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Jen Thomas/MEDILL

Chicago libraries have seen a 28 percent boost in circulation this year as consumers look for ways to save a buck.

Crumbling economy drives library traffic

by Jen Thomas
Oct 16, 2008

Plummeting stocks and talk of a recession may have Wall Street on its knees, but at least one Chicago organization has the bad economy to thank for its success.

The Chicago Public Library has seen a 28 percent leap in circulation this year as residents search for ways to keep more money in their wallets, said Ruth Lednicer, the director of marketing and press at the library.

“As people start to reevaluate expenses, they remember we’re free,” said Lednicer, who added that rentals of movies, audio books and CDs are on the rise.

Despite plans to leave nearly 160 vacancies unfilled in 2009 as part of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s proposed budget, Lednicer said the free library programs will continue as usual.

“We do not expect services to suffer as a result of budget cuts. We’re just asking our staff to work a little harder to make up for the spaces we thought we could fill,” Lednicer said.

The library saw the biggest hit in reference and circulation services, which translates into 149 fewer jobs for a savings of $5.9 million next year. Many of those were highly skilled librarian positions, Lednicer said. The vacancies are spread across the city so as not to impact any communities disparately.

“It’s a tough economic time and we understand the city needs to make cuts to have a balanced budget, but we know we’re more important to the public,” Lednicer said.

The mayor’s recommendations leave the rest of the library’s budget virtually untouched, but double late fees to help close a $469 million deficit.

“Right now, late fines are 10 cents a day. The new budget will make it 20 cents. And the current maximum for an overdue book is $5. That will be raised to $10,” Lednicer said.

The change is projected to increase fine revenue from $1.7 million this year to $3.2 million next year.

The library also receives funding from the Chicago Public Library Foundation, which raised more than $800,000 this week during its annual fundraising event, more than any other previous effort, said foundation President and CEO Rhona Frazin.

“People in tough times really appreciate the library and people with private dollars realize the important role the library plays in the lives of families in tough financial situations,” Frazin said.

Frazin attributes the boom in library use to the community programs and workshops they offer and free access to computers.

“We just want to be able to help people,” Lednicer said.

The library will continue to expand next year with the Beverly branch expected to open in the summer and the West Humboldt Park branch to begin design and construction.