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Suburban libraries worry about the effects of Chicago library cuts

Updated: November 15, 2011 8:17PM

Cuts to the Chicago Public Library’s budget may reverberate through the suburbs, where many Chicago residents use local libraries through reciprocal borrowing privileges.

Some suburban librarians expect those cuts, if they go through, to not only reduce the number of hours Chicago branch libraries are open, but also reduce the number of books Chicago libraries buy and the ability to get borrowed books back after Chicagoans return them.

All three possibilities could affect how well also-burdened suburban libraries perform, they said.

In Lincolnwood, about 14 percent of the library circulation already goes to Chicago card-holders, director Jack Hurwitz said. That’s four times what moves to neighboring suburbs.

“Our board will have a decision to make if it gets much worse,” Hurwitz said.

“This is a decision the library makes: At what point do you reach the stage where Lincolnwood taxpayers are being asked to subsidize Chicago?”

He said the village could follow suburbs such as Park Ridge and Skokie in killing reciprocal borrowing agreements with Chicago. Skokie hasn’t allowed Chicagoans to take out books for about two decades.

Though some suburban libraries are said to serve as de facto branches for Chicago residents, more often they report problems with getting books back after Chicago cardholders borrow them and return them to their home libraries.

Could that worsen under the proposed cuts, which could eliminate 184 Chicago Public Library jobs and close some branches on some Mondays and Fridays?

“It can easily take three months for a book to get back here,” Glenview Public Library circulation Head Maryann Bowler said. “We beg people to return them here.”

A three-month wait is a big deal for a book to get back to Glenview, because the Glenview library is often used by Chicagoans to borrow in-demand books.

Ann Weston, 20-year circulation head at the Northbrook library, said sometimes the wait never ends.

“What we tell people is to please not return it to the Chicago Public Library, because in our experience, they just don’t make it back here,” Weston said. “At least return it to another suburban library.”

Weston said a Chicago library system with 184 fewer employees would probably handle books less efficiently than it does now.

“They want to get our stuff back to us, but with less and less staff, it will certainly take longer and longer,” Weston said.

Chicago Public Library spokeswoman Ruth Lednicer agreed. Mayor Rahm Emanuel would trim $3.3 million from the city library system — a fraction of 1 percent of the city’s shortfall.

“It’s going to take longer to get items, with that many fewer people doing the work,” Lednicer said.

After earlier cuts in 2009, employees from outside the circulation department have “pitched in” to try to move books out faster, she said. All books bound for the suburbs first go downtown to the Harold Washington Library.

The way library books are delivered all over Illinois is the subject of an official state study now underway, funded by the secretary of state’s office, which is charged with statewide library matters.

But Lednicer said she’s found it to be rare when books aren’t returned to the suburbs.

“We know of just a few, like two,” she said.

Lincolnwood circulation manager Vandana Sehgal, though, said her library sent an invoice to Chicago this fall for four books that never made it back. She got a $100 Chicago reimbursement check last week.

Oak Park Public Library Executive Director Deirdre Brennan said Chicago users are plentiful but not a big burden.

“Every library has something to offer. Small libraries may collect something that others don’t. Everything works out ... it just does,” she said.

“Libraries are all about sharing.”

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