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The Late, Great Municipal Reference Library



Mayor Daley's 1993 Chicago city budget struck a major blow against public information in Chicago. The budget called for the closing of the Municipal Reference Library to the public, and the transfer of more than 50,000 documents to the Harold Washington Library. The MRL, located on the tenth floor of City Hall, had for decades been a key mediating institution between community activists, journalists, academics, students, and city government. The library primarily existed for city employees, but at least half its 20,000 yearly visitors came from the outside. The $450,000 slashed from the MRL's $1 million budget was enough to nearly put it under.

Fiftieth Ward alderman Bernard Stone led an attempt in the City Council to save the MRL. "Of all the things that occurred this year, this is the one thing people in government and close to government will have regretted," Stone said. Stone and 42nd Ward alderman Burton Natarus sponsored an amendment to restore the MRL's budget, but the budget committee voted nine to six to table it. Mayor Daley maintained that the Harold Washington Library was the "logical place" for the MRL's documents. "There is no major plot or minor plot or sinister plot," Daley said at the time. "This is not a big decision. It was an easy decision because it's space we need at City Hall. We need more room. You can see it on every floor."

As 1993 began, the MRL posted a sign on its door that read, "Non-city employees contact the department responsible for your area of concern, or the Chicago Public Library." The Sun-Times published a partial list of the now-lost MRL documents. These included "the only collection of documents from other taxing bodies in Cook County, municipal codes pre-dating the 1871 Chicago fire, census information from 1890 to the present, original bids and contracts on construction of the airport transit systems, city planning documents, five-year plans for capital improvements, annual reports from every city department, maps of most underground conduits and above-ground airways, two million clippings from all daily newspapers in the area and 23 community and ethnic newspapers."

The MRL's chief librarian, Joyce Malden, made an attempt in October 1993 to revive the library for public use by combining it with the also-diminished CTA, Park District, and Cook County libraries. Nothing has come of her plans, but Malden remains hopeful.

Malden's staff has been reduced from 13 full-time librarians to three librarians and a part-timer, plus herself. Malden herself is no longer a city worker, but a private contractor. The library has been reduced from 5,400 to 3,200 square feet (with 2,000 square feet of storage space in the basement). It's maintaining its archival collection of Chicago documents, but sent to the Harold Washington Library all its pre-1975 documents of other taxing bodies such as the Board of Education, the Park District, and Cook County. Malden says the library no longer has the resources to add documents to its collection. Subscriptions to about 150 periodicals were canceled, and Malden says the main library is not receiving them instead. Independent academic reports on Chicago were split between the two libraries. The MRL's much-valued clipping file of community and ethnic newspapers is still available, but it hasn't been added to since December 1992.

In other words, Malden says, the MRL is still a good historical library for city employees, but little information is being stored on the Daley administration. "I think what's happening is that we're almost going back to a tribal, oral tradition where we don't print things," Malden says. "Each group of information providers maintains their own records and their own files and nothing is shared across the lines. When this mayor goes, and eventually this mayor will go, there will be no record. It will be gone, and there will be no archives, no control over what was done during this period."

Malden thinks that the library's closing has, after the fact, contributed to a policy that denies the public access to information. "I think that the library closing was really a budget matter," she says, "but I think that once it occurred, it didn't seem like such a bad idea. There are people in the administration who don't want information out, and who are really happy." Instead, Malden says, the role of information providing has been taken up by a "backdoor bureaucracy" in city departments "to do these sort of reference questions that used to be handled by the library." She gives as an example Business Express, a small-business hot line that the Planning Department has set up to help businesses wade through red tape.

"The library used to handle that kind of question, refer them to the right person," says Malden. "You build up your PR staff when you build up that kind of stuff. Nobody puts somebody on and says, "I'm hiring this person because the library doesn't answer this question any longer,' but that's effectively what happens. Many departments now have these staffs. They have a greater information-providing role than they necessarily had before. They always had the intense information-providing role, in other words what their department is working on in depth. The simpler things always came to the library. We never took the initiative about being the definitive answer about what an enterprise zone was doing, but people would get a start here. The public's not getting the benefit of the in-depth research we used to do, which always was made available. Now it's being filtered through city departments."

The new Municipal Reference Collection in the Harold Washington Library was supposed to take over the MRL's function of providing the public with information. In April 1993 three librarians from City Hall moved to the main library to open a new collection on the fifth floor. Approximately 90 percent of the MRL's old collection of 50,000-plus documents was copied and made the switch--the originals staying in City Hall--and in May 1993 the new collection was opened to the public. But the public library has made no effort to advertise the collection's existence. The municipal reference librarians at the Washington Library perform the jobs that 13 people previously did in City Hall. They have to man the reference desk (which much of the time means handing out Illinois income-tax forms), maintain the neighborhood clipping file, and try to acquire new documents from the city. The clip file is kept up to some extent, but most documents for 1993 and 1994 have not been obtained because the librarians simply don't have time to track them down. In addition, a number of documents have been stolen from the collection by library patrons, and the librarians have no resources to replace them.

Last February the Municipal Reference Collection was booted out of its fifth floor space to make room for a literacy tutoring program. A library spokesperson says the move occurred to make the collection "more accessible to the public." The librarians now manage the collection, indicated to the public only by a hand-made sign, from a small fifth-floor outpost in the library's main foyer, next to the government publications desk. Malden predicts that the librarians will eventually be reassigned, and that without adequate security the collection will continue to diminish because of theft. It "will gradually drift away, the expertise will drift away, and it will become another government documents department," Malden says.

"Everyone's been silent. People forget," she says. "If you take it away from them gradually, they forget what they had, and pretty soon it's gone and they don't realize it's gone. As information gradually dries up pretty soon you forget that you ever had more. I think we're gonna have great gaps in information, because we're knocking out the people who gathered it and organized it. Librarians are the ones who did organize and collect and make it easy to find information, and if they're gone, and they're not doing that, you're going to get just what they want you to see. That's it."

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