Canaryville Branch: Day 19

This was a quaint, quiet branch. It wasn’t very busy, but that 18090837_10213100559570009_2012017024_omight be because it was raining. Actually, I arrived right as the rain started. This older gentleman was leaving just as I sat down—he came back in about 3 minutes because of the hail. I asked him what it was like outside, he said “little bitty pieces, that’s what turned me around.” The chatty employees asked how far he got, which was about half a block. The chatty employees, actually it was just one chatty employee. The other one didn’t really seem to interested in any of the her conversations.

To give a little bit about the demographics, there was a Chinese employee at the front desk, a white employee who seemed to be at a resource desk, and a Black employee at the technology desk. The white employee was the chatty one. The Black employee seemed less than amused at the overall comments and tone, though she did try to keep up some conversation. For example, the first employee said “The Chinese kids don’t want to do crafts. They are studious. Actually, I take that back. It isn’t that they want to, it’s that their parents want them to be studying or reading.” To which the other, seemingly trying to get out of the conversation, replied “Yeah, that’s true.” But the first one just kept on going “The hispanic kids are the same.” So, I don’t really know, but it sounds to me like these “arts and crafts” are probably a little boring. They continued to talk about different programs and getting “numbers” in the library to justify the funds.


You learn a lot by eavesdropping. For example, the hierarchy in CPL is quite fascinating. The first employee kept on talking about promotions and moving up in the system. Apparently, in the suburbs people make a lot of lateral moves to different libraries because there is little opportunity to move up. She went on to recount her own experiences in the city and trying to find ways to move to better positions. Apparently she started at the Logan Square Branch years ago. She retold how she was asked in her interview “What would you do if you were here and a fight between a student and teacher broke out during a read aloud?” She was quick to defend the branch by saying that the managers seemed to act like it was a zoo, but it wasn’t anything like that. In fact, she said, there were no problems—except with boys and girls being too “fresh” with each other on the “Karma Sutra Chairs.” Eventually those chairs were moved out of the teen section though.

These two also talked about the security guards. Ok, remember, it was really only one employee doing all the talking, but still. She apparently really liked the current security guard because she was nice and not weird. The problem was that today there was some random security guard teaching another security guard the ropes. Neither had been here before. Also, the janitor’s locker kept popping open, which caused some internal conflict about stuff possibly getting stolen. I guess I never realized how many problems exist in the library. It’s just like any other job!

Listening to the employees was very fascinating.  The most interesting conversation occurred around the book ordering decisions. That first employee said:

“The interesting thing about this library is that the people that come here are African Americans, but the people checking out books are Asians. And she (orderer) keeps buying African American books, but they aren’t circulating well. We don’t need three copies when they aren’t circulating. We need some for good balance for sure, but some of the African American books are just creepy! Their pictures are creepy.”


Now, this was a very interesting comment, actually. When you enter into the library, there is a whole rack of African American history books. But, the intersection of race, values, and politics becomes very clear here. In fact, as I looked around, I saw only a few books and magazines in Chinese, despite hearing several comments about all of the Asian patrons (majority in this area are likely Cantonese speaking Chinese). Also, the employee commented about the different value systems of the patrons. She said that many parents asked “What are some good pure books in YA,” indicating, as she pointed out, that the parents wanted their kids to steer away from books about gender orientation topics, relationships, and so on.

18042987_10213100571770314_1559241000_o.jpgThese types of conflicts of values are all across the city. Canaryville, a neighborhood in the New City community area, is bordered by Bridgeport as well as Back of the Yards. Similar to Back of the Yards, Canaryville was known for the stockyards and meatpacking industries. The stockyard gates still stand just off of Halstead as a monument to the working class on which the city was built. The gates are definitely worth stopping by, if for no other reason than to understand the impressive (and oppressive) nature of capitalism. These three areas had once been strong communities of European settlers, including, especially, the Irish. Similar to Bridgeport and other European immigrant enclaves, Canaryville was quite exclusive. It was known for violent clashes during the race riots of 1919 following the drowning of a Black teenager, Eugene Williams, by white youth. Williams had crossed over an invisible racial divide in the water, moving from the Black beach to the white beach. He was attacked and killed. The riots, which took place all summer (dubbed the “red summer”) resulted in the loss of many lives and hundreds, if not thousands of Black homes. Later Canaryville became home to a sizable Black population and later immigrants from Mexico.

So, the name. Canaryville. To the best I can find out, it seems that the term arose due to the flocks of sparrows benefiting from rancid meat scraps in the packing industry.  However, apparently, the title also was applied to the numerous Irish gangs known to act as “wild canaries.”

The library, as with the neighborhoods, demonstrate a clash in values and histories. Ironically, as the books on the shelves hold thousands of stories, the people in the library live them.

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Branch: Day 18

E04EC2F6-0D11-4B5C-A2F5-4C68EE9F34DCVisiting the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. branch was a little underwhelming compared to some of the other branches. First, the branch was small, which in and of itself isn’t a problem. The old, yellow cinderblocks definitely left the aesthetics a little lacking; however, I suppose my disappointment about the branch lied in the fact that it is named after Dr. King. While the library serves Bronzeville/Kenwood/Douglas, Dr. King actually lived on the West side, in Lawndale, my neighborhood. Pretty much like everything else related to Dr. King in Chicago, this branch glosses over the name.

Many people are unaware of Dr. King’s Chicago years. He moved to Lawndale (1550 S. Hamlin) on January 26, 1966 to advance the civil rights movement in the North. Specifically, he was fighting for equal housing rights from Black Americans. Chicago became the epicenter of his northern mission, the Chicago Freedom Movement, which attempted to “eradicate a vicious system which seeks to further colonize thousands of Negroes within a slum environment.” His marches reverberated throughout the country and he was met with violence on many occasions, leading Dr. King to claim “I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hateful as I’ve seen here in Chicago.” So, to understand Chicago-style segregation, it is important to understand the depth of racial oppression that was set up in Chicago via housing. King Richard I was mayor at the time, and opposed Dr. King’s call to integrate Chicago neighborhoods. Actually, Daley did sign an agreement of some type to foster open and fair housing, but it was largely ignored. Daley benefited greatly from racial segregation; as did (and do) the rest of the white, machine-style establishment. Shortly after Dr. King’s assassination, the Fair Housing Act was enacted federally, but Chicago remained known as one of the most segregated cities in the country. Only a few years ago in 2011, the Dr. King Legacy Apartments were built on the site where he lived. Prior to this, there was almost no recognition of him ever having lived there. There was almost a complete erasure of Dr. King’s Chicago Freedom Movement, which is why the namesake library doesn’t surprise me, but just disappoints. On the CPL website, the history of this branch reads “First opened in 1966, the branch was renamed in September 1969 to honor civil rights leader and Nobel Prize winner the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968).” This is pretty depressing, if you ask me. One of the leaders of the civil rights movement, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a Chicago mover and shaker, largely erased from the Chicago context. Sure, he exists as a legend, as a shining star of history, but his vital role in Chicago specifically is largely blotted out. And, Chicago, as much as anywhere, right now as much as anytime, needs to remember that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (Letter from Birmingham Jail)

Nonetheless, I had to remind myself that it isn’t the building thatd88daf87-e504-4321-b8cf-237c62e0b3cc.jpg matters, but rather the people who give the building meaning. Within this small branch, there were many people, all of whom make the building worthy to bear Dr. King’s name. The security guard greeted me and was quite friendly toward all the patrons. There were nine people using the computers, and the computer lady was helping one older man create a resume. She even asked the head librarian to extend his time so that he could complete it. A couple of ladies walked in with Caribbean accents talking and snickering about dresses and gossip. A young guy came in to register his son for one of the library programs. A young teenager was studying near the window on orange-cloth padded chairs. Several people walked to the “hold” section to pick up books and left. Other people walked to the old card-catalog, which now held the news papers. At one point some lady started telling people she needed to go see her client. The security guard looked at her like she was crazy, but treated her with dignity and respect. Many people came in and out and it got really busy.


I was studying for my EMT class. I had to read through the chapter on trauma, so I was flipping back and forth between the glossary, the index, other chapters, picture captions, and trying to understand the topics presented. I had been there for about 2 hours when a young kid sat down to read a graphic novel. It was clear he was bored but couldn’t get on the computer. His brother sat down after, right across from me, and was reading a science book about the galaxy. It reminded me of myself reading through science books when I was young. I quickly flipped past the page with the “lacerations to the head” and continued to study. I was watching, though, as the middle schooler across from me flipped through the index, chapters, and picture captions. I smiled. Here was a young man reading this science book, doing the same types of things I was with informational text. And this is why the library is worthy to bear the name Dr. King.

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Back of the Yards Branch: Day 17

“They use everything about the hog except the squeal.” The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

E2F71D86-2581-441E-B0E1-F9334BC55737Chicago can be classified in three different ways: by ward, community area, and neighborhood. Wards are political areas, represented by alderman who make up our city council. There are 50 of them, and they are numbered. I live in the 24th Ward, for example. It is a pretty boring name, but efficient.  When trash has been piling up or you want to express some concern, you should really know what ward you live in. Some alderman are pretty responsive. Others are not. The borders of the ward system are always in flux—it is gerrymandering at it’s finest, I am sure. Just look at the Ward Map!

The community areas are stable. If you look up demographic data or want to hear the “official” story, you would inevitably be given information about the community areas.  There are 77 of them, and they are based on some social science research conducted in the late 1920s at the University of Chicago. In fact, out of the 80 library branches, 77 of them are distributed among the community areas. The City of Chicago has an official map (community areas), although I am sure you can Google it and find a better one.

The neighborhoods, though, are where we live. They are who we are. By some counts there are more than 200 neighborhoods, and they don’t have any official boundaries. We define them. Some maps have been drawn to best estimate where the neighborhood boundaries are, basically by asking residents where they live and attempting to draw in the borders. A pretty neat interactive map was created by Kevin Zolkiewicz and the city has an official map of their 1978 account. If anyone wants to get me a really great gift, you can purchase a map for me here; my eyes have been set on one for years! The neighborhoods are more than places. They are more than communities. They are possibilities. The libraries exemplify these possibilities so clearly.


This library is in Back of the Yards neighborhood, in the New City community area. Back of the Yards is another neighborhood in Chicago with a strong history of community activism and organizing. In the late 1800s this area housed the largest livestock yards and meat packing plants in the country. Nearby, you can still drive by the Union Stock Yard gates, a relic of the working class nature of the city. In his 1906 book, The Jungle, Upton Sinclair narrates the brutal reality of Chicago’s meatpacking industry. It is a story about immigrants making their way through a difficult life of constant struggle among big businesses and con men. The beautiful, though fictitious account, is set here, in would become Back of the Yards. The area continues to be an example of the ebbs and flows of rebuilding, industrial change, and resilience.

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This library was quite interesting. It is co-housed in a public high school. I actually walked into the wrong door, and needed to walk all the way around the building to actually get in. The library itself is small. It has a small kids area, a teen area, and a small seating area. There weren’t many people in there, though. I think one girl was reading a book she got from the book stacks, a young guy, who appeared to be in high school, used the computer and sat in a chair to read. An older guy was grading some type of papers. Other than that, mostly it was just a few people in and out to use the computers.

45001A66-F001-4D5A-8106-AB25308D8A94The staff here is incredibly on top of things. As soon as I sat down and opened up my laptop, the “Cyber Navigator” walked up to me and asked if I had any questions about using my computer, cellphone, or tablet.  He explained he was there to help me. Actually, very ironically, I saw this guy when I was out for a run a few days later while he waiting for the bus near Western and Cullerton. The Cyber Navigator asked pretty much everyone if they needed help. Two people called to make an appointment to learn about how to use the computer, so apparently the library provides pretty comprehensive help with computers!

One lady came in precisely at her scheduled appointment time. She had an accent which sounded Eastern European. The Cyber Navigator asked her to sit at a desk with a computer, and she asked to be moved because the computer had yellow keys on the keyboard (it was a large print keyboard). She said that she needed help, but wasn’t “handicapped,” and preferred a regular keyboard. So, he moved her to a computer with black keys. He walked her through the steps to create a Google account and a password. She was kind of nervous about creating a password and was coming up with some combination of her kids’ names or birthdates. As time passed, she started to divulge more about why she was here. One of her children, a single mother, was going through some difficult times. Recently she had been in a car accident and lost her ability to work and live on her own with her daughter (the granddaughter), so they were moving in with grandma for a few months. She talked with affection and concern because the daughter would need some help getting things back together. She was excited that they had decided to go to church with her, but was hoping the church could help them out in some way. The Cyber Navigator began to list and give some phone numbers and links to different social aid agencies. I thought this was actually pretty neat. A woman comes in to set up an email to help her daughter, and ends up being connected to a variety of agencies. She also spoke about her granddaughter who speaks both Spanish and English but prefers English. She eventually left, but before she did she set up another appointment to get help checking her email again. When life hits, the library is there.

It was a small, branch, but great things can be done in small spaces.

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Rudy Lozano Branch: Day 16

Chicago is a union city…


It is a city where race matters. It is a city where everything boils down to politics. Rudy Lozano was a young, Mexican American activist who represents the essence of Chicago. As a high school student, and later in college, he organized students to demand more classes that specifically focused on Mexican history. He also advocated for more Latino representation on the faculty. His activism spanned beyond high school and college as he took up leadership roles in unions such as the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. I think it is pretty much impossible to underestimate the role unions played (and still play) in Chicago. Known as “The city of the big shoulders” (see Sandburg’s 1914 poem “Chicago”), Chicago was always a blue-collar, working class city. It was a city of the people, and the unions were often the only protection the common folk had from wealthy businesspeople and politicians. Therefore, Lozano truly was “un hijo del pueblo.” He fought for representation. He fought for workers’ rights. In 1983 he even campaigned to be the alderman of the 22nd ward and would have been the first Mexican American councilman, but he was defeated. A few years later, his campaign manager, Jesús Garcia (yes, Chuy!), IMG_1108became the alderman of the same ward, launching Garcia’s political career in the city. During his campaign, Lozano also played an important role in uniting Latino support for Harold Washington’s campaign to be the first African American mayor. After Washington’s election, Lozano was a top aide until his murder on June 8th, 1983. He had been killed in his home as an alleged retaliation for his political and union activism (read more about his death here and here). It is so fitting that in the heart of Pilsen, in 1983, this library was built and now commemorates Lozano’s work.  Activism seeps from the bricks of Pilsen.

IMG_1104I lived in Pilsen for a couple of years and worked in a couple of schools in the neighborhood before that.  Pilsen has taught me more than almost any other place in Chicago, and I still find any excuse to go there. The neighborhood was originally German and Irish and later Czech and Polish, which can clearly be seen from some of the Catholic parishes like St. Paul (German), St. Procopius and Providence (Czech), St. Pius V (Irish), St. Ann (Polish), and recently closed St. Adalbert (Polish). The name, Pilsen, came from a city in what is now the Czech Republic. In the 1950s and 1960s, Mexican immigrants settled in Pilsen and the neighborhood became an entry point for Mexican settlers in Chicago. Many of the new residents came from Michoacán and the area developed a distinctly Ranchero culture (see Rancheros in Chicagoacán for an excellent history and analysis). Today, the neighborhood is experiencing rapid gentrification, though Mexican-American activists are fighting to retain the neighborhoods identity and access for residents. Pilsen has become the poster of gentrification in Chicago.


The library is one of the most community-engaged branchesIMG_1097 I have been to so far. It is wide and open and clean. The big windows along the street allow much natural light to brighten up the area. It has a sala encantada where there always seems to be children and parents listening to stories as well as a homework room, which was not in use while I was there but had evidence of the Pythagorean Theorem faintly showing on the whiteboard. There is a large selection of Spanish books and much of the art reflects Mexican culture. There are also tons of children’s books! By 11am, when I finally arrived, the tables ere mostly full. Computers were being used. People were walking through the book stacks. Librarians were rushing about to help people. It was by far the most diversely used library I have seen since I started my observations. A guy sat at the table next to me reading Hoy, the daily Spanish newspaper. Another guy came up to talk and the first guy recounted the huaycos in Peru in an article entitled ‘Carcel’ de IMG_1111lodo en Peru (huayco is a Quechua word for landslide). His shocked tone indicated a form of disbelief that the situation was as bad as described in the paper. Later these guys left and another guy sat down. The new guy had just left the hospital after a brief stay and wheeled in his “E” size oxygen tank for his COPD.  He brought an entire pharmacy with him, laid out all of the drugs on the table, and set up his nebulizer. Another guy was at the computer looking for a CDL test book. He must have asked the librarian 50 questions in the first half hour I was there, but she was so patient. He finally got everything printed.

I have to say, the Lozano Branch is Chicago at it’s finest. It honors the common people, celebrates the culture and language of its patrons, and recognizes the fight for equality and justice that must continue.

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West Town Branch: Day 15, Part 2

I finally made it to the West Town Branch (see previous post). 6C4ED5B2-8F30-4C2C-B048-C317C3312265I tried to visit a couple of weeks ago, but I couldn’t find the parking lot. It was cold and I didn’t want to find street parking and walk, so I gave up.  Today was great weather, so I parked a few blocks away and walked over.  It is a store front building, so quite a bit different from some of the other libraries I had previously visited with their library-looking architecture.  Actually, this library was under scaffolding, protecting pedestrians from the crumbling terra-cotta walls, so the view was rather obstructed.  It wasn’t until I crossed the street later in the day that I realized the library was in the Goldblatt Bros. Inc. building. I have passed by this so many times, but never really stopped to appreciate its architecture and history. The Goldblatt family immigrated from Poland in the early 1900s to the West Town neighborhood, one of the largest Polish neighborhoods in Chicago.  Two brothers began a department store which eventually grew into a chain of 15 locations. It offered goods at low prices, but eventually succumbed to competition (read more here).  The architecture is very Chicago-esque, and actually includes several buildings connected to one another.  Several city services are now located in the building.  I couldn’t help but wonder what the building would have looked like in its former glory; the wear and tear is quite evident (read more about the building and its most recent restoration efforts).

FB27C899-94B7-4F86-9729-67BBA6AD92D1Before I walked into the building I passed under hanging strips of fabric. I still don’t know why they were there. The inside of the library looked like a storefront, but was pretty large. There were many people there, but they were spread out across the room.  Compared to other libraries, this one had many more computers, and over half of them were designated for teens. There was a large Young Adult section, and a pretty significant teen area as well. I came in at 1:05 pm, so all of the teens were in school. I guess I didn’t know what I was getting into, though, when I sat at a table and started writing. There were about 6 or 7 other people scattered in my area, all working on laptops or reading (one guy was napping). At 1:15, the teens started coming in.

The teen section filled up quickly with a couple groups of youth.  A few others came in and worked on the computers. One or two sat at the tables and desks and started working on homework in the form of math worksheets. I was very impressed that as the number of teens grew, the volume remained a steady silence. By 3:00 though, there were 30-40 teens in room. The silence was over, but the volume was still relatively low. I couldn’t believe it! I have worked with middle and high schoolers for years and I have never seen more than 5 of them in one place without mass chaos breaking out!  I really can’t explain it, but a few tossed a basketball to each other, and it never touched the ground, hit another person, or B512F6E7-17C2-4A89-AFE6-213BF26CA9F6made a noise! Two girls put in “volunteer hours” by washing and repainting a window with window paint. People floated from group to group. They talked, but I couldn’t hear them. No visible or audible arguments. They just existed. Maybe you aren’t as impressed as I am, but the other adults and I sat there doing our work, with teens everywhere, and weren’t even bothered! Ok, I am equally impressed by the adults. We all know that most adults loose patience with teenagers in like 2 minutes, but all of these adults just sat there like nothing was going on.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these students were typical youth. The boys made their googly-eyes at the girls and tried to get their attention. They tried to show off their moves, of which they had none. The girls either worked on homework or acted too-cool to fall for the boys’ shenanigans. The boys smiled until they turned their back and walked away with that slightly defeated look. Don’t worry, their confidence wasn’t broken, because about five minutes later they returned. Did I mention that this was happening inches from my shoulder?  Imagine a front-row seat to reliving your freshman year of high-school—no thanks!

Apart from being completely impressed with these kids, I was equally impressed with the library as a safe place for them to come, do homework, use the computers, and hang out; all with minimal supervision. There weren’t security guards policing the place. The librarians seemed to help kids from time to time with checking out book and using other resources. Never once did they have to tell the kids to be quiet or anything—more than I can say about some adults at other branches.

In other news, take a look at some possible new plans the mayor has regarding the future of libraries and public housing.

West Town Branch: Day 15, Part 1

As I mentioned previously, there are a few reasons I wanted to start this blog. Here are the big three:

(1) I wanted to learn more about why people use libraries.  What is it about the space and place of a library that draws people in?

(2) I wanted to explore and examine Chicago because it is a fascinating place with a compelling and complex history.

(3) I wanted to advocate for public institutions.  Because of neoliberal ideologies, public (and many private) institutions are under attack.

So, let’s start with the last one first. Bare with me…I will write about the second two in “West Town Branch: Day 15, Part 2

Advocating for Public Institutions

Neoliberalism can be understood as a set of economic philosophies stretching back to 1700–1900 classical capitalism re-contextualized to the post-WWII and post-New Deal era (In the United States, at least).  It seems to have sparked as a contra-communist approach to economics in the mid-Cold War years.  As the world markets globalized rather quickly, free-market factors extended in new ways.  For example, corporations played a reformed role in the organization of international trade and hierarchical national relationships.  Whereas imperial structures of the colonial era “dissipated” in Africa and Asia in the 1960’s, corporate interests did not. Thus, the post-colonial contexts of Africa and Asia fell under the rule of foreign economies, not necessarily rule by foreign governments. This world-wide “laissez-faire” sentiment essentially means that any inequity in economics was sure to remain, since the free-market would sustain competition between unequal parties.  Therefore, a competition that is already stacked against the poor and marginalized would never be righted through a free-market.

What does this have to do with me visiting libraries?  We are in a moment in which neoliberalism is at its height.  In particular, this can be evidenced by the president’s recent budget recommendations. While this is likely not to become the government’s actual budget, it gives insight into the guiding principles of economics in the country.  So, I wanted to get a little bit of a better understanding of the Chicago Public Library’s (CPL) budget.  I will be referencing the 2015 annual report, and I am likely to refer to it in other posts as well. The Library has two major funding sources: Public Funding and Private Donations. CPL, like most municipal libraries, is mostly funded by local tax money.  This is why you need to prove residency to obtain a library card. In 2015, CPL had $133,228,966 of revenue. $97,072,000 (73%) of that came directly from the City of Chicago.  Another $18,983,000 (14%) came from the State of Illinois and $1,448,033 (1%) from the federal government. A little more than $2 million came from fines (oops, that was me!) and more than $8 million from bonds.  This leaves some $4 million that came from the Chicago Public Library Foundation, a charity that raises funds to support new and innovative programs.  This is an incredible budget that is used to operate 80 branches, nearly 1000 employees, and 9 million patrons.

Public institutions, like the library, are experiencing massive privatization efforts (here is one such example of privatization efforts in CPS). In addition to the push of the private sector to manage public institutions, there is increased pressure to cut funding at the federal (and state level).  In other words, people are asking why I, who live in California, should pay for you, who live in Illinois.  While only 1% of the CPL budget come from the federal government, the American Library Association notes how important federal funding is for libraries nation wide (see here).  In a municipality such as Chicago, where the library is relatively sustainable at the city and state levels, federal funding isn’t a big issue.  However, there are cities, towns, and villages in this country that have far less access to such grand institutions as the CPL.  I think of the library I visited today, in West Town, which had free wifi for everyone, scores of computers (many designated for teens), tutoring time, community events, polling space, books, staff, and many other amenities that promote the general welfare of the city. Other areas don’t have this at all!  So, I think about the disparity of library access that exists between, say, Chicago and some small town with many people below the poverty line, and I am struck by the importance of federal funding for those libraries. The public needs to defend our institutions.  A pure free-market, laissez-faire system will only allow for the library-rich areas to become more library-rich while other areas with less access will continue to have less and less access. That is competition.

I advocate for more widespread access to libraries.  These institutions are vital to the development of a free society and cannot be relegated to the free-market. We also cannot afford to think only local or intra-state.  The general welfare of any area in the country is good for the welfare of all people in the country. Therefore, federal support for libraries and other institutions is appropriate and necessary for the general good of our nation.

Ok, now, back to writing about the West Town Branch.  It will appear here.


Logan Square Branch: Day 14

Years ago, when I first moved to the city, I had visited a college friend’s home in Logan Square.  At that time, Logan Square was mostly a Latinx community area.  According to census data (see also here), in 1980 52% of Logan Square population was identified as Latinx, and in 1990 66% of the population was.  The 2000 census was the first time people actually chose to identify “Hispanic” as an ethnicity, and 65% of the population identified as such.  In 2010 this was down to 51%.  This downward trend has continued and possibly accelerated as the community gentrified.  DNA info has discussed gentrification at length for many communities, claiming that Logan Square has seen the largest loss of Latinx residents of any community area in Chicago (currently less than 50% of the population).  Now the area is filled with some of the best known restaurants in Chicago, breweries, and art studios.  The streets are lined with coffee shops.  You can also buy brunch (brunch=gentrification). The new Bloomingdale Trail (the 606) runs through Logan Square as well, and recent reports have indicated that the dramatic increases of property value has cause some concern; the city is considering levying a special tax on new developments along the trail.

So, given that this area is experiencing such dramatic changes, I was interested to see the library.  The architecture is what I have come to expect from Daley-era libraries—open space with a raised ceiling in the middle. Two installments adorned the foyer.  One was a glass case with toys, and the other was an interesting art piece of handwritten stories on large paper in different designs. Other art hung in the library and a mural rimmed the ceiling.  I was glad to see a rather significant Spanish literature section right in the center as well, surrounding all of the tabled seating.  Behind that were large windows facing an outdoor courtyard with seating.

There were a number of people at tables, reading newspapers, working on computers, and reading books.  Most were facing the same way and generally there was one person per table. Several teens came in after school and used the computers in their designated area.  A few kids were there with their parents.  An guy probably in his late 50s or early 60s was handwriting several pages on lined paper. Yes, you read that right, “handwriting.”  He seemed very focused and occasionally erased something and started writing again. He had his long hair pulled forward into a man bun.  “Trendy” I thought.  This is exactly what I would have thought people at the Logan Square Branch would look like.  Hipster-esque and reinventing the renaissance through old technologies like handwritten manuscripts.  Then I saw his shoes.  He had plastic bags covering them.  I just don’t know what to make of that, but probably not hipster.  Three older people came in, two men and a woman, and sat at a table next to me. One man then moved over to another table that had a TV.  The other man said to him “What? You are too good for us?” and then muttered something about watching King Kong.  They all chuckled. The first man never turned on the TV, he just read a book.  The other man did watch something, maybe King Kong, on his tablet.

This was the most diverse branch I have been to so far.  It had diversity in age, race, ethnicity, gender, and purposes for using the library.  It was fascinating to watch people here because they were doing so many different things.  Logan Square is an interesting mix of people and institutions.  The library was no different.

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George C. Hall Branch: Day 13

A few days ago I happened upon the A7D21B75-A2AE-4285-BA6A-83460B114238George C. Hall Branch in Bronzeville/Grand
Boulevard.  Actually, I saw pictures online and really wanted to come and see it.  It is a beautiful branch, built in 1931.  The large stone walls and the green roof give the branch a distinguished look.  As you approach the front door, you walk in between the two wings of the library into a small courtyard; the walls seem so imposing and impressive. Inside felt historical with the dark wooden pillars, two wings filled with old bookshelves, a children’s area, and an auditorium.

A7F3BB2F-D617-4E7E-B64C-0B4C9F16EFF0This branch is a Chicago Landmark.  It is named after a prominent African American surgeon and civic leader.  Also, this branch was the first in Chicago to have an African American branch manager.  Vivian Harsh also developed an African American research collection and played an integral role in promoting Chicago Black Literary Renaissance writers.  Read more about her here. Bronzeville is such a vital neighborhood of Chicago. It was known as the Black Metropolis because it had a significant concentration of Black-owned businesses (and still does, especially along 47th Street). I could go on for sometime about Bronzeville and its historic influence, but you will just have to look it up.  Many notable people are associated with the neighborhood or have lived here here including Ida B. Wells, Gwendolyn Brooks, Louis Armstrong, and Bessie Coleman. It was amazing to reflect on the lives of some of these great leaders as I sat among the books in this small, but historic branch.  Such an impressive building to honor such powerful and dynamic legacy of Chicago’s South Side.

The staff librarian was an older white guy.  He looked very particular and was meticulously B83584C9-C93D-47C9-AE2A-BF00D3A0634Creading things on the computer.  There were four or five others in the room reading books, working on laptops, and using their cellphones.  A woman came in to use the computers and tried to print something.  She kept pressing “print screen” and eventually asked for help why it wasn’t working right.  Another staff librarian came by and explained to her how to print only the page needed.  A teenage girl came in and asked about using the computer. She was from the high school a few blocks away. A few other teens came in, some with parents some without.  A couple used the computers and it looked like they were doing homework.  One teen, for example, used the computer for about an hour while her mom sat at a table looking at books or reading on her phone.  Occasionally she would go over to check n her to see if she needed assistance.  Eventually they asked the librarian to print something and the left.

The branch was pretty active.  People came and went. One guy asked me for a phone charger, but I didn’t have one.  He found someone who did and charged his phone.  Another guy sat at my table.  His breath smelled like alcohol and he immediately put his head on his arms on the desk.  He was out.  A little while later the security guard came up and started knocking on the desk.  After about five times she turned to me an apologized. She told the guy to wake up, no sleeping is allowed in the library.  He got a book, fell back asleep.  The guard came back.  She knocked again and gave him a warning next time she would kick him out.  She left. He slept.  When she came back she and the librarian told him he needed to leave to wake up.  He got up, stumbled around, and went into a corner with the book he had taken off the shelf.  The librarian exclaimed “What is he doing?! Is he putting the book back!? Ugh! I wish people would just leave the book on the table, putting 6F553BEC-3D0B-401E-AB5E-33BD93D97D75it in the wrong place is worse!” (Dramatic, I know).  Eventually the guy stumbled out.  About 15 minutes later another guy came in rocking a red zip-up hoodie, jeans, high-top sneakers, sunglasses, and large Boze headphones.  He was in his jam! And he was carrying a bucket.  It was an empty bucket, like the ones you get with a gallon of ice cream (only a little bigger).  He walked to the back of the wing, and everyone, I mean everyone turned their head to watch. Then he walked right back out to the foyer.  Everyone looked at each other and people started laughing.  It was pretty comical.  Like I said, this was a pretty active branch.

This trip was wonderful.  The library architecture was inspiring and the people are great.

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Carl Roden Branch: Day 12

img_0940It is getting harder to keep up with the blogging!  img_0944I actually visited this branch a while ago, on February 24. I happened to be up on the northwest side and figured I would check out the library in Norwood Park.  Apparently this branch is named after one of the chief librarians from the first half of the 1900’s.

This branch, more than any other, reminded me of what I think of when I hear “library.” img_0939 It smelled like a library, had cinderblock walls, and had the somewhat cheesy “library art” adorning the walls.  “Library art” has a specific flavor.  It generally is temporary, usually following the seasons or holidays, and also uses any type of plays on words or books.  This is why I found the “book snowman,” paper cut-out snowflakes, and the pun somewhat nostalgic.  Everything else was pretty typical too.  There was a shelf of newly released books img_0942which was browsed by a few elderly women.  A man read the Tribune; a woman read through some magazines. It was pretty normal.  The librarian walked around with a list of books an old lady gave her, searching for each title.  She also pulled children’s books off the shelves giving brief synopses to some women.  She seemed pretty busy, but she seemed like she was enjoying it. She brought a few books back to the old lady and said that she ordered a few that weren’t in the branch.  The old lady corrected her about one of the books she couldn’t find—she was looking under the wrong author.  The lady continued to explain exactly where it was in such and such series and what year it was published.  She knew her books!

img_0938The library, as I mentioned a few posts ago, is much more of a community center than anything else.  The interesting thing in our culture is that books, or writing more generally, hold one of the highest form of respect available.  Religions and religious practices come from texts.  The law comes fromimg_0943 text. Language itself come from text.  Now, I don’t mean these things actually come from the written word, but rather that we act like they do.  Therefore, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the library is often the center of our civic life.  In fact, many libraries are polling places and many also disseminate tax forms.  Hanging in the foyer of this branch were notifications about a local election for the ward.  There were also stacks of state tax forms.  People even came in to ask about the taxes, and the librarians gave them a form and some basic information.


Richard M. Daley Branch: Day 11, Part 2

While I was visiting the Richard M. Daley Branch,c7203e49-f3c3-4212-a279-b6fc2e005a19 I was struck by the student work.  In particular, there were several posters with #saytheirname written on it along with the never ending lists of Black victims of police brutality. The Say Their Names campaign seeks to shift the narrative of victims of police brutality by giving voice to the families of victims. It was a compelling installment at the library that I didn’t really notice until I was walking out even though the posters were hanging throughout the library. It really made me think and reflect on the power given to the youth in this library as they seek to speak out about the injustices in their communities and across the country. Ok, I will come back to this in a moment.

I was also struck by the large dictionary sitting open in the back of the library. When I was a child I remember that my parents had a HUGE dictionary, supposedly exhaustive, that was probably 8–10 inches thick…maybe even larger. I loved browsing it! I know, I was a nerd.  Most libraries I have been in, in Chicago or anywhere, set the dictionary in a prominent place, in full view, and open (I tried to look up this practice, but ask google anything about a dictionary and it just gives you definitions of other words in the search). I had a college professor who once said that the dictionary should be the second most important book in our lives, next to the Bible. I understood his point, I guess, that a good command of language gives us access to power. Well, ironically I have spent the past several years of my professional career debunking the “dictionary” because the power to prescribe and legislate language should not be left in the hands of Merriam-Webster or even Oxford University. untitledRather, that power lies within each one of us. So, I am always a little bit tickled when I walk past the ancient tomb where words go to die in definitiveness and find myself scoffing and uttering words under my breath like “yaaaasssss,” “facebooked,” and “bad hombres.” Call me a rebel or call me a scholar, but either way, my words can never be inscribed on the pages of mass produced canons. They are birthed out of specific moments and intertwined with space and time.


Ok, so, back to the youth. I think this juxtaposition of language and literacy is particularly powerful. On the one hand, there is the dictionary, the EMPIRE of language, the catalogue of words set “harmlessly” on a shelf. On the other hand are youth literacies producing social movements and tying in personal experiences to hundreds, even millions, of people who have suffered injustice at the hands of EMPIRES. Herein lies the danger of assuming neutrality in language. Something as “neutral” as a dictionary obtains severe power by the orchestration of control by a particular group of people, in this case, published, elite, English speakers. The dictionary IS a tool of control. It IS a tool of empire. It gets to decide whose words count and what they mean. So, while the dictionary sits on a shelf, open, as if it was the book-of-life itself, posters and art pieces hang all around evidencing the resistance and power of our youth. I could not be more proud of the library than to allow this exchange to take place. The literature on the shelves, though important, cannot compare to the literature we live. Our youth have a voice, and their voice is every bit as powerful as the voices on the shelves. The authors of the books on the shelves have names. We see them. We read them. We hear them. We say them. But so many other names are forgotten. It sometimes takes youths to remind us that language is power. We need to see, read, hear, and #saytheirnames:

Laquan McDonald
Sandra Bland
Emmett Till
Walter Scott
Tamir Rice
Eric Gardner
Michael Brown
Rodney King
Clinton Allen
Ezelle Ford
Kajieme Powell
Eric Harris
John Crawford III
Freddie Gray
Chad Robertson
Cedrick Chatman
Bettie Jones
Quintonio LeGrier
Alton Sterling

And many more…