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Rahm Emanuel and public sector union play hardball over Chicago library hours

Across the US, financially strapped local governments are cutting back on library hours. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has reduced the libraries' week to five days amid a stand-off with a public union.

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Mr. Lindall called the Monday closure a contract violation and says the union wants the lost jobs and reduced hours restored. He says the library system already suffered significant budget cuts, reduced hours and layoffs two years ago under former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.

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“We don’t think the people want the union and the city to sit down and figure out the best way to cut access to libraries. The people want an agreement to keep the libraries fully open,” he says.

Cutting hours and shuttering branches is trending nationally, according to data from the ALA. In 2011, 16 percent of all libraries in the US were forced to reduce hours. One year earlier, just 4.5 percent of libraries reduced hours.

Library budgets are also vulnerable. In fiscal year 2011, 60 percent of all US libraries reported flat or decreased operating budgets.

The industry is so alarmed by the budget slashing, it is a keynote topic at the association’s midwinter meeting next week in Dallas. Ms. Raphael, the ALA president, says she sympathizes with the nation’s mayors, who have the difficult burden of finding cuts, especially because property tax revenues are shrinking.

But she adds that, in addition to access to books, audiovisual media, and other materials, libraries provide essential services for job seekers, such as free online computer use. According to ALA data, 88 percent of libraries provided job databases and other resources to job seekers in 2011.

“For every hour a library is closed, it makes people who don’t have access to those resources more vulnerable,” she says. She says that although libraries faced cuts through earlier economic downturns, particularly in the aftermath of 9-11, this current climate is “so much worse … in terms of the length and depth of the recession.”

Libraries are facing cutbacks at a time when public libraries are becoming more reliant than ever on funding from local governments rather than states, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, an organization in Washington that provides policy research for libraries and museums.

The organization’s October 2011 survey shows that public library funding from local governments increased nearly 33 percent from 2000 to 2009, while state funding decreased 28 percent. Local governments accounted for 84 percent of public library funding across the US in 2009; in Illinois, local municipalities provided 88 percent.

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