(On Wednesday, November 2, I joined Robert Wislow and Stuart Dybek in presenting testimony to the Chicago City Council in defense of the library system. Since people who weren’t there have wanted to see my remarks I’m posting them here.)
My name is Sara Paretsky and I am here today to speak against proposed library closings. I’m a writer who is best known for a series of novels featuring V I Warshawski, a private eye who solves crimes on the mean streets of our beloved city. My novels are translated into thirty languages; in a modest way I contribute to Chicago’s cash flow because readers come from as far away as Australia and Japan to explore V I Warshawski’s Chicago.
I am also well known for the meticulous quality of my research. In addition to getting expert advice from Chicago cops or business figures, I rely on three libraries: the University of Chicago, which is walking distance from my home; the Newberry, a premiere research library, and the Chicago Public Library.
This past September, I chaired a panel at an international conference of readers and writers in St. Louis. To prepare, I read works by all the members of my panel. Books by one of them, the distinguished cultural historian Dr. Frankie Bailey, were not available at the University of Chicago, or Northwestern, or the Newberry. Nor could I find them at Amazon or my local bookstore. The only place they were available was at the Chicago Public Library. Similarly, several years ago when I was invited to write an introduction to a special edition of The Maltese Falcon, the CPL was the one library in Chicago that had all resources I needed.
When I first came to Chicago in 1966, the library here was bigger but not much better than the one in my home town in eastern Kansas. In the last twenty-five years, though our library has become one of the nation’s pre-eminent institutions, both for the size and quality of its collections, and for its knowledgeable, helpful reference and general staff.
It takes a quarter century to build such a collection and such a staff, but it can be destroyed overnight.
The proposed budget cuts to the library would do just that.
In these very difficult economic times, people are turning to their libraries in far greater numbers than they did during our country’s prosperity. Library usage is up by twenty-five percent across the board from what it was in 2007. People are going there to use books and DVD’s they can no longer afford to buy for themselves. They are using library computers and library reference staff to help in their job searches. Children who need a safe place to go to after school are using the library—and getting an extra chance to learn in the bargain. People are flocking there for book discussions and for story hour, as they expose their toddlers to the wonderful world of the written word.
It would be not just cruel but short-sighted to close branches and cut people off from these resources and activities. It is cruel and unreasonable to imagine that people who turn to their branch libraries, particularly the frail and the indigent, can just hop on a train and use the central library—especially now that we are making steep cuts to our transit system. Furthermore, the central library is not equipped to take up the slack in reading programs and computer and staff resources that the local branches provide.
Perhaps we could balance the budget overnight by closing our branches, but it would be at a great long-term cost. A city is more than its bottom line. It consists of the lives and dreams and jobs of its residents. If we want a city that is vibrant twenty-five years from, we must have an educated workforce.
Every week we see another story in the papers about how far American children lag behind the rest of the developed world in reading and math skills. And just this past week, the Chicago Tribune reported that Illinois students lag behind much of the rest of the nation. To close our libraries at a time like this would further punish our children at a time when they most need help.
The Preamble to our nation’s Constitution lists six goals for the document that made us a nation. Two of these are “to secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” and “to promote the general welfare.”
A people can only be free if it is literate; we will lose the blessings of liberty if we turn our backs on the resources we most need to create a thinking informed electorate.
We Chicagoans have entrusted our welfare to the hands of the mayor and the City Council. I implore you not to abuse this trust, but to restore the library’s funding.