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Lightfoot vows to find money to open Chicago’s 77 branch libraries on Sunday

‘The libraries are really Ground Zero for what’s good about Chicago,’ the mayor said Monday.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot (right) and wife Amy Eshleman (center)
Mayor Lori Lightfoot (right) and wife Amy Eshleman (center) talk to a patron at McKinley Park library on Monday.
Fran Spielman/Chicago Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot vowed Monday to find the money to establish Sunday hours at Chicago’s 77 branch libraries despite grappling with a budget shortfall she claims is “north of $700 million.”

“We’re gonna provide more resources so that our libraries can continue to grow. So that we can expand our hours because it’s important for us to be present and visible for our residents and the libraries are really ground zero for what’s good about Chicago,” Lightfoot said after unveiling the “Summer of Learning” program at McKinley Park library.

Pressed to define the expansion she’s contemplating, Lightfoot specifically mentioned opening branch libraries on Sunday.

Currently, the Harold Washington central library and three regional libraries — Woodson, Sulzer and Legler — are open 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays, but all 77 branch libraries are closed.

“I was actually just with someone this morning [who] talked about, for example, in the Orthodox [Jewish] community that Sundays are the days they can go and access the library and they’re not able to do that,” the mayor said.

Lightfoot said funding to open branch libraries on Sundays would “for sure” be included in her first city budget, effective Jan. 1, but, “We’re gonna see what we can do to get things up and running yet this year.”

Pressed on how the city can afford it, Lightfoot said: “For what benefit it brings, it’s a relatively modest investment. ... It’s really important and it brings such value to the community.”

Newly appointed Library Commissioner Andrea Telli was thrilled.

“This isn’t our grandfather’s library anymore. People are using it as a community gathering place. … They use it for their office. They use it as refuge for warming and cooling centers in the summer and winter-time. ... That doesn’t stop happening on Sunday,” Telli said.

“We all know that we’re headed into a difficult budget year. So we’re really gonna have to work with the mayor and the budget office to make it a reality.”

Pressed on what might be cut to fund Sunday branch hours, Telli said: “I don’t want to cut anything.”

Lightfoot’s decision to try to expand library service is not surprising. After all, former Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey, whose 2011 resignation protested Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s draconian cuts to library hours and services, is a close friend, former co-worker, campaign advisor and contributor to Lightfoot.

And Lightfoot’s wife, Amy Eshleman, served as an assistant library commissioner under Dempsey. Eshleman is credited with helping to develop YOUmedia, a digital center tailor-made for teenagers. Eshleman attended Lightfoot’s announcement Monday.

Adding fuel to the fire was a recent follow-up audit by Inspector General Joe Ferguson, which concluded that staffing at Chicago’s 80 public libraries was still not aligned with community needs a year after he recommended a “systemwide workload analysis” to better serve patrons.

But the promise to expand library services comes as Lightfoot has acknowledged there is “no question” taxpayers would be asked for more revenue to erase the looming budget shortfall.

Just last week, she promised to tackle Chicago’s “mounting, looming, all-consuming” pension debt once and for all, even if it means risking her political future.

“Yes, there are tough solutions. Yes, there are tough choices that have to be made. Yes, they involve putting ourselves at political risk. But I ran for change. I didn’t run to perpetuate myself in elected office forever. And if it means that I will sacrifice myself politically, so be it. But we must do this now,” she said.

In his first city budget, Emanuel proposed reducing library hours and imposing draconian job cuts that would have affected library services at all hours.

The plan to reduce corporate fund support for libraries by $10 million was modified only after aldermen from across the city took a stand during City Council budget hearings to the applause of library employees faced with losing their jobs.

Dempsey resigned, unwilling to preside over the dismantling of a library system she helped build.

Even after the compromise, the library system was hit with a 26 percent reduction. It included eliminating 146 library pages, who sort and shelve books and other materials and perform other routine clerical tasks.

Although some of those positions were restored, Ferguson concluded last year that staffing remained “below 2011 levels.”