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Library is heart of a neighborhood

Updated: February 13, 2012 9:17AM

Last Tuesday, a sign in the Rudy Lozano Public Library in Pilsen posted new hours for student tutoring. There no longer would be tutoring on Mondays.

Why? Because, for the first time in recent memory, the Chicago Public Libraries will be closed on Mondays. And that sad state of affairs will continue indefinitely unless Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31, which represents library employees, can work out a deal on hours and pay.

For many Chicagoans, perhaps especially for those who live in poor and immigrant communities, the public library represents far more than just a place to take out books, magazines and videos. It is a community gathering place, a safe public arena, where people of all ages can learn, study and socialize.

For many low-income families, the public library is the one place where they can access the Internet, an essential tool for those looking to move up and get ahead. The digital divide is a particularly harsh reality for many Latinos and other minorities, who tend to be on the wrong side of the divide. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Latinos are significantly less likely than whites to have a home Internet connection (55 percent versus 75 percent).

After school, both kids and parents tend to head straight to the public library in neighborhoods like Pilsen, Little Village and Humboldt Park, to work on homework — homework that often requires access to the Internet.

At the Lozano library on Tuesday, I met Antonia Calderon and her two young kids, students at the Pilsen Community Academy. She said she takes the kids to the library at least three times a month so that they can play reading and math computer games. She has a computer at home, but it’s not fast enough.

When I told Calderon that her library would be closed on Mondays from now on, she was not happy.

“Kids start working on their assignments on Mondays,” she said. “They will now miss a day when they could get ahead on their homework.”

The Lozano library on Tuesday was bustling with students using the computers and getting help with their homework.

In a sometimes tough neighborhood like Pilsen, a good public library is an important cultural and recreational center. A great example of this might be the well-known chess club at the Rudy Lozano Public Library. A photo on a wall shows Emanuel posing with one of the chess club’s champions.

Emanuel had planned to close the neighborhood libraries on Monday and Friday mornings, times when there are fewer patrons. The idea was to keep libraries open six days a week, even if two of those were only half days. But when the union would not agree to the change in hours, he decided to close the libraries all day on Mondays.

I understand that the city is under tremendous pressure to save money, but good libraries — well-funded and open when they should be — can go a long way in a city toward raising graduation rates and keeping kids off the streets.

Somewhere, I suspect, is a creative solution to this problem.

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