The Woodson Library is one of two major regional libraries in the Chicago Public Library system. It is located on the South Side of the city at 95th and Halsted. The Woodson is also home to one of the nation’s largest and most important archives of Afro-American materials which is housed in an annex attached to the Woodson.
The Woodson Library and the Harsh collection first came to the attention of Rare Book Hub through an article that ran in Feb. 2016 in the Non-Profit Quarterly, a Boston based magazine and digital site. This publication ran an article headlined “Library with Priceless Collection Of Black Literature Crumbling in Chicago.” It began with a first paragraph stating, “The Midwest’s largest collection of Black literature is in jeopardy and Chicago city officials do not exactly appear to be on the case. The Carter G. Woodson Library in the Southside Chicago neighborhood of Washington Heights, which is primarily African American, is in danger of being destroyed as the building housing it crumbles. The city does not seem to have a timely solution to save it.”
Also reporting somewhat earlier on the situation at the Woodson was Andrea Watson, for the Chicago website DNAinfo. She titled her January 29, 2016 article - Angry residents lash out at Chicago Public Library over Woodson conditions.
The good news is that since these stories ran more current information has been received indicating that as much as $10 million will soon be spent to remedy deficiencies to the exterior of the Woodson structure. The improvements will be paid for by grant funds from the State of Illinois. The project is now in the bid phase which should be complete by the end of Spring.
The less happy news is that both the Woodson and the Harsh collection will be closed during construction - estimated to take eight months to a year from the time a contractor is selected. During the closure patrons will be redirected to other area libraries. Portions of the Harsh Collection, especially those in digital format, will still be available to researchers, students and others interested in its substantial holdings.
The Vivian G. Harsh Collection of Afro-American History and Literature is described in a recent Society of American Archivist announcement - www2.archivists.org/node/14417 -as, “the oldest and largest African American studies repository in the Midwest. Founded in 1932 by Vivian G. Harsh, the first black librarian to head a branch of the Chicago Public Library system, the 'Special Negro Collection,' became a community focus of the surrounding 'Bronzeville' neighborhood and one of engines of the Chicago Renaissance of the 1930s and 1940s.
"While developing this collection as a research and programming center for Chicago’s community of black scholars and activists, Harsh won the support and assistance of such leaders and writers as Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Arna Bontemps, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes and Horace Cayton.
"Assisted by the pioneering black children’s librarian Charlemae Hill Rollins, the collection became an extraordinary meeting place that helped develop the work of many black thinkers. The 'Special Negro Collection' was moved to Carter G. Woodson Regional Library in 1975, and re-named in honor of Vivian G. Harsh. Today it holds more than 200 archival and manuscript collections, totaling nearly 4,000 linear feet."
A recent query to the Chicago Area Archivists (CAA) list serv yielded the following response from a staffer at the Harsh Collection who wrote to the CAA list (but did not respond to Rare Book Hub) with the following information which was forwarded to RBH by a third party.
“There have been a number of stories in the media and on the internet about the Harsh Collection and the Woodson Regional Library that have contained factual errors and misinformation,” the correspondent wrote.
“We take great pride in the seminal body of work established by Ms. Harsh, the first African American branch manager in the Chicago Public Library system, and have seen it grow exponentially in both size and stature in the 80+ years it has been in existence.
“Let me assure everyone that the collection is safe both physically and intellectually. It is housed in a climate-controlled environment in archival storage containers and sound housing in an expansion built specifically for the archive that opened in 1999. It has been staffed by curators who are specialists in the field of African American Studies and Chicago history and archivists knowledgeable and experienced in the processing of archival materials. In addition to our curator and archivists, we have librarians and a preservationist who also are assigned to the collection, and have received a number of grants in recent years for project archivists which have greatly assisted the library in making these unique and significant collections accessible for future generations.
“The collection is used throughout the year at Woodson by students of all ages for Metro History Fair, Science Fair, and African American History Month projects. It is also consistently used by scholarly researchers.
"In 2015, researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Yale University, the University of Chicago, Princeton, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Kent State University used the collection to assist in writing dissertations, scholarly papers, and for other research purposes. The Harsh Collection also regularly plans and conducts a full retinue of exhibits and programs, including the Harsh Reader’s Circle Book Club, regular lectures on the African American experience in Chicago, and visits from research and genealogy groups. Our current exhibit celebrates the 100 year anniversary of the Chicago Defender newspaper.
“Woodson Regional Library is not crumbling;" the writer continued, “however there have been serious issues with the building’s masonry. We will be undergoing a major renovation of the 1975 building envelope, windows and roof which will begin later this year. The work being done to the façade of the library will not affect the Harsh wing.
“If you have additional questions about the Harsh Collection or the Woodson renovation project, please feel free to contact Rodney Freeman, Regional Director, or Andrea Telli, Assistant Commissioner of Neighborhood Services. (See their contact information at end of article.)
RBH was encouraged by this response, but it proved impossible to speak directly with either Andrea Telli or Rodney Freeman, despite repeated inquiries.
However Freeman did respond to written questions and his answers are in red. There are also comments in green from Mevin R. Thompson, Executive Director - Endeleo Institute, a community organization affiliated with the Trinity Church (United Church of Christ) long a part of this South Side neighborhood.
(Contact information for Thompson, Trinity and Endeleo is given at the end of this article.)
THE BUILDING - Woodson Library
Please provide current and correct information regarding the status of repairs to this structure and when they are scheduled to be completed.
Answer: Librarian Freeman
"The project to replace Woodson Regional Library’s complete building envelope with additional interior improvements is underway. The bid package for the project is currently being advertised on the City’s Department of Procurement Services website and the project is being led by the City of Chicago’s Department of Fleet & Facility Management. Despite the report(s) that the building has been neglected, the city has made significant improvements to the building, such as the build out of a Computer Commons in 2010, a new YOUmedia digital lab for teens in 2015, improved lighting and ceiling replacement throughout, and an upgrade of the building’s fire alarm system (in progress).
"The Woodson Regional Library Complete Envelope Replacement and Interior Improvement Project includes the following scope. The project is going through a competitive bid process which should be complete this spring (2016).
"Construction is expected to begin later this year and continue through the 3rd quarter of 2017."
· Complete envelope replacement including new roof, exterior walls and windows (due to thermal breaks in the masonry)
· Upgrades to flooring, lighting and paint in lobby and other public areas
· Updated guardrails and handrails on monumental stairway
· Construction of two new, glazed study rooms on the second floor
· Addition of 2 parking spots for the disabled in parking lot
The following are also planned, pending funding from the State of Illinois:
· Upgrade and renovation of auditorium
· Upgrade to parking lot
Additional comment in green by Mel Thompson of the Trinity Church sponsored community organization - advocating for Woodson improvements:
"Structurally, the building is unsafe, which explains why the scaffolding remains in place. The only improvements made in 2015 that I can confirm for sure is the YOUmedia space, which was one of the things sought by us initially.
"Any other work mentioned may have indeed occurred, but the city's poor job of communicating information to the community is to blame.
"Upgrading the parking lot is new to me." (And indeed the city PR personnel later clarified that the parking lot may be improved at some future unspecified date, but that presently what is actually included in the parking portion of the upgrade is two handicapped parking spaces - RBH)
"We pleaded with the city to include it in this renovation because we find it untenable that they would do a project of this magnitude and not include the parking lot.
"The City of Chicago has literally hundreds of millions of dollars in TIF (tax increment financing) money that could easily be used to supplement the $10M Library State Grant. In other libraries in the city, they are doing these LEED-Certified parking lots that are replete with new low voltage lighting, greenery, iron fencing and high tech drainage systems that eliminate flooding and standing water during heavy rains. Our parking lot is four times the size and we get nothing but statements about future plans. Ridiculous!
ROLE OF CHICAGO PUBLIC LIBRARY SYSTEM
The local news coverage also indicated that no representative from the Chicago Public Library System attended a recent meeting to address the concerns of the South Side public. Please explain how this happened and what has been done since to correct the communication with the public who live in the area served by the Woodson Library?
Librarian Freeman’s answer:
"Three community meetings have been held since December 2015, and representatives from all agencies involved in the project were present to answer questions related to their areas of responsibility: Chicago Public Library for library programs and services, Fleet & Facility Management for the scope and management of the construction project, Procurement Services for the contracting and hiring process, as well as the Law Department."
Community representative Thompson's comment:
"There was a meeting scheduled where key city officials did not show. That is a fact. Since then, another took place and those officials did in fact attend, but it doesn't negate the fact that they blew off the previous meeting."
There is definitely a racial overtone to the prior media coverage which would seem to imply that since this library is in a less affluent and largely black area of Chicago its needs have been ignored by the Chicago Public Library system. Please respond to these allegations.
Librarian Freeman’s answer:
"Chicago has two regional libraries serving the North and South Sides of Chicago that draw visitors not only from their local communities but from patrons all around the city.
"The Woodson Regional Library is located in the Washington Heights Community on the South Side of Chicago and holds important historic collections valuable to Chicago's history and the community. Woodson is an extremely valuable asset to the community and the library system in Chicago.
"Chicago Public Library works closely with our Department Fleet and Facilities Management, which manages the upkeep and construction of all city facilities, to ensure all libraries across the city are operational. Over the years, Woodson has experienced upgrades and we are now in the process of initiating the largest overall construction project to Woodson and look forward to its completion."
Community representative Thompson’s comment:
"The facts speak for themselves. For scaffolding to be erected as a safety measure for nearly two decades in a regional public facility on the South Side in the third largest city in America says a great deal about how the city feels about our community. Remember, since 1989 they've been improving or building new libraries here. Yet the city could not show us any remote plans for Woodson when we first approached them."
BUREAUCRACY - It took the writer of this article multiple phone calls to get past the switchboard at the Woodson Library. It took another day to reach the PR people at the Chicago Public Library. RBH is sure that others in the field of rare book and special collections are interested in following up on this situation. Who is the authorized spokesperson?
Librarian Freeman replied:
"For Harsh Collection inquiries or Chicago Public Library related inquiries, please contact our Press and Marketing department at 312-747-4050.
"For inquiries related to the status of the Woodson project, please contact the City of Chicago's Department of Procurement: Catherine.Kwiatkowski@cityofchicago.org or The Department of Fleet and Facility Management, who are managing the construction project."
RODNEY FREEMAN - Librarian Freeman who heads the Woodson Library is an Indiana University graduate from a library program that stressed diversity, could he please tell us more about this program and where to find more information about it? Please also provide additional information on his career and current responsibilities?
"As Regional Library Director, I am responsible for the day-to-day operations of the facility including programs, services, collections, and personnel.
"I began at Woodson in December 2014; before obtaining this position, I worked as a branch manager in the Indianapolis Public Library and in the St. Louis Public Library system. Information about the graduate program I attended at Indiana University can found here: soic.iupui.edu/lis.
"Woodson is a vibrant and well-used community resource averaging 26,000 visitors per month. Currently we offer weekly preschool story times and after school drop-in programs for children and families; free homework help through the Teacher in the Library program and online through Brainfuse.
"For teens, we offer financial literacy programs and “Social Saturdays” for DIY projects in YOUmedia. We also offer free AARP tax assistance through April; serve as an Early Voting location; host a monthly Harsh Readers Circle Book Discussion, among many other programs and events, many of which can be found on our events page:
HARSH COLLECTION - Can you tell our readers more about the Harsh collection? Who is the person in charge of this special collection and what is its present status?
"The best place to experience the holdings of the Harsh Collection is at its page on the CPL website: www.chipublib.org/vivian-g-harsh-research-collection.
"Robert Miller is our Curator of the Harsh Collection, which is staffed by librarians and archivists who are specialists in the field of African American Studies, Chicago History, and archival process and description. We also have a preservationist assigned to the collection.
"As a department within the Chicago Public Library, the Harsh Collection is fully funded through the library’s larger operating budget.
"Our 80 (Chicago Public Library) locations serve every neighborhood in Chicago. They contribute to the vitality of our communities and provide safe and welcoming environments for our residents. The collection is housed in the heart of the African American community and is heavily used, as stated above, by scholars, students, historians and researchers."
In response to a number of additional questions, the following information was furnished by Patrick Molloy, Director of Government & Public Affairs, Chicago Public Library. (His contact information appears at the end of this article.)
"The construction project is being bid between $5-10 million. Bid amounts will be available online after the bid opening date. You can reference Spec. # 133292 from the Bid Tabulation section of the Citywide Vendor, Contract and Payment Search site: webapps1.cityofchicago.org/VCSearchWeb/org/cityofchicago/vcsearch/controller/agencySelection/begin.do?agencyId=city.
"The library did receive a $10 million grant through the Illinois Public Library Construction Act Grant, of which Woodson is the priority project. Information on the grant program can be found here: www.cyberdriveillinois.com/departments/library/grants/publib_construction.html
"It is anticipated that the construction will take approximately 10-12 months but we will not know this until a contractor is selected.
"The Harsh Collection Reading Room will be closed, as (will be) the rest of the building, however, Harsh staff will be taking research requests by appointment and we will be working with the staff to see if there are heavily used collections that can be temporarily relocated.
"The timeline for closing and reopening is not known at this time, but construction likely will not begin before the 4th quarter of 2016 at the earliest.
We will maintain a security presence at Woodson throughout the closure."