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EDITORIAL: For the sake of kids and neighborhoods, open libraries on Sundays

Public libraries are far more than just a place to check out books. They’re a safe haven, especially in impoverished Chicago neighborhoods.

Patrons inside the Chicago Public Library branch in Chinatown.
The Chinatown branch of the Chicago Public Library. Mayor Lightfoot wants to open all 77 branch libraries on Sundays.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

A couple of days ago, we wrote in favor of spending more money on high-quality preschool to improve the lives of Chicago’s children early on.

Better that, we argued, than spend a lot more money down the road on the prisons.

Now we’re enthusiastic about another opportunity to shift our city’s spending in that better direction. We think Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposal this week to open public library branches on Sundays is an excellent idea.

Yes, money is tight. Terribly so. But opening branch libraries on Sunday, which is about as direct an investment in children and neighborhoods as a city can make, is exactly the right kind of priority.

Lightfoot ran for mayor on a pledge to bring greater investment to every neighborhood — and extending library hours is a small but good place to start.

“Libraries are a safe haven for a whole lot of folks,” the mayor told us on Tuesday, recalling the “fond memories” she still has of the now-shuttered library located across the street from her junior high school in Massillon, Ohio.

“At that time, no one had a big collection of books at home,” Lightfoot said. “Being able to go explore the world, have the librarians help you explore the world and help you with homework — just having a safe space, is important.”

Lightfoot pointed out that studies show library use is trending up, not down, even in the digital age and especially in impoverished neighborhoods.

“Not being able to have extended hours is a real disservice to people in a lot of communities,” she said.

Nationally, public libraries are now much more than a place to check out books. They’re community anchors that millions of Americans — more than 171 million, according to the latest survey by the Institute of Museum and Library Services — use every year.

Libraries are now a place where job-seekers who don’t have internet access at home can use a computer to fill out applications. They’re a place where people can hold a neighborhood meeting, attend a small business workshop, hear a talk by an author or use a 3D printer in a Maker Lab for a school project.

In Chicago, libraries are cooling centers in summer and warming centers in winter. Children can get help with their homework, finding the materials they need. The number of school-based libraries in Chicago has steeply declined — dropping from 454 in 2013 to just 139 in 2017.

Libraries are as important to a big city as schools, parks and public transit. They are, in the words of the nonpartisan Aspen Institute, “priority infrastructure.”

Yet we have had to fight for them.

In 2011, Chicago aldermen howled when Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a plan to slash library hours to save $10 million in the city’s budget. Emanuel scaled back the cuts, but his library commissioner, Mary Dempsey — a close friend and former co-worker of Lightfoot — was so alarmed that she later quit anyway.

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley, to his credit, took a different approach. In 1994, he pulled together state, local and foundation money so that the main Harold Washington Library and Woodson and Sulzer regional libraries could be opened on Sunday.

Can Chicago find the money this time?

Yes.

If we really care as much about children and neighborhoods as we do about developers and downtown.

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