I’ve come to the theory that you can’t appreciate the quality of a good public library system until you find yourself using a system that’s entirely different. I don’t plan to do a whole lot of complaining about the systems in either Chicago or Buffalo. Both of them are very good at what they do, but it can be quite a shock to see just how the concept of borrowing books can differ from one place to another.
Chicago’s system is more expansive than Buffalo’s. But this, of course, can easily be expected. Chicago is the third largest city in the United States, and Buffalo probably hovers around number 60 or so. So it’s a given that Chicago’s system is going to have more books and more copies of any given book as well. Chicago’s system has a bit more of pretty much everything; the main library branches in downtown Buffalo and the Chicago Loop are respectively two stories and ten stories. The Chicago system has more computers, a media room for kids, and a nice mini-theater where I once lucked out enough to hear author John Updike speak.
The Buffalo system never was good about holding events, but it does contain a nice coffee shop.
Unfortunately, Chicago has so many people that problems have sprung up from the library system not being quite successful enough. Chicago’s main branch has well over 100 computers, all of which will be occupied unless you show up whenever the library opens every day. If you try to get a computer on a Sunday, you may be stuck waiting upwards of two hours on a day when the library is open for only about five hours. Although, with the wide selection of books available, you’ll have plenty to read while waiting for your turn on the computer. If you miss your session, it still counts towards the two hourlong sessions per day the system allows you, and if you don’t accomplish everything you need to in a single session, you’re not going to be allowed any extra time to finish. Even if you got extra time, it wouldn’t matter because there’s still going to be someone waiting in line behind you anyway. The Buffalo system has less than 100 computers, but there is very rarely a crowd beating you down for a turn on the computers either. When your hour is up, it’s easy to go up to the help desk and ask for a few extra minutes.
This contrast manifests itself even further if you try to get onto a waiting list for a reserved book. If a book is popular, you can still get it delivered to the local branch in Buffalo within about two weeks, tops. In Chicago, I don’t think I’ve ever waited less than a month. I order The Beatles’ Revolver album and waited six months. When I received word that I had s reserved item waiting for me, I didn’t actually know what it was, as I had not reserved anything in awhile and forgotten I even ordered Revolver in the first place. I assumed after the first few months that my name was removed from the list for some reason and accepted the fact that I would never see it. But it is quite a testament to how good the Chicago system is that they were so determined to get me that copy of Revolver, even if I forgot about it.
Chicago’s main branch is an impressive brick building with statue owls perched on the roof, while Buffalo’s gets lost in the shuffle of faceless office buildings. But Buffalo’s smaller, localized branches make up for what the downtown branch lacks. Buffalo’s localized branches look like they were all built from the ground up with the sole purpose of holding books in mind. They feature open spaces and walls lined with books, with plenty of room to move around. Chicago’s local branches are crammed with equipment, with the people basically in the way. Some of the local branches in Chicago are little more than storefront businesses which happen to lend books.
The way the systems handle fines is where the Buffalo system really establishes itself as the front runner. The Buffalo system understands poverty and transportation problems and is more than willing to accommodate and forgive. When I first left Buffalo, library patrons were allowed access to their accounts even with fines on their cards, as long as those fines didn’t exceed five dollars. Since leaving, the system has apparently allowed people to incur fines of up to ten dollars. Once the limit is maxed out, your account is suspended, which means you can’t borrow anything; you’re still allowed to use the computers.
Chicago’s system should understand poverty, but it holds a much better grasp of gangster strongarming. You are simply not allowed to be late in returning any of your items. If you are, your account is cancelled until your fines are completely cleared, and in Chicago an account suspension means you can’t use any of the available services, not even the computers.