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Cookie-Cutter Libraries


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Some issues at the Chicago Public Library ["Reading Is Incidental," November 15] deserving of wider public recognition:

The policy (unstated) at the Chicago Public Library is to feature largely identical collections throughout the city. Whether a branch be located in Humboldt Park, Edgebrook, or Back of the Yards, the book and magazine collections will be almost uniformly alike. Ordering books and other materials "outside the box" in response to special community needs or interests is frowned upon, if not prohibited outright, by the administration. As a result, branch libraries are not responsive to, nor reflective of their service areas. They all receive basically the same books and magazines, preapproved by the commissioner. Levels vary in terms of quantity but rarely in regard to breadth or scope. These "cookie-cutter" collections are easy to monitor and control, and they obviate the need for specially trained staff. Thus collection building has become an essentially paint-by-the-numbers exercise where local concerns are ignored and any staff expertise is wasted. This state of affairs coincides nicely with the administration's notion of librarians as interchangeable parts, who may be employed at any branch without regard for differences in skills, training, knowledge of languages, etc.

Even if librarians were actively and intellectually involved in ordering books, they would have little time to do so, given the demands placed upon them by the Internet. Ah, the Internet--that reservoir of just about everything. This is a medium that has aroused an almost insatiable demand among the library public. Alas, most libraries can't handle it. Here is a common scenario: Outdated and cumbersome hardware breaks down continually under the strain of incessant use (and abuse). Harried librarians navigate between the Scylla of printer snafus and the Charybdis of "frozen" software. "Ctrl + Alt + Delete" has become the mantra of the hour, to the near exclusion of anything else. Internet service at branch libraries is at best mediocre. Which begs the question: should public libraries even be in the business of providing Internet access? This is a service that is not done well, could be done better and less expensively in the private sector, is a distraction from the books, and a drain on scarce labor and material resources (think ink and paper). In short, why not let it go? The administration has shown no interest in debating this question, nor in responding to the cascade of complaints from staff and patrons alike. Their response, typical as regards dissent in general: if you don't like it, leave.

These are just a couple of items that might concern Chicago taxpayers. We work for them, after all. Hey, we are them.

Branch manager

10+ years experience

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