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?

7 responses to “Taking the Library Back to 1965”

  1. Thank you for sharing this. Who within the state, oversees the Library Board? Besides the taxpayers, who does this board need to comply with? I served on a School Board and there were higher ups within the state that held the board responsible.

    • Very unfortunately, there is nothing to be done in Illinois with local elected officials–I am planning to contact the Illinois Senator in hopes of his working on rectifying that.

  2. It is just disgusting what has happened to you and to the fabulous library in Niles. I’m really sorry! Do we have the same state senator (Laura Fine)? I’m happy to write to her as well, if you think that would be helpful. If you feel like sharing what you write to your state senator (so my message is more informed) I would use it to craft my own. Whatever you prefer. My niece (the rabbi) left her synagogue in New York because a trumpy guy became board president and started trashing the place in terms of what he knew was needed or not (he was incorrect). Fortunately, she has a great new position in a whole other state. My heart goes out to you and your library colleagues!

  3. I’m a North Shore librarian and I have been so saddened to read about what is happening at Niles. I am so sorry about what you and the staff have been experiencing. What is the best way to help/support the library if you aren’t a Niles resident?

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