While the Chicago Public Library expects 11.3 million patron visits this year, a lot of people, it turns out, hardly ever use any of the system's seventy-nine libraries.
Jim O'Connor rarely uses library.
"It's actually been quite a while since I've been there. I'd say two years,” O’Connor said.
Others weren't as willing to admit it on camera. But they confessed to rarely using bricks-and-mortar libraries, some preferring the internet as a source of books and information. With local government running out of money and cutting the ranks of police officers, it forces a hard question.
Roosevelt University's Political Science Professor, Paul Green, grew up on the South Side loving libraries. Given the poor economy, though, he said he understands why the mayor's moving to layoff one hundred eighty-four of the Chicago Public Library's one thousand workers, despite protests from their AFSCME union and others.
"Whatever area he cuts you are going to have outrage. I mean, that's the reality of having tough economic times,” Green said.
“Unfortunately, the city faces an enormous financial challenge, an over $600 million deficit that has to be closed. The libraries cannot be kept from the reduction needs of the city,” Laurence Msall said, President of The Civic Federation, a taxpayer watchdog group.
At the libertarian Heartland Institute, they'd like the city to privatize some library functions and to charge patrons able to pay.
“Getting the private sector more involved in them. Maybe having some sort of membership dues. There are a lot of different things they should at least keep on the table,” John Nothdurft said, Director of Government Relations at The Heartland Institute.
Even if the City Council should approve the mayor's proposed cuts, the library system will still spend more than 87-1/2 million taxpayers’ dollars in 2012.
While branch libraries would only be open 40 hours a week instead of the 64 they were once open, a troop of Girl Scouts on the Near West Side has a message for Mayor Emanuel and the City Council.
“Don't close the book on kids!”
The girl scouts meet every other Wednesday at the Roosevelt Branch Library. They object to a budget deal announced at City Hall. It includes another round of library cuts, on top of cuts made two years ago. Branch libraries would only be open 40 hours a week instead of the 64 they were once open.
They're not the only ones upset. So, before the City Council votes on the budget cuts, FOX Chicago News considered the question, who needs Chicago’s public libraries?
FOX Chicago talked to some of those who visit 11.3 million times a year, starting in the morning with the very youngest - like the Jefferson Park Branch's twice-a-week story time patron Molly Olsen. Her mom Jamie likes it even more.
“They have lots of different activities for the kids to do,” Olsen said, “and they really enjoy coming here.”
“The children's librarians have projects for the children. They have puzzles. They have games. They have a reading program in the summer,” parent Cindy Dyrda said. “It would be terrible if they cut hours.”
At 79th and King, the Whitney Young Branch is a "safe haven" for the after-school crowd, until working parents pick them up.
For those who'd like to be working, it offers free internet connections to the new economy. She doesn't have a computer, but Barbara Agbonifo's trying to start a new business.
“It keeps me from hiring a lawyer,” Agbonifo said, “because I can come to the library and go through the law project on their computers and get a lot of help without going all the way to the Loop or out of the way.”
Many users of the Whitney Young Branch may never touch one of its books. Before evening hours were severely reduced by budget cuts in 2009, the branch used to host meetings of several different block clubs as well as the anti-crime police CAPS meetings. Some groups now meeting elsewhere report attendance has declined.
“They don't feel safe, so to speak,” Whitney Young branch manager Mitchell Smith said. “But here, this is a safe zone.”
Since libraries now do so much more than lend books, branch managers argue that, in a bad economy, they should be expanding hours rather than reducing.
“To lose those hours of service, when you've got school groups and senior citizens, people coming to use your computers trying to find jobs, it's just not a good scene,” Jefferson Park branch manager Dorena Wegner said. “You know, we're the public library. We want to serve the public.”
But in a proposed budget that reduces the number of sworn police officers, should libraries really be exempt?
Because of the financial pressure the city faces, the mayor says the libraries have to take a cut.
“Every year they find ways to pay for street signs. They find ways to put planters in the middle of the street. They find ways to plant trees," Sorrell said. "They find ways to do what they want to do.
If the mayor made this a priority, then he'll find a way to do it."
Nearly 200 jobs will be cut. Library patronage dropped about 14 percent after the last round of cuts.