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Broad shoulders but shut libraries

Updated: February 10, 2012 8:29AM

In my wallet are four library cards:

A sturdy white plastic card with blue lettering from the sleek spaceship-like library in my backyard in the leafy suburban paradise of Northbrook, bearing the sweetly awkward pledge, “I accept responsibility for all use made to this card.”

A sporty bright green Chicago Public Library card that possession of the aforementioned Northbrook card and payment of $1 entitles me to carry and use.

And two delicate paper cards, one lilac, a “BORROWER’S CARD” from the Northwestern University Library, and a sky blue card from The Newberry Library.

I used to have more. A card from the British Library. Another that identified me as a researcher permitted to use the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. I carried them because they impressed me and, in my skewed mental cosmos, I imagined would impress others too. (“Oh look!” the indifferent department store clerk, who didn’t look at my face never mind the cards in my wallet, might think, “A British Library card! He must be an international man of mystery.”)

But the cards expired, eventually, and after carrying them for an additional year or two, I set them aside, with a sigh.

This is a long way of establishing that I am the guy to come raging from the mountaintop to savage Mayor Rahm Emanuel for planning to close all Chicago public libraries on Mondays. Bad enough to pull at a locked library door if you’re an adult looking for a book. How much worse to be a kid with homework. Or a kid —as often the case — looking for a place to go after school that isn’t your hellish home or a street corner.

At the Harold Washington Library recently I was amazed at the pack of wired kids jamming the YOUmedia space for teens, working, talking, playing video games. Libraries function as Boys & Girls Clubs. The City of Chicago mother-henning its children, letting them nestle under its wing. Like it or not, libraries are also de facto warming centers. Close them and people will die.

Above all — the library!? The city of the broad shoulders, the city that works, can’t work the library? There must be something less important to cut — those brown honorary street signs. Extra city truck drivers demanded in “traditional work” clauses in union contracts. Ed Burke’s security.

That said, I understand what’s going on here. Librarians would rather miss one full day than two half days. Nobody wants taxes raised and in a recession taxes shouldn’t be. Nobody wants their ox gored, and sometimes you have to understand that, painful as it is for you, insisting that the burden be born by people who aren’t you is not the most honest position, though God knows lots of people take it. Something has to go.

For instance, when Emanuel scrapped the advisory council on gay and lesbian affairs, I felt miffed — Richard Daley, for all his flaws, was on the side of angels, to stretch the metaphor, when it came to gay rights.

On the other hand, we’re in a crisis here, and it can be argued that the slow, steady, inevitable acceptance of homosexuals in the ranks of ordinary human beings — where they have been all along, whether you agree or not — will proceed whether the City of Chicago puts its shoulder to the stone or refrains. So the feel-good community liaisons could go. I accept that. But is the library similarly expendable? The library?

Closed libraries are a sign that This is Serious. Closing libraries hurts children, who need to be around books more, not less, and need access to the resources libraries offer. Not every kid has a computer, believe it or not. Even in leafy Northbrook I see kids using library computers — not everyone is as rich as you think they are. The libraries in a great city shouldn’t be closed on Mondays. But then, city workers shouldn’t be forced to take furlough days and key social services to the most vulnerable shouldn’t be slashed.

Emanuel seems to be cutting all he can; $83 million in his first six months, including 50 downtown traffic aides who mostly slow traffic. Maybe this should be the platinum bar used to measure whether a budget item should stay or go: Is this more important than libraries being open on Mondays? If the answer is yes, keep it. If the answer is no, then get rid of it, bringing us, one hopes, one cut closer to keeping our libraries open.

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