Yesterday I stopped by the Mabel Manning Branch because it was the closest to Malcolm X College. This was definitely the loudest branch I have been in, despite the large “Silence” sign hanging above. It definitely had a feel that reminded me much more of a community center than a library. There were a few people wandering around the book stacks and at least one person filling up on movies. The computers were full, and several were placed on reservation. I was kind of surprised that nearly every table had people at it. There weren’t a lot of free seats. In the front there were a few tables reserved for teens and children, but around 4:30 those filled up too. The kids were mostly quiet, and a teacher was helping them with their homework.
People seemed to mind their own business. The guy sitting across from me was listening to music. From what I could hear through his headphones, it sounded as if the lyrics were in Arabic. The guy next to me was reading a book. Several people were using portable DVD players that I assumed were borrowed from the library since they were all the same model. A woman in the back looked like she was grading papers. Eventually a man and another woman sat back there too. I think the man was helping the woman with her composition homework. I sat there shuffling through and grading papers. Lots of papers.
Even though people seemed to be doing their own thing, occasionally conversations would spontaneously pop up. For example, these two guys were talking about the size of mice and rats in the city. An elderly woman who had been reading a magazine for well over an hour chimed to assert, rather confidently, that they were becoming bigger with time—like raccoons. All three people were seated at different tables, so the conversation seemed to exist in the open atmosphere. This is the power of public space, it brings people together to talk about all of the important topics—and yes, if you are from Chicago, rats are an important topic.
The branch was adopted by the Chicago Bulls. There was at least one room that seemed like the Bulls had donated some computers. There were a couple of cases of Bulls and Blackhawks memorabilia, since the United Center was right around the corner. All in all, though, there wasn’t anything that really marked the space with the “Bulls.”
I had never heard of Mabel Manning before, but I always find it interesting to investigate and learn about people, especially people who are important enough to have libraries named after them. I was surprised to find out more. Apparently Mabel Manning, the “Mayor of the West Side,” was an activist icon. She fought for the residents out west against the building of a new Bears stadium. She also served the community in several ways including cooking meals for the hungry, advising others on thrifty living, giving flowers to people, and serving on the local school council and other local boards. Apparently she was resourceful, well known, and respected. She lived at the same place, on Hoyne from 1951–1991. This is the cool thing about the library system, they would name a branch after a local activist. Very few people will every hear Manning’s name or her story, but her dedication to the people around her will live on through the library.