In the summer of 2019, the Oak Park Public Library (OPPL) chose Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life by Eric Klinenberg as its One Book, One Oak Park selection.
“The United States, like most developed nations, faces profound challenges — including climate change, an aging population, runaway equality, and explosive ethnic divisions — that we can address only if we establish stronger bonds with one another and develop some shared interests too.”
Critical to establishing those bonds is what he calls social infrastructure, “the physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact.”
These places include parks, corner diners, schools and, perhaps most notable of all, libraries.
John Dewey once wrote (a quote that’s in Klinenberg’s book) that “Democracy must begin at home and its home is the neighborly community.”
The library may well be the linchpin of the neighborly community in our modern society because the state of our libraries can tell us a lot about ourselves.
For instance, the old robber barons like Andrew Carnegie refashioned a good amount of their ill-gotten wealth into social infrastructure. Carnegie donated $12,000 in 1904 for my hometown of Maywood to build a library, which stands to this day.
That kind of gesture is too simple and out of fashion for our new robber barons like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, who would rather dream of building libraries on Mars.
In fact, far from being rejuvenated with new investment and attention, our libraries are increasingly ignored, if not directly attacked.
Consider the case of the Niles Public Library in Niles, a suburb about 30 minutes from Oak Park, whose library, like OPPL, is well-regarded and award-winning, “consistently rated among the best in the country,” according to Kelly Jensen’s report in Book Wire (hat tip to Charlie Meyerson’s Chicago Public Square email newsletter for bringing this to my attention).
The April election, however, changed things tremendously. Turnout for the election was 8.4%. The low turnout election was an opportunity for Carolyn Drblik, a fiscally conservative tax hawk who had been on the Niles library board for eight years, to get some more people who thought like her into office. They won and Drblik was elected board president.
Susan Dove Lempke, the library’s executive director who resigned in June, describes Drblik to Jensen this way:
“At the very first board meeting eight years ago when she was first seated, she had clearly been courted by a board member who is a huge believer in the free market. They came in having pre-decided which person was going to take which office, and Carolyn was immediately elected to Treasurer. She was in way over her head, and much of what she saw confused her — the business manager spent hours and hours explaining things to no avail. … Even up to last year she would ask about a particular bill from our computer consortium (CCS) and not remember what it was for. When you don’t understand, and you don’t retain information well, it is easy to become suspicious. … To be clear, she has had access to every bill since she started.”
With Drblik at the helm, the library’s funding “has been deeply slashed, hours reduced to below-state-standard levels, the library director quit, and essential services to the community shuttered,” Jensen writes.
Among those services facing the axe were: “children’s librarians visiting the schools, preschools, and daycare centers,” “children’s librarians working with teachers by pulling classroom materials for their students,” and “outreach assistants delivering materials to the homebound.”
The board also “purposefully slashed the funding for books in non-English languages. During the debates prior to election, the topic of inclusivity at the library set off a range of responses, including [eventual board member and Trump donor Joe] Makula making it clear he believes in assimilation.
“‘We should concentrate on people learning English because that’s the language here,’ Makula said. ‘Instead of stocking up on books in seven different languages, if we got people to assimilate and learn English better, I think we would do more good than increasing our inventory of foreign language books.’”
And if anyone with clear eyes thought the new Niles library board was serious about real reform, the board quickly worked to disabuse you of the notion. Drblik’s hyper-vigilance about library spending seemed on par with the GOP’s hyper-vigilance about debt when they’re out of power.
“Immediately upon the board being installed, they hired a technology consultant to investigate the library’s processes and procedures,” Jensen writes. “This consultant, a wedding videographer with no auditing credentials, is simply a friend of Drblik and the rest of her new board block and campaigned for their election. He was hired at $100 an hour with no experience and no cap.”
In Oak Park, where the library recently posted the position of equity and anti-racism director — a job it created in order to accomplish its goal of becoming an “anti-racist organization” — it’s easy to get lulled into a sense of complacency about progress.
But if what’s happening in Niles can happen there — where “roughly 72% of the community is white, with about 20% Asian, 9% Latinx, 3% Black, and about 4.5% of more than one race,” where “over 55% of those over the age of 5 speak a language other than English in the household,” and where the diversity and quality of community enticed a former Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 superintendent (remember Steve Isoye?) — it can happen here.