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Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015 12:01 am

Ghost of a library

Short-staffed jewel withers

ILLUSTRATION by CHRIS BRITT

 

While tourists bustled in and around the museum side of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum on a recent summer day, the library portion was quiet.

Just two people perused newspapers in the Steve Neal Reading Room, named after the late Chicago Sun-Times columnist who crusaded against the ALPLM becoming a patronage dump even before the institution opened a decade ago. Such titles as The Encyclopedia of World History and Index of Revolutionary War Pension Applications sat alongside each other on shelves, hinting at the breadth of the library’s collection while serving as a reminder that this place is supposed to be about a lot more than Abraham Lincoln. Corridors were empty, nearly bereft of exhibits or displays.

The library side of ALPLM is also the state’s historical library, which celebrated its 125th anniversary last year. Beyond collecting documents connected to Lincoln, the library holds the papers of less-remembered people such as Joseph Ragen, warden of the now-closed penitentiary in Joliet who proclaimed it the world’s toughest prison after he took over in 1936 and ran the place so well during his 25-year tenure that Europeans came to Illinois to learn how to keep inmates locked up.

The library is packed with 12 million letters, diaries, business records, personal papers and other documents connected to governors, legislators, soldiers, sundry bureaucrats and just regular folks. There is Depression-era stuff penned by authors employed by the Federal Writers Project, documents from the AFL-CIO and an estimated 400,000 photographs, drawings, posters and other visual images. There is footage from Adlai Stevenson presidential campaign television commercials as well as sheet music, including the words and music to “We Are The Gay And Happy Suckers Of The State Of Illinois,” a Civil War ditty sung by Union troops from the Land of Lincoln.

Signs on the walls of library departments bear witness to a shrinking staff.
Photo by BRUCE RUSHTON
It is a veritable warehouse of the state’s history. But relatively few people come here compared with the museum next door that attracts more than 300,000 visitors each year. Fewer than 5,000 people visited the library to access its collection last year, according to the ALPLM’s annual report issued in March. The library’s importance, however, cannot be measured by turnstiles.

Without the library, the museum would not be much more than a collection of rubber Lincolns and Disney-esque dioramas. The library is home to the vault that contains treasures that provoke awe, such as Lincoln’s bloodstained gloves from Ford’s Theater as well as copies of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address. It’s a must for serious Lincoln scholars interested in less-famous documents.

“My feeling is, you cannot write a book about Abraham Lincoln that embraces his life before Washington without going there, without absorbing the materials, without looking for things and without looking for things you don’t know you’re looking for,” says Harold Holzer, a historian and author who has written and edited more than 30 books about Lincoln and the Civil War. “You can go from one stack of papers to another and find one set of papers from another set that you didn’t know existed. It’s that sense of discovery that you can only get from doing research that you can’t do online and that you can only do with original papers.”

Unlike some other libraries, the presidential library welcomes inquiries from researchers, Holzer says. The staff, he says, genuinely wants to help.

“There are archives where people act as if the worst thing that ever happened is when someone walks into a room and asks for something,” Holzer says. “There are people who act like guardians, not like sharers. Springfield shares. There’s no other place like it.”

But there are also some troubling signs.


A skeleton staff

“The newspaper microfilm section will be closed at 3:00 p.m. today,” reads a note attached to the door of the room where copies of every newspaper in the state are supposed to be preserved on microfilm. “We apologize for the inconvenience we have caused, as we are short staffed.”

Inside the department, the newspaper microfilm collection is filled with gaps. Want to see a copy of the Bloomington Pantagraph from 1866? Unless you’re looking for the paper published on May 16, 1866, there aren’t any. Try the Bloomington Public Library, where you can read almost every issue of the Pantagraph published since 1853 on microfilm readers that are nearly as easy to use as computers. Making copies is a snap. By contrast, the behemoth microfilm readers at ALPLM would be familiar to anyone who went to high school when Jimmy Carter was president.

The Springfield public library is miles ahead of the presidential library when it comes to preserving the State Journal-Register and other daily newspapers published in the capital city. Copies of Springfield newspapers dating back to 1831 are digitized, available online and searchable with key words via the municipal library. ALPLM uses microfilm and so researchers must visit in person between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Unlike the neighboring museum, the presidential library is closed on weekends.

The newspaper microfilm department isn’t the only one not running at full strength.

“I am currently working in the stacks,” reads a note attached to the door of the library’s audio visual department. “If you want to use the audio visual department, please check back in an hour.”

Try calling the library’s cataloguing department and you’ll get a recorded message.

“Sorry, Jane Schmidt is not available. Record your message at the tone.”

Schmidt, who worked as the library’s cataloguer, will not be available for quite some time. She retired in May and has not been replaced.

Want to donate something to the library? Good luck reaching someone in the acquisitions department since Gary Stockton, the library’s acquisitions chief, left this summer.

“Mr. Stockton has now retired,” a recorded message informs callers. “At the present time, professional calls for acquisitions will now be taken by the ALPLM executive director.”

Just how deeply the staff has been cut is tough to determine, given that the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency that runs the library says that it doesn’t have an employee list from 2004, when the library opened. But Kathryn Harris, the library’s former director who retired last spring and has not been replaced, says that the staff has been reduced, mostly through attrition, since the very beginning.

“I am very confident that we are at less than half of the staff that we had when we started,” Harris says.

And so service has been reduced while work backlogs grow. In the newspaper microfilming department, the backlog stands at one year, Harris said. Someone who brings in a newspaper to be microfilmed – the library relies on donors to fill in gaps – can’t expect to see it preserved anytime soon.

“We sadly have to tell them, ‘It won’t be filmed by next week but come back in 52 weeks – it might be filmed,’” Harris says.

The library stands in stark contrast to the Illinois State Library, which is run by the Illinois secretary of state and also holds historic documents as well as federal documents, maps, manuscripts and tens of thousands of books, with an emphasis on government and public policy. The state library has 5 million items, less than half the number of items kept in the presidential library, and 77 employees. The state archives, also run by the secretary of state, employs an additional 49 people who preserve and maintain records of state and local governments dating to the 19th century.

The presidential library has 23 employees, according to the institution’s website. And that number could be reduced even further, given that the IHPA has not renewed a contract with the University of Illinois Springfield that established at least nine positions within the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project, which is housed at the library and has a goal of digitizing every paper seen by or written by Lincoln.

Harris says that requests for new employees consistently went unanswered while she was library director.

“After a while, when I felt I was seeing that this is how this is going to work, I just quit asking when people left,” Harris recalls. “I got tired of hitting my head against a brick wall.”

Harold Holzer, historian and author, says that the presidential library is a unique research facility. Right, Tony Leone, former member of the IHPA board of trustees, says that the library should be taken from IHPA and turned over to the secretary of state.



“I am working in an awful place”

Gwenith Podeschi, the sole remaining reference librarian at ALPLM, clearly loves the library. You can tell by the way her voice cracks as she describes what it once was and what it has become.

“I am working in an awful place,” Podeschi says.

Podeschi once thought that working at the presidential library would be the pinnacle of a career that included nine years as director of the Taylorville Public Library and a year as a librarian at the U.S. Court of Appeals in Springfield. She has been at the presidential library since the day it opened in 2004. Back then, Podeschi worked alongside another reference librarian, plus two cataloguers and an acquisitions archivist.

“That was this department alone,” Podeschi recalls. “It was wonderful. We actually had a staff. Now, all we have is a manuscript cataloguer.”

And so Podeschi often finds herself cataloguing maps, books and sundry historic treasures. It’s precise work, she says, a far cry from taking inventory of books by Danielle Steel. Cataloguers in historical libraries must note the number of pages in an item. If it’s a map, it must be measured. Details are important.

“I cannot sit at a computer and do the kind of fine, detailed work that needs to be done with cataloguing – especially cataloguing at a historical library – then be interrupted to talk to someone about their ancestor who was killed at Gettysburg,” Podeschi says.

The lack of cataloguers has real consequences. Until books and other items are catalogued, they can’t be accessed by the public.

“I have a whole wall of books upstairs already that can’t be catalogued,” Podeschi says. “I don’t have the expertise to do it. … We get a complete song-and-dance from the director anytime we mention we’ve got to have a cataloguer. ”

The Illinois State Genealogical Society provides the library with $2,000 a year to buy books, Podeschi says, but that money has gone unspent.

“I can’t order new books,” Podeschi says. “I don’t have the time to pick them out. If they got here, they couldn’t be catalogued.”

Chris Wills, IHPA spokesman, says that the library relies on donations to build its collection and spends about $1,000 a year on acquisitions.

During a brief conversation after a chance encounter in the library, Eileen Mackevich, ALPLM director, acknowledged that the library lacks cataloguers. She agreed to an interview, then canceled an appointment. Asked via email when she would be available to speak, either by telephone or in person, Mackevich made no promises.

“Will let you know,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, Podeschi makes plans for retirement. She said that she had planned on working at the ALPLM for at least three more years, but she now plans to leave next June.

“At my fingertips at any one time in a day, I can handle material worth tens of thousands of dollars and answer questions no one else can answer,” Podeschi says. “No one seems to understand that this treasure is worth holding onto. … As a professional, as someone who has always liked history and who loves this state, I can’t stand to watch this any longer. I’ve just got to get out.”


No easy answers

That the library’s staff has dwindled is no secret.

Last December, Mackevich told the institution’s advisory board that retirements coupled with no plans to replace outgoing workers has put the library in jeopardy. The institution would have to make “hard decisions” about what services can be provided in the future, Mackevich told the board. The library’s staff during the past year has focused on what programs and services could be eliminated, according to the ALPLM annual report issued last March.

“I think there’s a key problem with the library with understaffing – that’s been a systemic, longstanding problem, from what I can tell,” says Patrick Reardon, an author and former writer for the Chicago Tribune who sits on the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Museum Advisory Board, which has the power to recommend improvements but no authority to carry them out. “They’ve got this pile that just keeps getting bigger, an inbox that never gets cleared.”

The advisory board, Reardon says, has been told that money for the library, where admission is free, depends on attendance at the museum, which sells tickets. And museum attendance has been dropping over the years.

“The library is, in a way, like the tail of the dog – it’s perceived that way,” Reardon says. “It’s real easy to lose sight of the reality of how precious the materials in the library are. If you didn’t have the library, you wouldn’t have most of the stuff that you’d want to put in a museum and you wouldn’t know quite what to say about Lincoln. We shouldn’t get into a situation where we’re saying the library’s more important than the museum or the museum is more important than the library. They’re intertwined. They’re the same person.”

Reardon doesn’t have a simple solution.

“There’s nothing that can be done easily,” Reardon says. “We need to recognize how important this is in the context of all the other important stuff and aggressively find funding, whether it’s the state or outside sources, that will beef up staffing at the library.”

Tony Leone, a former member of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency board that oversees ALPLM and has the authority to set policy, says that the state library should take over the presidential library. When first conceived, Leone said, the presidential library was supposed to get funding from the institution’s private nonprofit foundation, which is now struggling to pay off a loan used to acquire artifacts for the museum.

“The foundation has failed to establish an endowment,” Leone says. “With the state cutbacks, you’ve got to look at a different model.”

The state library, Leone says, already has an administration in place to take care of overhead costs. It also has alliances with libraries throughout the state to allow for interlibrary loans and other collaborative projects, and so the state library could make what’s now in the presidential library more accessible to people outside Springfield, he said. Items related to state history that have no connection to Lincoln should be separated from the presidential library so that they don’t get overshadowed by the Great Emancipator, with the state library deciding the best places to keep items, either inside or outside the presidential library.

“If you need to downsize the number of employees, you need to consolidate it under one administrative body,” Leone said. “The big plus with the state library is, it has this wonderful network with all the libraries throughout the state of Illinois. Taking all of the Lincoln stuff and keeping it together and taking all of the non-Lincoln stuff out of the presidential library and museum, with everything under the state library, just makes a ton of sense. You’ve got to put everything under the expert. The expert is the state library.”

Harris, the retired presidential library director, says that Leone’s idea isn’t workable. Elected officials, she says, don’t easily surrender turf.

“The (presidential) library is under the auspices of the governor, the Illinois State Library is a department of the secretary of state,” Harris says. “I can’t imagine either of those constitutional officers willingly giving up any of their departments.”

Both shelves and chairs in the Steve Neal Reading Room were empty during a recent visit.
Photo by BRUCE RUSHTON


In limbo

While the library withers, those responsible for developing policy and running the place say they can’t predict the future due to spats about governance that became public in the spring of 2014, when House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, sponsored a bill to remove the library and museum from IHPA and make the institution a standalone agency. The bill brought to the surface longstanding tension between IHPA director Amy Martin and Mackevich, the ALPLM director, with both women claiming authority to make decisions about ALPLM staffing and operations.

Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, is holding a bill passed in May that would separate the ALPLM from the historic preservation agency. Rikeesha Phelon, Cullerton spokeswoman, said that the Senate president is holding the bill due to a threatened veto from Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has linked governance changes to his plan to privatize the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

“We’re in limbo,” says Steve Beckett, chairman of the ALPLM advisory board that makes recommendations on how the institution should be run. “I’ve got board members saying ‘Are we meeting, are we not meeting?’ It’s just goofy.”

The IHPA board to which the advisory board reports is in a similar position, according to IHPA board member Ted Flickinger. The current board would be dissolved under the bill now being held by Cullerton.

“We haven’t had a board meeting in months, ever since the question on the status quo, whether there’s even going to be a board, came up,” Flickinger said.

Rauner during his state of the state speech in February said that he supported separating ALPLM from the historic preservation agency. State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, who sponsored the bill to make the ALPLM a standalone agency, said that Rauner last spring threatened to veto the bill because lawmakers put a sunset provision on legislation that would privatize parts of the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

The presidential library and museum would benefit if they were a standalone entity because they now compete for staff and money with other parts of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which is in charge of historic sites throughout the state, Manar said.

“The current structure is not serving the ALPLM well,” Manar said. “We have, in Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the greatest president in U.S. history. State government ought to be treating it as such. And today it doesn’t.”

But Podeschi, the reference librarian, said that fights over governance mask the main issues.

“We should all be working together,” Podeschi said. “We need a library services director now, and we need one who will lay it out: This is what we have to have to make this library function again. We need to move beyond crisis mode.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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