At the Ref Desk (10/6/18): (Question of the Day): "For how much time can I ask you questions?" I told him we were open till nine. [more...]

'Bricks without Straw': Economic Hardship and Innovation in the Chicago Public Library during the Great Depression

Submitted by Leo Klein on Sat, 8/27/11 (3:30pm)
Pub Date: 
08/01/2011
Author: 

Unwilling or unable to curtail services, the library administration was forced to look to the collections budget for savings. In May 1931 all book ordering ceased. An institution that normally expended over $200,000 annually on collections simply stopped acquiring new materials. However, this drastic measure proved insufficient. Invoices for rent, coal, bookbinding, and other expenses went unpaid, and the library slipped further into debt with each passing day.3 In a 1932 letter, chief librarian Carl B. Roden summarized the dire situation: "We are afflicted by the worst financial hardship we have ever suffered. We have bought no books for eight months, the magazine subscriptions for 1932 were cancelled. . . . No budget for the current year has been attempted and the prospects of funds for even our curtailed activities are, at this writing, far from encouraging."4 Responding to one of many inquiries about an unpaid bill, Roden replied, "Under these circumstances it is literally and absolutely impossible for anyone to say when outstanding accounts will be paid."5 A core collection of magazine subscriptions was subsequently reinstated, but regular book purchasing would not resume for another four years. This not only affected patrons' access to new publications; there was also no money to acquire replacements. Due to constant wear and tear, thousands of volumes were withdrawn annually from the collection, with the most popular books suffering the heaviest losses.