In the summer of 2019, the Oak Park Public Library (OPPL) selected Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Unequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life by Eric Klinenberg as their One Book, One Oak Park picks.
“The United States, like most developed nations, faces major challenges – including climate change, an aging population, runaway equality, and explosive ethnic divisions – that we can only address if we develop stronger bonds and common interests . ”
Crucial to establishing these bonds is what he calls social infrastructure, “the physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact”.
These places include parks, corner bars, schools, and, perhaps most notably, libraries.
John Dewey once wrote (a quote from Klinenberg’s book): “Democracy has to start at home and its home is the neighborhood community.”
The library can be the fulcrum of the neighborhood community in our modern society because the state of our libraries can tell us a lot about ourselves.
For example, the old robber barons like Andrew Carnegie have converted a good part of their ill-gotten wealth into social infrastructure. Carnegie donated $ 12,000 to my hometown of Maywood in 1904 to build a library that continues to this day.
For our new robber barons like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, who would rather dream of building libraries on Mars, such a gesture has become too easy and out of fashion.
Indeed, far from being rejuvenated by new investment and attention, our libraries are increasingly being ignored, if not directly attacked.
Consider the case of the Niles Public Library in Niles, a suburb about 30 minutes from Oak Park, whose library, like OPPL, is highly regarded and award-winning and, according to Kelly Jensens, “is consistently among the best in the country”. Report in Book Wire (hat tip for Charlie Meyerson’s Chicago Public Square email newsletter to bring it to my attention).
However, the April elections changed things tremendously. The turnout was 8.4%. The low turnout was an opportunity for Carolyn Drblik, a fiscally conservative tax hawk who had served on the Niles Library board for eight years, to bring more people who thought like her into office. They won and Drblik was elected chairman of the board.
Susan Dove Lempke, the managing director of the library who stepped down in June, describes Drblik to Jensen as follows:
“At the very first board meeting eight years ago when she first took office, she was clearly being wooed by a board member who has a strong belief in the free market. They came after deciding which person would take which office, and Carolyn was immediately elected treasurer. She was overwhelmed and confused much of what she saw – the manager spent hours explaining things to no avail. … Until last year she asked about a certain bill from our computer consortium (CCS) and didn’t remember what it was for. If you don’t understand the information and don’t store information well, it is easy to get suspicious. … To be clear, it has had access to every invoice since it was founded. “
With Drblik at the helm, the library’s funding “has been cut deeply, hours have been reduced to below state standards, the library director has resigned and closed key community services,” Jensen writes.
Services faced with the ax included: “Children’s librarians attending schools, preschools, and daycare,” “Children’s librarians working with teachers by bringing teaching materials for their students,” and “Outreach assistants providing the materials deliver to the house ”.
The board also “purposely cut funding for books in non-English languages. In the pre-election debates, the subject of inclusivity in the library sparked a number of reactions, including [eventual board member and Trump donor Joe] Makula makes it clear that he believes in assimilation.
“’We should focus on the people who are learning English because that’s the language here,’ said Makula. ‘Instead of stocking up on books in seven different languages, if we could get people to assimilate and learn English better, I would do more good than replenish our holdings of foreign language books.’ ”
And if someone with clear eyes thought that the new Niles Library Board was serious about real reform, the board worked quickly to rid you of that idea. Drblik’s hyper-vigilance over library spending seemed to equate to the GOP’s hyper-vigilance over debt when it was out of power.
“Immediately after installing the board, they hired a technology advisor to investigate the library’s processes and procedures,” writes Jensen. “This consultant, an unexamined wedding videographer, is simply a friend of Drblik and the rest of their new board of directors, and campaigned for her choice. He was hired for $ 100 an hour with no experience and no limit. ”
In Oak Park, where the library recently advertised the position of Director of Justice and Anti-Racism – a job it created to achieve its goal of becoming an “anti-racist organization” – one can easily get a feel complacency ignores progress.
But if what happens in Niles can happen there – where “about 72% of the community is white, with about 20% Asian, 9% Latinx, 3% black, and about 4.5% of more than one race,” where “Over 55″% of those over 5 speak a language other than English in the household, “and where the diversity and quality of the community is a former superintendent of Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 (remember Steve Isoye?) Here.
You can read Jensen’s entire article at: https: //bookriot.com/niles-public-library/. You can sign the #SaveNilesLibrary petition at: https://www.nilescoalition.org/savenileslibrary.
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