Library patrons surf the Internet at the Harold Washington Library on February 3, 2009 in Chicago, Illinois. Libraries around the country have reported a surge in usage by patrons, a move attributed to the downturn in the economy. Chicago public libraries have seen a 26 percent increase in visitors in the past year.
The last time Your Ward Room Blogger tried to go to the library was 10:30 a.m. last Wednesday morning. I’m used to libraries operating during normal business hours, but that’s because I started going during the 20th Century, when libraries were the only place to find something to read. But this neighborhood branch didn’t open until noon on Wednesdays.
When I read that Mayor Rahm Emanuel's first budget includes cuts to library hours, I thought, “Which hours is he going to cut? They’re hardly open anyway.”
(Emanuel is proposing to close libraries on Monday and Friday mornings, which he says "will have the least impact on the public." My neighborhood library is already closed on Monday mornings.)
It’s true that I don’t use the library as much as I did before I got the Internet at home. In the mid-1990s, I used to read the Chicago Tribune at the Bezazian branch, to save 50 cents every day. I don’t use it as much as I did before I bought a Kindle. Now I can download Aristotle’s Poetics and the philosophical works of David Hume for free. In the old days, I checked those books out from the library, and returned them unread after three weeks.
But the Internet has made the library more important, not less important. For hundreds of thousands of poor Chicagoans, especially those living in digital deserts on the South and West sides, public libraries are the only place to check e-mail or apply for jobs online. For schoolchildren in those neighborhoods, they’re the only place to do research papers in the evenings. How can Emanuel call himself an education mayor if he cuts library hours?
The Internet also makes the library more important because it’s killing off bookstores (I’m sure you’ve the seen the papered-over windows of your neighborhood Borders). The library is becoming the only repository for books you can’t find on a Kindle, assuming you have one: children’s picture books, for example. Or out-of-print books that contain information that’s too dated or esoteric for today’s market, but still needs to be preserved. Last month, I went to the library for a copy of The Company and the Union, a book about a 1970 labor strike at General Motors. I needed it to research a book I’m writing. I also used the CPL for an inter-library loan of Hurt, Baby, Hurt, a first-person account of the 1967 Detroit riot. Who else will preserve these?
The less often the library is open, the less often it will be used, and the less often it’s used, the less it will be needed. If people can’t get to books, they may just stop reading them.
Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!