almost exactly as it did in my youth, which is both nostalgic and tragic. It speaks to the toxic, yet purveying sentiment that too many politicians, from Chicago to Oklahoma, place such a low value on thought."—Poet Quraysh Ali Lansana


"There's no reason city government couldn't be run out of a few stories of an unmarked office building on the near west side, or a strip mall on Lincoln Avenue. But we don't do that. We build City Fucking Hall and we put it on some prime downtown real estate because one of the things government is supposed to do is set priorities and when you look at City Hall you know what's inside there is important. 

"Libraries are for showing our kids that books are important before we could ever explain it to them. So we build them a library in every town, a library in every school, an unmistakable giant mothership library in the middle of downtown, and we show our kids that these buildings aren''t filled with Pokemons or Skittles or Star Wars Legos, or any of the things kids think are important. These buildings are filled with books. And when you walk in there you are quiet. Like in a church. And when you leave with a book you take care of it. Then you bring it back. Because what's in that book is a valuable thing we all share.

"And they get it.

"When you let those same buildings go empty, or dark, you are showing them the opposite.

"You might as well just fill them with Skittles."—Author Kevin Guilfoile


"When I moved to the city instead of moving back into my parents' suburban home after I graduated from college in the early '90s, my Chicago Public Library card felt like the strongest link I had to the four independent years I'd just spent with the books of so many writers I hoped to emulate, and maybe, if I was really lucky, meet and befriend. Very romantic aspirations for a 22-year-old who, at that point, had written a few embarrassingly bad poems and a number of equally bad short stories. The library was where I wanted to live.  It remains the place where I want to live. It is also where, I suspect, many of us feel most alive."—Author Christine Sneed


"During times of economic hardship, our leaders often look at school and library budgets as places where money can be saved--while, year after year, they promote 'growth' by giveaways to corporations and sports teams. Not only are these priorities misplaced, they confound economic common sense. The strength of a city lies in its citizens. Just as every dollar spent on early childhood education pays dividends for years to come, our libraries offer a cost-effective way of building our intellectual capital.

"Libraries offer more than just books, more than e-books and audiobooks. They offer resources to job seekers, encouragement to struggling readers--and, yes, a place for the poorest Chicagoans to come in out of the cold. They are community centers in the truest and most necessary sense. Libraries have been such a reliable resource to me that libraries and librarians always play a role in my novels.
"Yes, we need to save money. But cutting library budgets will cost us more in the long run."—Author Keir Graff


"The Chicago Public Librarians are a great help to the readers of Chicago, as you might expect, but they are also eager to help Chicago's writers and artists. In 2008 I was trying to adapt my story, The Night Bookmobile, into a comic. And I needed something to look at: I needed an actual bookmobile. So I called the Harold Washington Library and after some hilarious explanations I was told that of course I could come and take some photos of the bookmobiles. So I showed up with my models and we got to spend an afternoon in the bookmobiles (though we didn't get to drive them, they were parked in the parking garage). It was just the thing I needed to make The Night Bookmobile look like itself.

"A few months ago I was at the Washington Library and mentioned the bookmobiles and the librarian told me, 'Oh, we don't have them anymore. Budget cuts.' She looked pretty sad when she said this. I can only imagine how sad the librarians are going to be when budget cuts take away their jobs as well as our bookmobiles."—Author Audrey Niffenegger



"A library is a safe and free place for believing in Chicago. Funding cuts made to this great city organization is a strangling of a billion voices in our books, and of the people who work for and read and value the body of our knowledge. If that body is not treated as sacred we disgrace creation and every faith and lack thereof. A library is a house that keeps all of us.—Poetry associate editor Fred Sasaki


"I wrote much of the first draft of Luminarium in my local branch of the Chicago Public Library--the Sulzer regional. For many months, it provided me with a quiet and comfortable space for writing, contemplation, and research on everything from astrophysics to network theory to near-death experiences. Through the window at the table where I usually sat, I'd watch the leaves changing color, the birds in the branches, and every day like clockwork, Governor Blagojevich jogging past, followed a few seconds later by a chunky bodyguard with a sidearm pedaling a wobbly bike. Beyond all the invaluable practical uses of a neighborhood library, it's really the last place left that makes a community feel like a community. Going there made me feel a part of one--every day, people of every age, race, class, and life situation browsed those shelves and sat around me, searching the want ads, researching bridal gowns, scanning newspapers from Seoul, Krakow, Cairo, Tel Aviv. Learning, creating and re-creating their lives."—Author Alex Shakar


"Libraries are free, public spaces where anyone—any race, any creed, any status—can go to learn about any worthy idea or thought any human being has ever had in the history of the Earth, and I think it's high time that they finally be abolished."—Author Patrick Somerville


"When I was working at the Wall Street Journal’s Chicago bureau and working on my first book, I used to walk over to the Harold Washington Library on my lunch hour (eating a sandwich while I walked) and spend an hour every day on the microfilm machines. The machines were cranky. The staff was crankier. But, man, did I love spending an hour every day spinning those reels and rolling back in time. Best part: Free copies. I hope they’ve corrected that by now, because I made out like a bandit. I’ve used the library for all three of my books. I get dozens of hard-to-find titles each year sent to my local branch (John Merlo), and while I’m there I borrow a bunch of others for the kids. I rely hugely on the libraries, and I don’t for one minute take it for granted. I grew up in a home without books. I learned to love reading at my hometown public library. I don’t know what I’d be without libraries, but I'm fairly certain I wouldn’t be a writer."—Author Jonathan Eig


"Under the brilliant leadership of Commissioner Mary Dempsey, the Chicago Public Library System has become the preeminent institution that works, and works for everyone, in 'the City that Works.' There's a phrase, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'  The budget cuts proposed for the library will, in fact, severely injure a system that serves millions in our community, that betters the lives of families, of the elderly, of the young, of students, of workers. The damage won’t be confined to our great library system; it will be felt immediately by the people and communities it serves. The Chicago Public Library indisputably functions as an essential engine for the common good. Even those who may not use the library on a regular basis still benefit from living in what is one of the library’s greatest contributions: an educated and informed electorate. I fear that of all the damage these cutbacks will result in, those who will lose the most are the young, the future of our city."—Author Stuart Dybek


"In every season of my childhood, the library was my world. I would spend hours there at a time, discovering giants, mysteries, and heroes. As I grew, the library seemed to grow with me, always having something else to offer, some deeper level to whatever I was searching. When I wondered about the people who had crafted the stories of my childhood, the books about those artists and authors were there. I remember reading slack-jawed through Brian Froud's 'The World of The Dark Crystal,' learning all of the thought and preparation that went into transporting me and others into imagined worlds. In the summers I watched animations from Czechoslovakia and Poland, sitting in a semicircle with other kids, and I began to unearth how much there was in the world beyond my Saturday morning television set.

"Granted, some of these works are now available—in bits and pieces—scattered across the internet. But there is no way to overestimate the power of collecting these wonders in one building where you can sit and let your mind drift and grow. The library was and is my school, my home, and a very dear friend. There is no doubt in my mind that the library transformed me into the artist I am today. And I am thankful for that, always."—Author Paul Hornschemeier


"It's cultural suicide. When a city's soul dies of starvation, the dead walk the streets. Hey, that sounds like @colsonwhitehead."—Author Luis Urrea, via Twitter


"The Chicago Public Library changed my life. I was going to write 'saved' my life, but I'm going with the understatement 'changed.' Although I am now a writer, editor and professor, whose children own and are exposed to hundreds and hundreds of books each year, my own childhood was starkly different from that picture. I grew up below the poverty line in Chicago, with a first-generation Italian-American father who had never completed eighth grade before having to go find work in a factory to help support his family. His parents didn't know how to read or write. My father was a hard worker, and although he'd had little schooling he read the newspaper every day and was devoted to Chicago journalists like Mike Royko. My mother was a high school graduate whose parents could not afford to send her to college, and although she had loved to read as a girl, when I was growing up we didn't have books in our house. The reasons for this were so myriad as to scarcely merit consideration. We could not afford books, for starters. My mother didn't drive, and there were no bookstores nearby. Our apartment was so tiny that there would have been no place to keep stacks or shelves of books even if we had the money for them. All our friends, family and neighbors were in the same boat. Many of my peers' parents were only semi-literate; nobody I knew owned books. Books were simply not part of our cultural milieu, and that lack was not questioned. I went to a Chicago Public School where (this was the 1970s) the only subjects for which we reliably were given textbooks were Reading and Math. I don't recall ever having a Science text book, or having one in Social Studies before seventh grade. 

"When I was a child, therefore, books were utterly synonymous with the Chicago Public Library. I don't remember an age before going to the library once a week became a ritual my mother and I shared. The library, on the most basic of levels, not only allowed me to practice reading on a more everyday and engaged level than I would have had access to otherwise, but opened the world to me. I could learn about dinosaurs and rocks and the Holocaust, even if we were not taught about them in school. I could read novels, instead of only the short, summary-based 'stories' found in a Reading textbook. I devoured books, much as my mother had as a girl. Some of my peers thought I was a freak for going to the library so often and always having my head in a book. But by that point, books had already provided for me a blueprint for how to widen my world and how to envision a life beyond the one I already knew; as long as the library existed, I knew I would never have to look backwards and fold my world up small again, because there would always be books to light the way out.

"Everyone knows that cutting funding to a library system is something that bothers 'writer' types like myself. But I'll be honest--I'm a busy working mother of three young kids, and if I had received a request to write a plea for the future of libraries, the writer/editor/professor side of me would probably have had another deadline that felt more pressing, and may have forgotten all about the request. Sure, I still love libraries and love attending the readings and programs they offer, but in the spirit of full honesty, all the libraries in Chicago could probably close tomorrow, and my own life--and the lives of my children--would go on much as before. We could still attend literary programs at bookstores; we could still shop for books at stores or online. Books and reading would still be as integral a part of our daily lives as breathing and eating. My children's schools have plenty of books, and my children's bedrooms are so full of books that I often have impulses to 'get rid of them.' In short, we lead lives of extreme privilege when it comes to our literacy.  We support the Chicago Public Library, but we no longer 'need' it.

"The reason I am writing this plea is that the vast majority of children in Chicago bear far more in common with the girl I was in 1973 or 1982 than with my children. Millions of children in the Chicagoland area are still growing up in poverty, attending under-funded schools with inadequate textbooks and supplies, and being raised by immigrant parents who may not speak English as a native language, or who have not themselves had access to education and literature. To these children--and there are far, far more of them than there are of 'us': politicians who make decisions about the fate of libraries or literary types who write solicited letters to influence their decisions--libraries are a literal lifeline to their futures. The closing of even one inner-city library can impact thousands of young lives. The loss of free books--and a free, safe space in which to read them--is nothing short of tragic in the life of a child seeking a roadmap to his or her future, or just an entertaining story that offers a brief escape.

"Rough economic times leave people scrambling for ideas about how to improve things. But things never improve by constricting the minds and imaginations of a city's people. If anything, in such times we need libraries more than ever."—Author Gina Frangello


"To me it's a sign of screwed-up priorities. Education should be a very high priority, and libraries are a very fundamental source of education, even beyond the school walls. And they're also a source of great pleasure, and have been for me for many years of my life."—Marty Rubin, associate director of programming, Gene Siskel Film Center


"As a devoted user of the libraries, it is indescribable how much they have enriched my life and aided me both professionally and personally. I continue to be surprised by the depth of the collection and the expertise of the librarians. Recently, I was researching a project about the history of African Americans in vaudeville (an admittedly obscure topic) and found a tremendous archive of information and a treasure trove of historic photos with the assistance of librarians who were familiar with the Charles Walton Papers archive down in the Woodson Regional Library.

"So many books--including many that are rare or out of print--are available at the library that I have checked out and enjoyed. Certainly, the library’s after school programming help young people learn thanks to their homework assistance programming – keeping kids off the streets and exercising their brains. Reducing library hours and staff would no doubt reduce the overall literacy of Chicago’s population as a whole. I feel it is a mistake for the Mayor to cut the library’s budget as proposed."—Nick Harkin, vice president, public relations, Carol Fox & Associates


A representative for Sara Paretsky directed us to a recent blog post in which the author writes, in part: "The Chicago public library has already made deep budget cuts in the last three years: there’s been a hiring and promotion freeze, so that many branches are understaffed.  Hours have been cut.  Perhaps most worrying of all, acquisitions have been frozen.  No new books.  For the indefinite future.  If the economy recovers, you can build up new staff relatively quickly, but you can’t go back in time to acquire books that will have gone out of print."


We'll close with this from Heather Norborg, a Lincoln Square resident and a former librarian in Evanston:

"It's not a good thing to have this much of a budget cut. The main thing that concerns me is laying off so much of the staff. It's almost all the support staff, the pages and lots of the clerks. That means that the librarians are not going to have enough time to provide programs and services.

"It's really going to affect the programs that they provide and the one-on-one service to patrons. There are all sorts of services that are going to be affected. There are programs for jobseekers, small businesses, they provide free space for groups to reserve for meetings.

"I understand that they need to balance the city budget overall, but this seems like a small percentage of the money they need to find and the effect it's going to have far outweighs the amount of money they are going to save.

"The branch system is so great in this city and I know they are already understaffed. It's just going to be a building with no one there to help you.

"The libraries are so much more than books."

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)