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The Building's Not the Library's Only Problem

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Dear Reader,

Lynn Becker's [June 11] "Not by the Book" celebration of the new Seattle Public Library building and critique of our Harold Washington Library Center is a useful starting point for public discussion of our problems here in the City of Big Shoulders and Not Much Above Them. I worked as a reference librarian in Chicago Public Library's social sciences and history division from 1976 to my forced exile by Commissioner Mary Dempsey to a faraway branch in 2002 (I took the sweet early-retirement offer to CPL employees early this year and am now happily unemployed). Soon after starting at CPL, I became acutely aware that its biggest problem is not faulty physical design (although Mr. Becker's criticisms on the physical inconveniences of HWLC are well taken), but the lack of an in-depth book collection commensurate with a central library for a city of this size. In a previous Reader discussion of CPL another librarian opined that "New York Public Library we ain't" (or rather shouldn't attempt to be), but this shouldn't be an excuse to justify an inadequate book collection. I believe Chicagoans deserve a central library at least up to four-year university standards, especially as HWLC functions as the surrogate main library for tens of thousands of college students whose own school library collections are also not up to par--as CPL in general is also the surrogate library for Chicago's public and parochial schools whose library collections range from nonexistent to dismal.

Under Commissioner Dempsey's reign, 1994 to the present, expansion of Internet and other database services has provided an excuse to further skimp on the book collection. The Internet and databases have their uses but as yet cannot substitute for a comprehensive and quality book collection (NPR media commentator Geoffrey Nunberg once observed that reading Proust on a computer "is like looking at Normandy through a bombsight"). In response to criticisms of the book collection, Commissioner Dempsey claimed in 2003 that CPL spends ten to eleven million dollars per year on the book collection, but she's offered no documentary proof of this, and the obvious lack of depth in both the branch and main collections certainly belies such a claim.

Along with the administrative illusion that the Internet and databases provide most of what is needed by today's library users, there has been a devaluing and discarding of librarian specialists in favor of more technically savvy (and lower-paid) young recruits, who lack core subject knowledge but can help patrons log on and surf the Net. Hence the mass exodus of veteran library staff in recent years. Patrons and library staff who are interested in an ongoing discussion of these issues are invited to join our local Library Watch online group. Those interested may subscribe by sending email to LibraryWatch-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.

David L. Williams

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