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Chicago Public Libraries Are Staying Open Even Though Librarians Say It Is Not Safe

At least seven city library branches didn’t open or closed early Wednesday because not enough staff showed up to work.

The Chicago Public Library’s flagship Harold Washington Library. (Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

Update, March 20, 2020: Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Friday the closure of all Chicago Public Library branches beginning Saturday, March 21, at 5 p.m., as part of a statewide shelter-in-place order.

The Chicago Public Library system plans to keep 20 of the city’s 81 libraries open, with fewer services, despite pleas from workers that all sites be closed as the novel coronavirus continues to spread.

“Mayor Lightfoot considers libraries an essential part of the life, health and vibrancy of our city. As such we will not be shutting down CPL completely, but enacting a plan for drastically reduced services,” Chicago Public Library Commissioner Andrea Telli wrote in an email to library workers Wednesday afternoon.

The plan, to be implemented Monday, calls for 20 libraries to stay open during the week, with three of them — Harold Washington Library Center, Sulzer Regional Library and Woodson Regional Library — also open on the weekend. The other 61 branches will close Saturday and staff members from all the libraries will rotate between the sites staying open starting Monday. All locations will be closed this Sunday.

Part-time staff will not work but will continue to get paid, Telli said.

Patrons will be unable to check out books, pay fines or print from the computers, according to the president of the union that represents library employees.

Library and city officials did not respond to requests for comment.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Illinois health officials reported 288 cases of the coronavirus in 17 counties, including 104 in Chicago. Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered that all schools, bars and dine-in restaurants be closed throughout the state.

Chicago Public Library employees were told to post these signs on the doors of the libraries. (Chicago Public Library)

Library employees have been calling out sick, signing petitions and asking city officials to close their branches as health officials have urged people to practice social distancing to limit the spread of the virus. Library staff had hoped the system would close after Tuesday’s primary.

Library systems in other large cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Boston and Cleveland, have closed, as have many libraries in Chicago’s suburbs. The American Library Association executive board has recommended that all public and academic libraries close.

“I don’t understand her calling us an essential service. We are not police, we are not fire, we are not medical,” said John Rayburn, president of AFSCME Local 1215, the union that represents Chicago library employees. “I can’t see the necessary need of keeping us open, especially if you can’t check out a book or return a book. That’s the main purpose of the library.”

In her email to employees, Telli said the library would provide “core services” including “providing basic information and referral services” and “providing a safe and welcoming place for our communities, and providing computer and Wifi access.”

She also said there would be more security guards and custodians at all libraries so that “social distancing can be enforced and enhanced cleaning can take place all the hours we are open,” according to the email.

Rayburn said the security guards will be like “doormen” at a club who ensure there aren’t too many patrons at a time. “That’s ridiculous,” said Rayburn, the supervising clerk at the Carter G. Woodson Branch. “With her knowing this pandemic is going around … what is going on in her brain to keep the Chicago Public Library open?”

At least seven Chicago library branches didn’t open or closed early Wednesday because not enough staff showed up to work, Rayburn said. The Lincoln Park branch was closed for cleaning Wednesday after a DePaul University faculty member who worked in the same building tested positive for the virus.

Staff at a Chicago Public Library North Side branch, among the busiest in the city, walked off the job Wednesday afternoon, forcing the branch’s closure.

“We organized ourselves quickly and told the branch manager she had 30 minutes to close the branch,” said one employee, who, like other library workers, asked not to be named for fear of losing their jobs.

At Sulzer Regional Library on the city’s North Side, enough staff called in sick or used time-off benefits Wednesday morning to also force the branch’s closure, said one staff member.

The library, which employs a number of workers over the age of 55, is not equipped to handle the spread of the novel coronavirus, the staff member said, adding that it is down to one bottle of hand sanitizer.

“We’re not prepared,” the employee said.

A librarian at a South Side branch said she is frustrated that the libraries will remain open. “We are going to be babysitters because that’s all we can do,” she said. “But we are not cleaning any books returned to us. We are not taking any precautionary measures. If one more person tells me to wash my hands, I am going to explode.”

Starting Monday, the Chicago Public Library will keep 20 branches open. The locations and hours will be:

Monday – Thursday, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.,
Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.,
Sunday, 1 – 5 p.m.

  • Harold Washington Library Center (Floors 1-3 ONLY)
  • Sulzer Regional Library
  • Woodson Regional Library

Monday – Thursday, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.,
Friday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.,
Saturday and Sunday, closed.

  • Edgewater
  • Albany Park
  • Roden
  • Lincoln-Belmont
  • West Belmont
  • Humboldt Park
  • Austin
  • Douglass
  • Lozano
  • King
  • Brighton Park
  • West Lawn
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Whitney Young
  • South Chicago
  • Vodak-East Side
  • West Pullman

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