Harold Washington Library Center is gorgeous in its classic postmodern design.

What is happening now to the Harold Washington Library Center, which was the largest library in the world when it was built in 1991? This podcast will explore this in depth, using data published by the City of Chicago, and how it matters to Chicagoans.



Welcome to the ELI’s Finding Chicago Global Perspectives Podcast Series for AEPP 2022. I’m your host, Wakako Matsunaga, and I’m currently enrolled in the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Today we will be exploring the topic of how the Harold Washington Library Center was founded and the problems it is facing after the Corona pandemic.
I would like to start with a brief self-introduction. I came here as an exchange student from a Japanese university to study at Booth. Since I have only been in Chicago for a few weeks, everything is still new to me. I am currently exploring various places. And one of the places I explored was the Harold Washington Library Center, today’s subject. Some of you may be wondering why I went to the library when I have not yet visited all the famous tourist attractions.
There is a reason for that. I have always liked bookstores and one day I was looking for a bookstore in Loop on Google maps. I like the atmosphere of bookstores and I like to know what kind of books are sold in the country and what kind of books are currently popular. Then I found that the Loop has a Barnes & Noble as a large bookstore. I also found out that there is another large library just around the corner. And that library was the Harold Washington Library Center. I had never heard of this library before, but it was highly rated, and from the pictures I saw, it looked like a very luxurious library, and I was completely fascinated by it. So I did some research on this library. I found out that this library is a wonderful library that was created by a politician who worked very hard for the citizens. On the other hand, looking at data such as the number of users, I also realized the problems this library must be facing in After Corona. Today, I would like to actually talk about them specifically.
Now, let me ask you a question first. You all know that the first black man to become president was Barack Obama. Do you know who was the first black mayor of Chicago? That would be Harold Washington. Yes, he is the man for whom the library is named. In 1983, the Central Library was temporarily located at 425 North Michigan Avenue near the Tribune Tower. This was mainly due to lack of funds. However, Harold Washington saw this as a problem and fought hard to build a new central library. In 1987, the City Council approved a $144 million bond issue to finance the project. It is said that it costs $3 million to build a typical library, so you can see how a major investment was made in this library. In fact, when it was completed in 1991, it was the largest public library in the world. It was designed by Thomas Beeby of Hammond, Beeby & Babka, Inc. He proposed a classic postmodern library while other designers proposed more progressive designers. The library has a collection of approximately 2 million volumes.
In addition to the Harold Washington Library Center, Chicago has two other local libraries and branches in 77 community areas. Since the Harold Washington Library Center is located in an accessible location on the South Loop and is the largest of the central libraries, it was the most visited library of the 81 libraries in Chicago. According to data published by the City of Chicago through the Chicago Data Portal website, the library had 1.3 to 1.4 million visitors per year before COVID-19. However, that has changed dramatically since the Corona, with only 500,000 visitors per year in 2020 and 2021. Other regional libraries and branches have similarly seen a drop in visitors after Corona to about half of what they had before Corona. However, in 2021, the number of visitors to many regional libraries is on the rise again. Only one of the top 10 libraries with the highest number of visitors, the Harold Washington Library Center, had negative growth. As a result, the number of books checked out in 2021 was 260,000, down to about the same number as one of the regional libraries, Sulzer Regional in the Lincoln Square Neighborhood, which was also designed by Hammond, Beeby & Babka, Inc., costing only 5.5 Million USD to build and less than one-tenth the size of the Harold Washington Library.
So why, unlike many other libraries in Chicago, has visitation at the Harold Washington Library Center remained down? There may be two major reasons for this: first, the Corona has led to a large increase in the number of people borrowing eBooks. In fact, the number of eBooks borrowed from Downloadable Media is up 30% to 500,000 more than before Corona. Second, the Corona pandemic has led to an increase in telecommuting, which has resulted in fewer people going to work downtown and, consequently, fewer people going to the Harold Washington Library Center in the Loop there.
The dramatic decline in the number of visitors to the Harold Washington Library Center should be a major problem for the City of Chicago and its citizens. This is because even though the number of visitors may be down, the fixed costs must be very expensive, and those costs are paid for by the tax dollars of the citizens of Chicago. Therefore, I see a social problem in Chicago in that public facilities are not being used effectively as a result of changing needs by the corona. In addition, the fact that the library has the largest collection of books in Chicago, yet the number of people using it has decreased, may affect the future educational level of the citizens of Chicago.
These are the things I wanted to share with you today. The Harold Washington Library is currently experiencing a dramatic drop in attendance due to the after-corona, but conversely, now is a good time to avoid the crowds and enjoy the architecture and books of this library.
From the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, you can take the CTA Red Line or Metra to get there. The ride takes about 15 minutes, and after that it is less than a 10-minute walk. If you visit, be sure to visit the Winter Garden on the 9th floor. It is a beautiful and relaxing place. And don’t forget to borrow your favorite book. Thank you very much for listening.

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