What happened, and what’s next

The last three meetings of the Niles-Maine District Library have not gone very well for Board President Carolyn Drblik and Board Treasurer Joe Makula. At the Special Board meeting on June 30th (#9 in six weeks for those keeping score)  the planned agenda included cutting library hours from 70 to 54, back to what they were in Illinois’ Phase 4 of the pandemic. It also included an executive session for personnel, and an item that appeared to be going to make it a policy that only the Board President could communicate with the press, but we don’t know for sure because there was no draft policy or memorandum to explain it. And we’ll never know, because after listening politely to the public commenters, the three good trustees announced that since Trustee Olivia Hanusiak didn’t show up, there would not be a quorum without them and since they didn’t have the information they needed to know why they were there, “goodbye.” So that was the end of that meeting.

The next meeting was the Public Hearing on the Tentative Budget and Appropriations Ordinance, preceded by a hope-filled rally with around 250 people advocating for the library. It was co-sponsored by the Niles Coalition and AFSCME. There was great energy, excellent speakers, and all of the Chicago news outlets came to cover it. I attended the rally but after joining the march to the library, I headed home to watch the hearing. It was amazing too–more than three hours of heart-felt, well-researched, powerful comments from the overflow crowd, and almost entirely exclusively from residents. A few of the anti-tax crowd showed up too, but they were far outnumbered by the library advocates. Trustee Hanusiak did not show up to this meeting, either. For the first time, President Drblik had Library Attorney Dennis Walsh at her side–I guess she thought she needed reinforcements at $220/hour. There also appeared to be police officers on hand, which maybe you need if you are worried about the crowd hissing at you?

Then came the Regular Board Meeting where the budget was due to be passed. And you had better believe that this time, Trustee Olivia Hanusiak showed up. Niles Mayor George Alpogianis came and spoke in public comment again, offering to try to broker a budget deal and pleading with the Board to postpone voting for a couple of weeks, to just slow things down. Joe made his own plea that they just try it his way, and the Mayor left disappointed. Hats off to the mayor for trying. 

Fast forward to the motion to approve the final Budget & Appropriation Ordinance. First, Trustee Rozanski attempted to have the motion tabled (and the $220/hour lawyer did not point out that you can’t table a motion that hasn’t yet been made but whatever) but that motion failed. Joe then moved to approve the budget, and this was when Trustee Hanusiak stepped up with a prepared statement which she read. It was a “friendly amendment” to make two key changes to the budget–she wanted to restore the hours to pre pandemic levels, and to restore the staff budget lines so no one was being fired. Chaos ensued since clearly her cohort did not know in advance what she had in mind, and there was much confusion surrounding how to calculate the new line items. They tried to get Assistant Director/Business & Operations Manager Greg Pritz to calculate on the fly, but he pointed out that that is how mistakes make their way into the legal documents being filed at Cook County. So basically they voted unanimously to approve the final budget and appropriations document without the exact figures.

Did it do everything that the community and staff wanted? No. Lines for funding materials (books, DVDs, etc.), programs, staff training, the newsletter, and others were still cut. But to me the most important goal to achieve by far was not firing any of the staff. You can purchase more books and programs out of grant money, and if they get enough complaints about the newsletter they can change it back next year. Some of the other changes are more to do with policy–Joe’s decrees about staff doing cleaning and shelving between customers, and refusing to deliver to nursing homes or to send children’s staff to schools can easily be discarded as the nonsense they are. But replacing a group of staff members who are so devoted and knowledgeable would simply not be possible, especially with this erratic board running the show. So keeping the staff is the foundation for everything else.

There were two more excellent things that came out of these defeats for Drblik and Makula. One, it was a wake-up call that the Board President and Treasurer can’t rely on their approach of deciding together what the library is going to do and muscle-ing it through with four votes and no information or respectful communication with the other three trustees. And it also was an indication that Olivia Hanusiak got tired of being a sheep and decided to operate independently as a trustee. That is what she was elected to do, and good for her for stepping up.

What next?

The community response was amazing. They need to keep letting the board know what they want through public comments, petitions, letters, etc. The staff have already decided what their next step is going to be, which is forming a collective bargaining unit with AFSCME Council 31. 

Here’s what I think both residents and staff should demand:

Much better transparency There is a reason that the Open Meetings Act became law, and the hypocrisy of President Drblik in this regard is simply astonishing. She is now doing everything she ever complained about in her past 8 years on the board, and taken it further by her use of a private email account which she considers to be un-FOIAable. I suspect the Attorney General will see it differently, but the AG won’t know about the OMA and FOIA violations if they aren’t reported.

A newly developed strategic plan  I have long observed that tax hawks don’t like strategic planning, because they see it as a roadmap to spending. This is a foolish approach. They already refused to do the documented needed repairs like maintaining the roof, but they at least need to decide when they ARE going to fix the roof. They need to lay out what direction the library is going to go in. But the plan must genuinely come out of community and staff discussions, not out of the St. John Brebeuf church coffee hour. So many in authority at the library now attend SJB that they will need to be very intentional about getting out of their bubble.

A respectful negotiation with AFSCME The result of that negotiation needs to be a first contract that will protect the staff from this and any future vindictive boards, and reflects the understanding that both sides want what is good for both library and staff. The alternative is fighting at every turn, for $350 an hour of taxpayer money paid to the two labor lawyers from two different firms in addition to the library’s other law firm and their expenses. Paying the money out to lawyers is expensive, wasteful, and pointless. Let the library administration take the lead and consult the attorneys as needed. And let me just say that the new board took the staff from voting NMDL one of the Chicago’s Top Workplaces to unionizing in a matter of months. All of those costs now and in the future are on them.

Empower the staff  They are nothing short of amazing. Let PR & Marketing Department Head Sasha be the spokesman for the library. Let Ms. April, Ms. Donna, and Ms. Mikey head back out to the schools, and let Karen and Leslie go back to the nursing homes. Let the managerial staff decide who is shelving books and what the programs should be. They know what they’re doing. Make your suggestions and then step aside.

Fill the vacancies  The original budget included both returning to full hours and filling the vacancies, because otherwise there won’t be enough people to staff the desks for all of those hours. 

These are the things I would suggest any trustees support in any public library–transparency, planning, listening to the community, listening to each other, respect for your partners inside and outside of the library, and letting the staff be amazing. Congratulations to the community for their huge success–keep it up!

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Does a Bad Board at a Public Library Really Matter?

As a wise and wonderful former colleague has said, the beautiful building at the corner of Oakton and Waukegan in suburban Niles, and all that it represents, are the work of the people who for 60 years built it, updated and renovated it, lovingly crafted collections and adapted them over time. It is a gift to today’s community from all of their predecessors who paid taxes too, and volunteered their time, and helped plan the library’s future again and again. It is the work of hundreds of dedicated librarians, clerks, shelvers, and all the jobs no one ever thinks about, over decades. It is the place where kids and coaches and their cheering families have come for over 40 years of Battle of the Books tournaments, and where literally hundreds of children have come to hear stories, sing songs, and learn from each other as well as the adults. It is where people have consulted a reference librarian who can combine information from multiple sources to build a full picture, and who have passed that knowledge to new librarians in turn. The library holds our history, our stories, our music, and our voices, and it is the legacy of all of the community who built it over time. The fiscal hawks on the board think they have a right to trash the legacy they have inherited. I hope at least one of them understands that their fiduciary responsibility is not only to today’s taxpayers but also guarding and preserving the library for future residents.

So why does the very local politics of a very diverse, very polarized library district on the border of Chicago matter? 

Public libraries matter. They support their communities in being well-educated, connected with each other, and up-to-date in a fast-changing world of technology and science. They give people opportunities to invent, create, and appreciate the writing, movie-making, and music of others. They preserve memories through things like the Veterans History Project, and they answer difficult questions even today with Google. And they are a great value–libraries have always, back to the Benjamin Franklin days, been about pooling a small amount of money to be able to share with each other.

The threat to the Niles Library is not unique. The Niles-Maine District Library Board is not alone in having members who were boosted by outside fundraisers. There are other anti-tax people out there worming their way onto library and other public boards. And some of them, it is safe to say, are not foolish and reckless like the Drblik-Makula-Hanusiak-Schoenfeldt block. For instance, a savvier, more rational Board President would not attempt to hold nine meetings in six weeks with loaded agendas each time. Smarter, smoother, more strategic anti-tax people will learn from the mistakes this crew has made, and they will be able to slide their damage in without raising a fuss. People who care about their local libraries and other boards need to be paying attention.

Fiscal conservatives vs. tax hawks. It matters because diehard anti-tax people give good old-fashioned fiscal conservatives a bad name. I confess that in my youth services days, I was offended by some of the questions about spending that we got from the fiscal conservatives on the board. My skin was too thin and I took it too personally, and I got a little huffy. Now I have a much greater appreciation for people who are willing to take the time to understand the budget and spending, and who ask thoughtful questions. I said after the board orientation tours that Treasurer Joe Makula took twice that it was clear that he was going to remember it very differently because he wasn’t listening to the answers he got, especially if they didn’t fit with what he already decided in advance. The tax hawks are squeezing the intelligent fiscal conservatives off of boards, and that’s a shame.

Communities matter. Toward the end of the pandemic, I did a community survey so we could hear from them what they anticipated they needed from the library in a post-pandemic world. Results were very positive, both about what they currently use the library for and what they planned to use it for in the future. They did not express the need or desire for the library’s services, programs, collections, and staff to be cut. Boards need to listen to the community first, THEN take action. This board’s budget cuts were delivered within one week of the new board being seated. And now, they most definitely are hearing from the community, and it seems to surprise them.  #savenileslibrary.org

The lives of individual community members matter. Communities are made up of individuals, and individuals matter. I heard such poignant stories during the pandemic of people feeling the pain of missing the library for so many reasons. Their stories varied, but the underlying theme was that lonely people valued the library even more than others, and they were ecstatic when we reopened in person. Now with the hours being cut and fewer staff available to help them, it’s hard to see how the changes won’t have an impact on individuals.

Who are some of the individuals who will suffer? The children in the preschools and daycares who will no longer get a visit from Ms. April matter, and so do the big kids, the teens, and their teachers. A visit from an energetic school liaison is a breath of fresh air for a classroom of kids, and their enthusiasm about books and learning is contagious. The residents in assisted living or elder care facilities matter, and the connections the outreach staff have made with them are deeply felt on both sides. The residents who try to come use the library because they don’t have a printer or they need a tax form or they need a place to study and find the library closed are important. The people we were under-serving before matter, too. Each of those people who will miss out in the future matters. The world will be different in ways we will never know because of those missed opportunities.

Some of the damage cannot be undone. Library staff members matter. The heartless way that the NMDL staff are being treated by disrespectful board members is horrifying to me. The tax hawks are small in number but noisy, and keep reproaching the board for not having fired anyone during the pandemic. I think they mostly do know perfectly well that the staff were working hard to deliver books and programs and computer help through the pandemic, but they like to talk about staff getting paid for doing nothing. I’ll be honest–they disgust me. They are putting the remaining staff through a horrible time of uncertainty, knowing that if Joe and Carolyn and Suzanne and Olivia get their way, a significant number of them will lose their jobs, or their health insurance, or both. They are hearing that Joe and Carolyn are sure that the staff is doing a terrible job and they know much better how to improve the way the library is run. They look forward to a grim new reality, and as of this writing (one month after my forced resignation) they have no director to encourage, support, and guide them. So of course, some of them will leave, and not come back. Library staff members at every level served during the past year with compassion and steadiness at libraries throughout the country, and certainly at NMDL. They should be getting to greet the returning library users and the newcomers to a fresh new lineup of programs and materials, and instead they are being forced to reduce hours, reduce programs, reduce service.

Board members need to care. It matters because a library or other civic board needs to be made up of people who care about the institution. The situation at NMDL right now is like someone accepting a seat on the board of the Chicago Symphony and deciding that the orchestra doesn’t need cellos or bassoons any more. It’s unethical to accept a seat on the board of an organization you don’t support, and even more unethical to campaign on the improvements you will make when you intend the opposite. Library trustees are supposed to be advocates for the institution they have sworn to protect. The sign of whether these trustees have done their jobs faithfully will be if the numbers of cardholders, check-outs, program attendance, visitor count, computer use, questions answered all rise instead of falling under their care. Sadly, I think the bad trustees hope for the opposite, to justify making additional cuts later.

Things look grim…but they don’t have to. The community, the library world, and now even outsiders have their eyes on the situation at the Niles-Maine District Library. Three excellent trustees are fiercely advocating for their beloved library, and all they need is one more to join them and work toward reassuring the staff, the community, and the rest of the world that the residents of Niles and unincorporated Maine Township care about lifelong learning and appreciate the gift they have inherited at the corner of Oakton and Waukegan.

Next up: What happens next?

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The Sheep and the “Friends”

The situation at the Niles-Maine District Library is dire. The director (me) was forced to resign three weeks ago, and an interim director has not yet been appointed. The next scheduled board meeting is the public hearing on the budget, on Tuesday, July 20th at 6:30 p.m, and while I certainly encourage stakeholders to come and tell the Board what they think, trustees have not shown much sign of listening so far. The following night the Board will vote on the final Budget & Appropriations Ordinance. They are allowed to make last-minute changes, and I would be stunned if they don’t cut more services and staff, though they also seem perfectly happy to spend spend spend on consultants and lawyers. So let me introduce the other two members of the Board’s voting block of four, which I think of as The Sheep.

First, we have Suzanne (aka Susan and Sue) Schoenfeldt. I confess that I am shocked that she turned into such a library opponent, because she and her children used the library all the time, and I fondly remember her two daughters in various kids’ programs. I remember learning a very long, lovely Christmas story (Starmother’s Youngest Child) to tell to Mrs. Schoenfeldt’s Girl Scout troop at St. John Brebeuf when she asked the Children’s Department for a storyteller. But apparently the years of listening to fellow SJB church goer Carolyn Drblik’s negative interpretation of what is happening at the library turned her opinion around. 

She has almost never spoken in the Board meetings–when anyone asks a question, she automatically turns to Joe to hear what he has decided about things like whether the library would participate in the Fourth of July Parade. (She did not march with the library, by the way.) And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that President Drblik seated herself between the two sheep, and put herself first in the voting order to make sure that they would know how they are supposed to vote. Suzanne spoke several times in the Candidate Forum about the importance of “diversity,” but it must have just been the talking point someone suggested to her, because she hasn’t once mentioned it again, not even in the context of some 15 hours of budget discussions. Also in the Candidate Forum she suggested that the library needs a Citizens Book Selection Committee, and I’m going to guess that most readers just felt a cold chill run up their spines at that phrase.

Then there is the other sheep, Olivia Hanusiak. Olivia got the highest number of votes in the election (though still only 1,543 with a total turnout of 8.14% of the registered voters in the district). And I must admit that I really liked her when she came for her orientation. On a board where the median age is probably over 60, Olivia is in her mid-20s, and she reminisced fondly about Battle of the Books, summer reading, and volunteering at the library. She was alert and engaged in the tour, and if she wanted to be a good trustee, I think she could be. Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to want to be a trustee at all. Rumor had it that it was her father, Chris Hanusiak (Niles Township Republican Committeeman and former Village of Niles Trustee) who persuaded/forced her to run. For reasons too complicated to get into here, they probably told Olivia that she could step down, but the way it worked out she is stuck in a role she doesn’t want. She has missed some meetings, and when she is there she looks absolutely miserable. 

So where do the Friends fit in? Olivia’s dad Chris Hanusiak has been the President of the Friends of the Library for around ten years. Many libraries rely on their Friends groups to volunteer and advocate on behalf of their library, and that is very much what the Niles Friends group once did. They were a key part of the library for many years, running the book sales and other fundraising events. They also saw their role as supporting the staff, and hosted lunches, even dressing up like Santa and Mrs. Claus and handing out presents. But in more recent times, the Friends group seemed like they existed mostly for political purposes, relying entirely on funds raised by staff and volunteers and not doing any of the work of the now continuous booksale. Much of their discussion centered around their annual holiday party at the White Eagle, and planning excursions for themselves. 

Over time, and after consulting with the library’s attorneys, the Board decided that the library should stop transferring the book sale funds to the Friends. The Friends still exist, and still hold around $15,000 in funds that are intended to benefit the library, but if Chris and his cronies are still meeting, they are not announcing the meetings publicly. Needless to say, this is probably one big reason why Chris wanted his daughter Olivia to become a library trustee. Do not be surprised if Carolyn Drblik adds something Friends-related to the July agenda.

Here’s what I don’t understand. The voting block of four is getting a tremendous amount of pushback from the community. As Director, I must have received around 150 emails with titles like “Please stop the corrupt contract,” regarding the hiring of the videographer to audit the library’s operations. Social media has been filled with angry posts and statements naming these trustees by name. What kind of a dad puts his young daughter in the position of having her rather distinct name and words like “corrupt,” and “cruel” associated all over the internet and in the newspaper? How is that going to look when she decides to move out and the landlord is doing a search on her name, or when she applies for her next job? What about the search hits that will come up when the Attorney General starts looking into all of the improperly declined FOIA requests and OMA violations? The negative publicity for the board members (and sadly, for the library) is just beginning.

What Olivia Hanusiak and Suzanne Schoenfeldt are doing is cruel and bizarre, and makes no sense, to be sure. They are rightly being associated with their deeds, and as each board meeting goes by there is a greater record of the circuses the board meetings have become. The record shows that Suzanne and Olivia come into each meeting with the instructions for how to vote on each item, and that’s what they do. But following orders does not make you any less responsible for your actions. They voted for a tentative budget that will result in fired staff members, slashed hours, reduced programs, and elimination of almost all outreach, because they are believing Carolyn Drblik and Joe Makula’s continuous misstatements. If they want to stop damaging their community, they should resign, and let people who actually care about the community have their seats.

Next up: Why do the problems of a suburban library matter?

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A Disastrous Board President

Board President Carolyn Drblik at the Niles-Maine District Library is not my favorite person. You can tell that because the very first thing I did upon being forced to resign is block her in my phone so I never had to see that toxic name pop up again.  I could be mean-spirited and mention a lot of very unflattering things that reflect her general poor judgment and some life choices that backfired badly…but it’s really not the point. The point is that she is on the verge of wrecking a beloved cultural institution in a community that desperately needs it. So I will stick to the relevant facts that explain what motivates her.

The first thing to know about Carolyn Drblik is that she has been convinced since she began as trustee eight years ago that things are terribly wrong at the Niles Public Library District/Niles-Maine District Library. She has been certain from the beginning that we are somewhere on the continuum between very stupid to very corrupt. This has required her to disregard all of the evidence, which includes the Board seeing every payment made to every vendor every month; full financial reports presented to the Board every month; a glowing annual audit ever since Greg Pritz took over; scrupulously maintained internal controls between the Business Manager, Business Coordinator, Executive Director, and Board; the opportunity to question every expense, and so on. It led her to file dozens of time-eating FOIA requests for documents, often for documents that don’t exist since the misdeeds she was looking for don’t exist.

Carolyn spent her first two years as Board Treasurer, and I always remember her triumphantly waving a check in the air as if to say, “Aha! I found it!” It turned out to be the monthly fee for offsite document storage at Iron Mountain. It suited the purposes of the Board President at that time to have Carolyn take up lots of staff time by requesting lots of reports, so she asked for things like a calendar of the paid time off for all of the managers and supervisors, which took many hours to put together in her requested format and which was never referred to again. She was certain that the library was being cheated, and when it turned out everything was documented and appropriate, she just ignored it and tried again.

She was sure that the staffing levels at the library were all wrong and the taxpayers were being bilked, so she and her buddy Danette insisted on doing a staffing and operations survey in 2015. Her original choice for consulting firm was forced out by the Board President (hoping for a lean consultant instead) but they finally agreed upon the consultants used by the Village. Yet when the results of the Matrix staffing and operations study came back, she was again disappointed and has never referred to the survey again. That’s because when they compared us to seven similar libraries, we were about in the middle on everything—not the highest, not the lowest. Kind of like Niles itself.

Later, when that Board President and his sidekick were not reelected, Carolyn and Danette were no longer in a voting block and Danette stepped down in preference to her role as Village Trustee, setting off six long years for Carolyn of being in the minority. (This was despite the fact that in my experience, most of the library trustees are fairly conservative economically.) She fought back by revealing information given in closed session (violating the Open Meetings Act) and writing periodic letters to the editor bashing the Business Manager and me as any good boss would do. Though running for a second term in office herself, Carolyn helped Joe Makula with his unlawful petition limiting library trustees to one term, and continued to try to figure out just what nefarious activities we were up to.

Because Carolyn was on the losing side of so many votes, it was impossible for her to take any pride in the library’s accomplishments as most trustees would. I suspect that was in part because her circle of super-conservative friends were counting on her to hold the line on painting the picture that “spending at the library is out of control!” So if we were designated one of America’s Star Libraries year after year, that just meant that we were trying to do too much. If we did what we called the “Reimagination Project” and made processes more efficient and added the cutting edge Creative Studio with a great staff to help low-tech residents with the necessities of a high-tech world, she was unable to brag about it because that would mean we were doing something right. Over the past 8 years there have been hundreds of examples.

So, here we are. Carolyn pretends to herself that now that she is Board President, she can finally discover what terrible things we have been up to. To aid her in that effort, she forced through the appointment of a completely unqualified friend of hers who not incidentally campaigned for her three new voting block members. People have focused on the IT aspect of the work he was charged with, but in fact his role is to examine all of the library’s operations—in other words, everything. I believe this in part because after many years of FOIA requests she never FOIA’d an IT equipment inventory. So that’s not where her attention really is. As others have speculated, her crony will no doubt will suggest what she already decided she wants, and more foolish changes will be implemented.

Carolyn is also running the board by trying to force every motion through with her four votes and not giving the other three trustees the relevant information in advance, causing them to walk out of the 9th board meeting in 6 weeks. She is exclusively using a private email account to conduct all library business, not turning over the FOIAable documents from that account, and not turning in relevant documents to the library to keep on file. The more information she has, the more paranoid she becomes about protecting that information from, you know, the Board. The staff. The residents. The taxpayers.

One nice thing I can say about Carolyn is that I know her to be someone who cares about social justice. Everything she is doing now, and everyone she is working with now are completely out of sync with any kind of social justice goals. Joe Makula made that very clear with his white supremacist views on serving a diverse community in the candidate forum. I can only believe that what she’s getting from her circle in the way of approval, support, and feeling important and powerful outweighs everything else she believes in. Personally, I think the Mayor should remove her from the Community Relations Commission given her hypocritical behavior toward much of the community. And by the way, the Attorney General should be investigating her constant texting during meetings (I heard a lot of pings behind my shoulder where former Maine Township trustee Carrabotta was sitting) as well as her making calls to her puppet master during the four-hour executive session when he was not elected to the Board and has not been hired as a library attorney. Again, such hypocrisy.

Carolyn, because she cannot believe that anything negative that happens could possibly be attributed to her missteps, blames “negative” comments for spoiling the roll-out of the plans she and Joe have come up with. She can’t understand that simultaneously cutting hours, firing staff, making the librarians responsible for cleaning and shelving (in a very un-ergonomic way from 2 foot tall rolling bins), and not letting staff go out in the community any more are all inherently extremely unpopular proposals. She can’t believe that aligning her interests with Joe’s means she is being tied to all of his crackpot, unworkable plans. Though she knows perfectly well that schools don’t have school buses sitting around waiting for field trips, and assisted living facilities don’t have bored staff who are standing around waiting to replace the outreach staff, she pretends to believe it’s a good idea to keep in Joe’s good graces, so of course it has to be someone else’s fault that they are completely losing the PR battle.

I’ll gladly take some credit for that. I am continuing to beat up on these people via social media because getting rid of me was just the beginning. There is no way I can stand by silently watching as they fire beloved and underpaid staff, cut vital services, and try to put Niles-Maine into a death spiral.

Next time: The Sheep and the “Friends” of the Library

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Taking the Library Back to 1965

First: Apologies to those of you who follow this blog to hear about children’s librarianship. I will return to that topic soon, I promise.

A new board was seated at the Niles-Maine District Library in suburban Chicago on May 19th. The newly elected trustees formed a voting block with the previously lone tax hawk on the board, elected themselves to all of the offices, and set off on an incredibly fast-paced whirl of destruction. After eight board meetings in four weeks, totaling 27 hours, I had the choice of resigning with a settlement, or being fired. You can guess which one I chose.

Part of me would like to turn the corner and move on, but the other part of me knows that I am uniquely positioned to shed light on this dire situation.

Let’s start with Board Treasurer Joe Makula, since he seems to have all of the authority in this group. A Trump donor who has apparently never previously run for office, Makula is working with a group of similarly-minded individuals. You can’t spend more than a few minutes with any of them without their setting off on a rant about Illinois taxes. As far as I can tell, they are working toward taking elected seats on the boards of smaller taxing bodies in Illinois with a goal of gutting the institutions from the inside. Public libraries probably look like a particularly good target to them, with their goal of educating and empowering people. Rumor has it their group spent $15k on the small local library election.

One week after being seated, on Wednesday, May 26th, Joe delivered his plans for the library, using the departmental section of the lengthy budget document. I wrote that text, and unfortunately it apparently gave Joe the perfect tool for systematically targeting all of the work done by library staff that he doesn’t believe in. He took his pen and struck out:

*children’s librarians visiting the schools, preschools, and daycare centers

*children’s librarians working with teachers by pulling classroom materials for their students…you know, the students that are children of taxpayers? Them.

*outreach assistants delivering materials to the homebound–we would use imaginary volunteers instead.

*outreach assistants delivering old copies of books to supplement the libraries of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, as well as delivering newer materials to individuals living there. You know, taxpayers.

*the overnight cleaning crew, saying that the librarians can do the cleaning between customers at the desk. Says Joe firmly, “they only get about 3 questions a day anyway.” 

*the annual staff day and all other forms of continuing education, as well as paid dues to the professional organizations that sponsor continuing education opportunities

*the Veterans History Breakfast, an annual event thanking our local vets who participated in recording their memories as part of the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project. Says Joe, “They can pay for their own breakfast.” 

I could go on and on but you get the picture. This was followed up by a document where Joe decided how much to lower the staff payroll lines in the budget going department by department. He slashed $150k from the Adult Services librarian line, for instance, with no explanation whatsoever. He mercilessly cut the salaries of the lowest paid members of the staff too, in the Patron Services Department. Cut-cut-cut.

He decided that we would continue with the pandemic hours instituted when the staff was divided into two teams, with one team working inside the building and the other team working remotely, slashing hours from 70/week in keeping with the surrounding libraries all the way down to 54. Says Joe, “People use Amazon now–they aren’t coming back.”

So there are two points to all of this slashing. The first is the cruelty, to try to demoralize the staff. I’m sure they hope that the award-winning staff will pour out the door. The second is to put the library into a death spiral. Here’s how that works:

  1. Cut staff, hours, and programs
  2. Restrict library use to residents only (pretty sure this is coming next)
  3. Complain that the library card numbers are down
  4. Complain that the circulation (“borrowings,” as Joe calls them) are down
  5. Complain that program attendance is down
  6. Conclude that all of these downward trends indicate clearly that the library is no longer needed
  7. Make more cuts

I believe Joe’s goal is to reduce the size of the library staff and budget by half by the time his 2-year-term is up. I fully anticipate additional budget cuts at the July board meeting before the final budget is passed. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are shooting for $1,000,000.

Meanwhile Joe’s message gets faithfully reinforced at each meeting by a local lawyer who makes comments at each meeting. My husband refers to him as “The Blowhard,” but I think of him as “The Gaslighter.” At each meeting he pretends to believe that the Board can make lots of budget cuts without affecting service, collections, or programs at all. “They’ll tell you it will destroy the library. It’s a LIE!” he roared recently. Don’t be surprised if suddenly he is hired by this new Board, who seem to like nothing more than rewarding their cronies.

Next up: What the heck is Carolyn Drblik doing?

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Opinionated for 25 Years

There aren’t many things that our newest Supreme Court Justice and I have in common, but I will admit to one: I, too, have held onto many calendars over the years.

1994 calendar cover And I stumbled across this one today, and casually opening it up, I found an interesting entry: On August 3, 1994, I started my reviewing career.

1994 augustA few days before, I was talking with my closest friend, Jan. Both of us were stay-at-home moms after beginning our careers at the Chicago Public Library. She commented, “You know, you should do something more literary, like Roger Sutton.” We had both known Roger at CPL. And the very next day, Roger Sutton called and said he was looking for a writer for the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, and our former boss had recommended me. Never before or since has something so odd happened to me, but I was delighted to make an appointment. He gave me three books to review as a trial, and I began what has been an almost entirely wonderful part of my life.

At BCCB, the standards were high, set by Zena Sutherland and Betsy Hearne–no using unspecific words like “colorful,” “charming,” or “beautiful.” No taking cheap shots to look smart. And the process there of going in person once a week and passing reviews and books around the table for critiquing was a time of my life that I look back on as a sort of Camelot. Working with a small group of really sharp and witty people was tough and incredibly fun, and if my mistakes like using a dangling modifier were laughed at mercilessly, I learned. Writing 7 or more book reviews a week challenged me, and today when so much of my reading time is eaten up online, I can hardly believe the amount of reading I used to do. BCCB remains a frank and thoughtful source of book reviews today.

Once the Bulletin moved out of the city, I began reviewing for Booklist, the review journal of the American Library Association. In the Books for Youth section, I continued writing many reviews a week, and during the fall got to go in for weekly meetings to discuss the year’s best books for Editors’ Choice. I got to meet editorial assistant John Green, and remember well when I first started reading the ARC for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, realizing quickly that it was something very special. Hazel, Ilene, Stephanie, Sally, and Carolyn were and are such wise women, each great writers in their own right.

Eventually I followed Roger to The Horn Book Magazine where I have remained for almost 20 years. Roger’s deft editorial hand and his ability to keep Horn Book formal but fresh have kept me on my toes. The number of reviewers has recently greatly expanded, allowing a wider number of voices to be heard, and having the chance to weigh in and listen to comments on what should be starred each month keeps widening my perspective.

The advent of online reviewing has changed the field. Anyone can start a blog like this one and start opining away. But review editors like other editors in publishing help ensure that reviews are fair, facts are checked, and prose is polished. It’s been a huge privilege to write for each of these journals (as well as Kirkus and Reading Today) and I will always be grateful for the editors, fellow reviewers, book selectors, and most of all for the authors and illustrators that keep children’s literature such a vibrant and ever-changing world.


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Help! I’m drowning!

Do you ever just feel crushed under the weight of the books that you should be reading? I am finally getting around to Middlemarch, and the further I read the more I love it. It clearly is a book that deserves being reread, because the characters are so rich and well-developed that you can only fully appreciate them through multiple readings. But do I have time?

Ursula K. LeGuin has just died. I started to write “passed away,” and immediately deleted it as the sort of wimpy phrase that she would despise. A Wizard of Earthsea became one of my favorite books from the moment I finished it, but it’s been many years since I re-read it. Do I have time?

Authors coming from other cultures and races and perspectives are finally having a chance to be published. I actually started and stopped reading Angie Thomas’s brilliant The Hate U Give. Stopped, because her voice in that book is so fresh and stunning and real that I immediately felt out of place. It starts with a party, and introverts like me don’t love parties that much, but more than that it just wasn’t a party I would ever be invited to. It was uncomfortable. I loved it, but it took me awhile to be able to sit with it. By the end, I wanted to start it all over again. Do I have time?

The thing is, every book I read makes me richer in some way, but every book I read is another book I don’t have time to read. At this time of year, I’m trying to catch up on the 2017 books while understanding that it’s at the cost of the 2018 books. It’s possible that when I am old enough to retire, I will have time to read All the Books. I’m not sure when just the joy of reading seemed like enough to me, and when that changed to feeling like I needed to have a voice in trying to influence what other people read.  But I do think it is probably time to finish Middlemarch as I have finished The Hate U Give, and to pick up A Wizard of Earthsea again.

Time…it just keeps marching on. Writers, they just keep writing on. I can’t keep up, but I guess that’s okay.

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Recipe for Storytime Success

Millions of CatsMy Storytime for Big Kids is the high point of my week, which is otherwise occupied with budgets and HR and planning and communicating with board and staff and the public. I actually enjoy that work too, and I like working with colleagues to create an environment where good things can take place. But there is nothing in that work that feels as successful as a storytime that has gone really well.

I had a great reaction in storytime today to a book. Its pictures are black and white; the text by modern standards is too long, there is not a trademarked character in sight, and the kids (and adults) were completely and enthusiastically engaged. The book came out in 1928, and it is funny and quirky and wonderful. Most of all, it is a story, and kids love love love a good story. Instead of waiting through the book to find the parts where they were supposed to be participating, the kids were riveted because they wanted to know what happened next.

The biggest mistake I see people making in planning their storytimes is that their focus is so much on participation. It’s about having a craft (and the eternal struggle to find a craft that kids can do without too much adult intervention and still be something that the adults who bring them will find worthwhile). It’s about getting the kids up and down and up and down and not making them sit through too many books. It’s about making sure the books themselves have lots of opportunities for the kids to participate. Often these days it is about teaching a child facts or skills. It is almost never about finding a story that will surprise and amaze and delight a child.

There are some great, highly interactive books, and the very best books and folk tales often have some element that repeats, or that kids want to say along with you. Being interactive in itself isn’t a bad thing. But the problem with the modern storytime structure is that young kids have a hard time settling down, so planning your storytime assuming that books are boring is exactly the wrong thing to do. They actually need time to settle in, begin to focus, start to catch on that something interesting is happening in the story. They need a chance to actually look at the pages long enough to notice things, and they need the stories to unfold in a way where they start to get the hang of it, but they are still surprised at the twists and turns.

I am a big fan of Megan Lambert’s technique of slowing down and really examining a book closely. I find that when I take the time to look at the cover, and the endpapers, and the title page, and to stop and make sure we know what’s happening in the pictures at first, the kids get much more deeply engaged in the book. They are able to predict what will happen (sometimes right, sometimes wrong, but that’s part of the fun). They often notice details in the illustrations that I haven’t even picked up on. They listen more carefully, too.

Most of all, they get to take a few minutes in lives that these days are rush rush rush rush, and they get to stop and appreciate and enjoy things. They aren’t being told to stand up as soon as they finally started looking at the pages of the story, and they aren’t being hustled through one activity to get to the next. There is a stillness that comes over a room when the adults and the children are deeply engaged. Those are the very best moments of storytime.

My colleague at the library where I work, Ms. Clara, once told me that the kids in her storytime really love the moment in Kevin Henkes’ Little White Rabbit where the little bunny imagines what it would be like to be as still as a rock. She has them try that out, and they all get as still as they can be. Since then, I have tried that out several times with groups and she is right–they love that few moments of stillness.

Today’s big hit was a book I learned to tell as a story–Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats, with the immortal refrain, “Hundreds of cats. Thousands of cats. Millions and billions and trillions of cats.” It has one of the most brilliantly unexpected plot twists in any of children’s literature… and unlike the equally charming and old-fashioned Caps for Sale, none of the kids knew it.

I encourage storytime planners to focus on finding the stories that they love, the ones that have a turn of phrase or a sensibility about them that are unlike the others. Don’t keep looking for the book that you have to shake or stick your finger through or the one that is trying too hard to be funny. It is all about the rhythm. Have confidence in yourself, and the books, and the kids.

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Staff Picks

It was my turn to put together a staff picks display for my library. I have to say that it was much harder than I anticipated. It was hard in a good way–it made me think.

When you put a group of books on display with your name and face in front of them, it really reinforces your connection with those books…and by books I mean books and DVDs and music. An astute children’s librarian told me I was overthinking it, and she was absolutely right. But it also reinforced for me the new reality which is that as a library director, people will pay more attention to my opinions.

I was appointed director in May, and already I have begun to realize that I no longer have the ability to make a suggestion. When you are the director and you make a suggestion, it happens. Maybe it was a great idea, or maybe a good suggestion that you have been sitting on awhile, or maybe a completely half-baked dumb idea. But whatever category it falls into, it will probably happen. That is taking some getting used to.

So, when I went around the library looking for the materials for my display, I was a little intimidated. I am perfectly comfortable recommending children’s and YA books, because that is my field. I’ve been a children’s book reviewer and a children’s librarian for many (frighteningly many) years now. But although I have continued to read adult, or as I think of them, “grown-up” books whenever I get the chance, I lack the same confidence in my recommendations for those. I am aware that most of the time I will choose a female writer, for starters, which I don’t even consider when reading children’s and YA books, so right there that seems like a thing to  worry about.

It was kind of agonizing. An author like Anne Tyler is easy. I love her books, and they are well-written and insightful. I love Anne Lamott, with her easy mix of life experience and religion. I have no problem throwing in the Martha Grimes, which is literary mystery, and ditto P.D. James. But at a certain point, especially after hitting the Young Adult section, it became clear that my taste in literature is much darker than I ever realized before. It was Laura Ruby’s mysterious Bone Gap, and Christine Hepperman’s feminist poetry retellings of fairy tales in Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty. It was Maggie Stiefvater’s compelling Raven Boys cycle, and the still excellent Hunger Games, which by the way if you read it as a romance, you are reading it all wrong. They’re all great. They’re all very dark.

It was the same with the television series and movies. I have no appetite for gore, so I’m sure I am missing many wonderful DVDs, but my favorite shows are The Sopranos, and The Wire, and The Good Wife, and others that mix tough reality with humor and thoughtful contemplation of what a strange thing the human condition is.

Then it was onto the nonfiction…and that was impossible. When you are the director, you have to worry that if you put out a Suze Orman book that one person will think it is too pop culture and another will think the particular book is dated and another will find it inappropriate to mention money at all. When browsing the political books looking for material, I found myself beginning to think how entertaining it might be to put out books that express the complete opposite of what I actually believe. It’s very revealing to choose nonfiction. I ended up going with dog books and knitting books, conveniently overlooking that my dog is not well-trained and my knitting is…well…soothing but not artistic.

It was a much more personal experience than I anticipated. By the time it was done, my feet hurt and so did my brain. But in the end I think the fact that it was very uncomfortable made it well worth the time. I learned a lot about myself, and my new role, and that’s not even talking about all of the stuff I learned about how the collections are arranged and their ease of use. So I recommend it. The patrons seem to really like staff picks displays, and what a person chooses is pretty interesting. Just don’t judge me for the odd juxtaposition of Anne of Green Gables and Game of Thrones. We are all a mix, aren’t we?

photo taken in my library by Ed Spicer

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The new young adult books

Goodnight MoonLanguage changes. It always has, and probably it always will, but that won’t stop those of us who enjoy language from railing against awful usage and mistakes that become common practice. Who doesn’t enjoy a good argument about the Oxford comma or a rant against verbing? (Most people you say? Oh. But anyway, for some of us, expressing disgust with new/wrong word choices is a sport.) Language changes.

So when Time Magazine listed its 100 Best Young Adult Books of All Time, I immediately braced myself because I now know that the mainstream press has begun to use “young adult” to mean “children’s book”. Many children read Charlotte’s Web in second or third grade, and there aren’t a lot of 7-year-olds who qualify as “young adult” in my book. But I had this shock of understanding when I looked at the list that those of us who know the difference have lost this battle–Time Magazine will get dozens more readers than this blog post. Or millions more. Realistically.

There are a few of us who care about this, and we will continue to point out how absurd it is in a related article titled 17 Famous Writers on Their Favorite Young Adult Books that Martin Amis says Goodnight Moon. Clearly he was asked for his favorite children’s book. Maybe that error is so absurd that the editorial staff at Time will be more careful…but I doubt it. Over at CNN they have the list of Young Adult Books That Changed Our Lives with the Narnia books on it, along with several other solidly fourth/fifth grade books. Publishers and bookstores have an interest in pushing the boundaries of the enormously popular YA category down to get more readers. There is also a perception that children don’t like to be called children.

My other theory is that young adult books have become so similar in their themes and structure that writers throw on children’s books for the sake of variety. A list made up mostly of dystopian books and romances becomes dull very quickly. But that’s not fair to the many excellent YA writers like Maggie Stiefvater and E. Lockhart, who write uniquely voiced and richly imagined stories for teens. No, it is probably not thought out at all–it is probably an editor who doesn’t know much about the topic deciding quickly that “young adult” is trendy while “children’s literature” is not, and going with the trendier term.

I’m going to try not to let it get on my nerves. I can’t afford to be cranky about everything.


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