The Chicago Public Library Should Not Be the Library of the Year

To the members of the Library Journal Selection Committee for Library of the Year:

We are a group of Chicago Public Library workers who wish to remain anonymous. We have written this letter to oppose the nomination of the Chicago Public Library for Library of the Year.

Over the course of this year CPL has not only failed to demonstrate a commitment to the professional ethics of librarianship, but also endangered the public. Bestowing this accolade on Mayor Lightfoot and our administration would further deepen trauma still being experienced by CPL staff, and reward a deeply cynical and opaque style of management. If you truly want to honor libraries that “focus on staff well-being” and that serve their communities with honesty, transparency, and a commitment to genuine social justice, look elsewhere.

During the initial stages of the pandemic there was no communication of any substance from our leadership. This remained the default for over a year. No PPE was made available for weeks, and, despite growing staff concern, CPL only closed on March 22, 2020 — weeks after most other libraries had closed — due to the statewide shutdown initiated by Governor Pritzker. Over the two months of shutdown, we existed in an information vacuum. No options were provided for staff to pivot to online programming or to work from home. Cybernavigators and YOUMedia mentors, whose positions were funded by the CPL Foundation and many of whom had devoted years of service to the library, were laid off with no notice and without a word to the CPL colleagues who worked by their sides. After eight weeks of tremendous anxiety, we were informed we had less than a week to prepare for a return to work.

On June 8, 2020, CPL reopened all but a few of its 81 locations. The process of transitioning back to work was chaotic and terrifying. We returned to work spaces that, despite promises and reassurances from our administration, were prepared to a barely minimal standard for reopening during a pandemic. The problems varied by location but were consistent in their pattern of negligence: some library branches had no disinfectant spray, others received bottles of expired hand sanitizer, others had none of the promised plexiglass barriers installed. We were all issued a single flimsy mask. The paucity of PPE led many staff to stock our departments with supplies we purchased personally. Over the summer, despite the growing evidence that in-person contact over periods of time greater than 15 minutes entailed a high risk of COVID-19 transmission, CPL refused to offer pick-up services that would keep immunocompromised and older patrons safer. We were never told why they had rejected a model adopted by so many other libraries across the country.

For six months, and through the peak of the pandemic in Chicago, our administration provided no notification to the public or to us about positive COVID cases that occurred in our branches. While libraries around the country were doing their best to keep the public informed and thereby healthy and safe, CPL not only didn’t bother, but actively concealed the risks to patrons in using our services. This lack of transparency is diametrically opposed to the principle that libraries are accountable to their communities and staff.

Once the vaccine became available CPL staff were not granted priority access. It was insulting for us, after working with the public directly for a year and being told repeatedly by our administration that we were “essential,” to not be included in the 1B phase of vaccination alongside other frontline city workers. CPL administration did not respond to an open letter from AFSCME Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch written on January 15th, 2021, asking for them to publicly advocate for priority vaccine status on behalf of their staff. 34 aldermen also sent the same request to Mayor Lightfoot. Instead of listening to these pleas, our administration crafted a misleading statistical narrative to gaslight staff by explaining our concerns and grievances away. On February 5, staff received the following in their email,

“During this pandemic, we are proud that CPL has maintained one of the lowest rates of COVID infection among City staff. To date, 53 out of 1,018 library staff have tested positive for COVID, or 5%. This is lower than the community at large, which is 8.5%. By comparison, that figure is 22% for Chicago Fire Department and 15% for the Department of Water Management. Of the 53 library cases, our contact tracing found that 46 were non-work related, 3 were work related, and 4 were undetermined. That’s due to the commitment and diligence of our library personnel.”
- Chris Brown, Library Commissioner

We find this statistical analysis to be disingenuous and dangerous. We have no idea how many of the 46 “non-work related” cases were transmitted from patrons to staff; the public was neither included in contact tracing nor consistently made aware of COVID-related branch closures. These statistics also include staff who were working from home, but completely omit all contract staff including all of our security and janitorial staff. We have no idea what an actual quantitative analysis of viral spread in CPL over the last year would look like. In the end, vaccine priority was not confirmed for CPL staff until March 8th 2021, well after new vaccination rates for municipal staff had begun to fall and criticism that many of Chicago’s vaccines had gone to wealthy suburban residents was gaining traction.

Furthermore, contact tracing was conducted by library administration, and staff were encouraged not to report too many coworkers in their contact tracing interviews. Some staff who directly reported close contact with a coworker who tested positive were not allowed to quarantine. While many organizations and businesses were providing regular COVID-19 tests for their workers, we were responsible for getting tested, and many of us only sought out testing because we were already ill. CPL workers were notified if someone in their branch tested positive, but workers in other branches were simply told that that location was closing for the day — unsure if it was closed for COVID or more banal reasons.

Our Mayor and Commissioner have called us leaders in the field for our work during this pandemic. It is true that CPL staff stepped up to take care of each other in this incredibly difficult time, and found creative ways to support our communities. However, this award wouldn’t honor Chicago Public Library’s workers — it would honor an administration that prioritized opening our doors over keeping staff and patrons safe. We no longer trust that our administration is concerned for our welfare, or interested in addressing the toxicity and opacity that define so much of our organizational culture. We are also deeply concerned that CPL’s reckless decision to reopen so early in the pandemic, with so little preparation and such inadequate safety measures, sets a dangerous example for other institutions, especially if our institution receives praise and accolades for its harmful mismanagement of staff and patron safety during COVID-19.

We encourage you to look elsewhere when picking the Library of the Year. The Chicago Public Library has fallen far short of being exemplary in our field.