The Albert Korbel Years
As recounted by Eileen Pech in History of the Berwyn Public Library, in January of 1983, the Berwyn Public Library (BPL) and the North Berwyn Park District agreed to co-sponsor a film program, and Director EmilyPolivka reported the roof of the North Branch had a small leak. She felt a new roof might be needed. The Library Board’s response was to authorize $225 in repairs. This is how Mrs. Polivka ended up personally climbing up ladders to tar the roofs.
The City of Berwyn proposed to increase the BPL budget from $91,366 in 1982 to $187,957 in 1983. In February, the Berwyn Library Board (BLB) started to advertise an opening for a full-time director.
The 1983 BPL budget included money for air-conditioning and roof repairs as well as a larger book budget of $30,000. The salary for a full-time director was set at $17,040 and the budget for employee salaries rose from $48,500 to $72,919. The BLB hoped to expand hours.
In February of 1983, the Berwyn City Council’s Library Oversight Committee invited Elizabeth Mueller, Consulting Services Director for the Suburban Library System (SLS) – now part of RAILS – to meet with them. According to Berwyn Lifenewspaper reports, she repeated a recommendation she had made to the BLB three years earlier that the Central Branch in City Hall, shuttered for a year, be closed permanently. The BPL budget was too small to support three library facilities, she wrote, an assessment ingeminated years later by Richard Thompson.
Board Secretary Mary Karasek told a reporter Berwyn should have a single centrally-located library. The Library Oversight Committee commissioned Ms. Mueller to conduct a survey of Berwyn residents to determine if the Central Library Branch should re-open and what programs could be eliminated because residents did not desire them in sufficient numbers to justify costs.
On May 16, 1983, the BLB voted to hire Albert Korbel as full-time director. Korbel, a thirty-eight-year-old resident of northwest suburban Palatine, had served as administrator of the Bellwood Public Library from 1967 to 1979, where he had supervised a staff of twenty-two.
Raised in Berwyn, he attended St. Odilo Grade School and Morton West High School and earned a Bachelor’s degree in literature from St. Procopius College in Lisle (later Illinois Benedictine College and now Benedictine University). Subsequently, he worked as a freelance writer and job-site supervisor for Lancaster Courts Development, a carpentry contractor in Mount Prospect.
Korbel suggested the BPL should consolidate all reference materials in the Central Branch, which was logical but would prove impossible. Aldermendelayed confirmation over a month while they examined his background. The BLB scheduled a meeting with Korbel for July 27, 1983 at the Central Branch so they could get acquainted before his first public board meeting. They were surprised when they walked into the Central Branch, which then had been closed for almost 1½ years due to budget constraints, to find a wall had been partially constructed one-third of the way in to create offices for U.S. Representative William Lipinski.
Upset Library Board members took issue with the fact they had not been consulted, noted a table had been broken, expressed concern that the dust raised in construction would damage books, and asked Korbel to obtain an explanation at a city cabinet meeting scheduled for the following day. Korbel emerged with an agreement by city officials to stop construction “for a while.” The Berwyn Library Board and City of Berwyn got into a dispute over who owned the Central Branch, as noted by Berwyn Life. “The library is a department of the city and does not pay rent or utilities… However, Library Board members say the library was added in City Hall through a special $10,000 donation when the building was first constructed. They note the carving of the word ‘Library’ on the outside of the building and the built-in bookshelves.”
A Berwyn Lifereporter asked Mayor Lanzillotti who had authorized the work, but he claimed, “It doesn’t matter.” When questioned, other officials blamed each other. City Attorney Russell Hartigan asserted that since the municipal corporation owned the entire building, he did not see how one portion could belong to someone else.
Korbel suggested since summer was nearly over and the $30,000 budgeted to overhaul the air-conditioning was still unspent, it might be better spent on a new roof at the South Branch. He pointed out a flood had damaged quite a few children’s books.
The BLB raised wages to $3.25 per hour for a library pageand $6 to $9 for a full-time librarian. The maintenance position was restored to full-time status, and among the first tasks assigned were installation of shelving and construction of a meeting room in the North Branch’s basement.
In September, the BLB received two new trustees — Michael Coghlan and Jeffrey Glass – bringing the total number of trustees to five (on a board that was supposed to have nine members). The Berwyn City Council approved the BLB’s requests for midyear budget adjustments, but negotiations on the 1984 budget foundered as the City Council refused to allocate funds for a BPL computer system.
The same year Korbel became library director the University of Illinois issued a report that compared public libraries statewide. Berwyn ranked fifty-second out of fifty-four municipalities in total expenditures per capita. By 1985–86, Berwyn had risen to forty-sixth place, which still placed it behind Calumet City and North Chicago.
In 1984, at the BPL’s request, the SLS analyzed studies and surveys on the BPL’s two branch libraries. A consultant from SLS also helped the BPL identify seven potential sites for a new library building.
By mid-decade, small funding increases allowed the BPL to increase hours at the two branches. They were open now from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on Fridays, and 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on Saturdays.
In 1986, the BPL opened a branch in the Berwyn-Cicero Council on Aging in Cicero. Many of the books in this collection were either large print romance novels or crossword puzzle books.
This collection topped out at 500 titles around 1994. By the time the Council on Aging moved into smaller quarters in North Riverside in 2005, readership had declined and the BPL terminated this outreach service.
Between 1982 and ’87, reference book holdings expanded from 200 volumes to almost 5,000 volumes and periodical subscriptions expanded from 49 to 520. The BPL also acquired a collection of 40,000 magazine back files (microfilm or microfiche); a collection of 664 audiocassette tapes; and a collection of 555 videocassette tapes.
In 1987, the BPL initiated a program to inspire children to read by asking prominent people to describe their favorite childhood books. Actress Jane Alexander responded with a list that included Joseph P. Lash’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography Eleanor and Franklin. Fred Rogers, host of the PBS children’s program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968-2001) cited Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1910 novel The Secret Garden. First Lady Nancy Reagan and future First Lady Barbara Bush did not identify favorite books but sent inspirational messages, as did Chicago Bears linebacker Mike Singletary, an athlete notable for being smarter than your average bear.
There was no longer sufficient space to duplicate collections and services at both branches. The basement of the North Branch housed an expanded Reference Department, while the South Branch housed the Children’s Department and the new audio/visual department. Both branches became increasingly cramped.
The BPL continued to fall short of state standards. “We need 75 more magazines, and I don’t know where I will put them,” Korbel told a Berwyn Lifereporter. “We should have 3½ books per capita, and we have about two. We should have 250 to 300 seats; we have a total of 75 to 100 in the two buildings. If we don’t meet certain standards, I feel the Suburban Library System will cut us off from reciprocal borrowing.”
In 1986, the BLB continued to explore the possibility of going from being a municipal library to a district library. In November, the BLB hosted a presentation by Beth Mueller of the SLS, and former BPL Director Jane Belon Shaw, who by then had become Administrative Librarian of the Lisle Library District (LLD).
The BLB asked Mrs. Shaw how the Lisle Public Library had made the transition from the Village of Lisle’s municipal library to an independent district library. She also provided an overview of the duties of an elected library board of trustees.
Before Korbel became director, the BPL had never applied for the state’s annual population-based grants. The BPL successfully applied and received a grant for $46,628 for 1987. At the BLB meeting in February of 1987, Korbel pointed out a prerequisite for qualification for future state per capita grants was the completion of a community survey every five years.
Consequently, the BLB made a commitment to use a portion of the 1987 grant money to mail out surveys to all of the city’s residential addresses. BLB members were still undecided about converting the BPL to a district library after attending a SLS workshop, so they invited the Oak Park Public Library (OPPL) board president and head librarian to speak before them. The OPPL had recently rejected this conversion. The Oak Parkers made the presentation in June of 1987.
While he was president of the Library Board, Ray Hassler, who had been appointed to the BLB to succeed his late mother, Mrs. Ann Hassler, resigned “due to increased business responsibilities.” In September of 1987, the BPL Building Fund for maintenance, renovations, hiring consultants or architects, the acquisition of a property, and construction of a new building started with a $500 donation from the Friends of the BPL. The Berwyn Lifenoted the BPL continued to contemplate becoming a district library.
In a December 3, 1987, letter to BLB and city officials, Korbel identified a number of problems. The division of the collection between two facilities created a hardship for patrons, and neither building had an adequate book collection. The North Branch lacked carpets, curtains, and seating. The Children’s Department windows had bullet holes. Neither building contained rooms for meetings, listening to A/V materials, or typewriters and computers. In each building, because of budget constrictions, the BPL had both old and new card catalogs, neither of which had been computerized.
To determine whether library consolidation was possible, the BLB asked Korbel to prepare a list of organizations that perform feasibility studies. The Berwyn City Council’s response was to pare down the BPL’s budget again.
The BPL requested $976,989, including request a $250,000 new building fund, and received $518,335, nearly the same amount as the previous year. The BPL had hoped to use this fund to hire a building consultant and develop the architectural drawings needed to apply for state construction grants either to retool existing facilities or build anew.
“I would love to see the library improved,” Alderman Michael Woodward told a Berwyn Lifenewspaper reporter. As a member of both the City Council’s Budget and Library committees, Woodward said, “The question is whether the library is going to become independent [of city rule].” He added. “It then would have to raise its [tax] levy, and I don’t know if the citizens are ready to do that.”
Korbel estimated that, in addition to state and city funding, the BPL would need to nearly triple its levy to cover the BPL’s portion of a possible $3,000,000 project. He was disheartened by the deletion of the building fund from the BPL budget. Without it, “We might as well disband the Berwyn Library system or seek out Oak Park and Stickney or Riverside and Cicero and see if they want to split Berwyn’s clientele.”
Library Board President Nevaril-Lhotka was more optimistic. “I was on the board that built these present buildings in the 1950s,” she pointed out to the Berwyn Life.
By the BLB meeting in April, Korbel also was encouraged. The BPL Building Fund had risen to $2,950, half the amount that he considered necessary to “legitimately interview consultants to develop building plans.”
Korbel said he was particularly heartened by a $1,000 contribution from Mayor Lanzillotti, and suggested the next goal would be to raise $25,000 to obtain architectural renderings. Any decision by the BLB was to be guided by the results of a survey mailed to 16,000 residents.
That survey became the focus of debate at an All Berwyn Committee (A.B.C.) meeting in April of 1988. According to Berwyn Lifereports, some ABC members not on the survey mailing list felt the BPL should have questioned all residents via referendum.
Berwyn Life covered the debate in the “Library at the Crossroads” series of articles. Beth Mueller of the SLS explained public libraries had evolved into information centers where adults did research in support of their jobs or in pursuit of new jobs.
Later in April, Korbel informed the BLB that the $468,000 budget approved by the Berwyn City Council was $39,500 short of the amount needed to pay staff salaries for the full year, so the BPL would need to close down from October to December. In addition, the North Branch required $8,500 in repairs. The BLB agreed to replace broken windows with smaller casement windows and brick up the rest of the window wall, an approach expected to reduce HVAC costs by 20% and eliminate the need for drapery replacement. They later found out from the Library Oversight Committee though no one informed the BPL, at the last minute during municipal budget adoption the City Council increased the BPL budget to $514,870.
In June, Korbel summarized preliminary survey results. Of 1,512 respondents, 429 used the North Branch, 657 used the South Branch, 305 used both, 100 used neither, and 552 used other libraries; 834 said they wanted a single library and 495 preferred multiple facilities; and were a referendum held, 676 would vote to build a new library, 341 would not, and 477 were unsure.
In July, Sister Cyril, a nun at Loretto Hospital in Chicago, began a BPL internship as a requirement for completing a degree in library technical assistance service from the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. She told a reporter she chose the BPL because of its friendliness, its proximity to Loretto Hospital, and because it was the only library to offer her a library card. The OPPL wanted $50 for a non-resident library card.
That same month, Summerfaire, Inc., organizers of Berwyn’s summer festival, donated $5,000 to pay for a building consultant. In November, the BLB commissioned R. Thompson.
The BPL embarked on a “Pennies for the Library” fundraiser. By the end of 1988, the building fund had grown to $9,000. At the North Branch, renovations permitted separate children’s circulation and reference desks, but there were no funds to hire a cleaning service.
Adult circulation declined, as did juvenile books and A/V materials between 1987 and ‘88. Only adult A/V circulation increased. Library hours shifted from 8:00 to 4:00 to 9:00 to 5:00 at both locations. The BPL had purchased additional reference books and twenty-five new periodical subscriptions, yet the BPL still did not meet state reference standards.
During the 1989 budget review by the BLB’s Budget Committee in January, Trustee Patricia Maietta questioned a proposed 55% increase in the director’s salary. Berwyn Life reported Korbel replied, “That is the salary I think you will have to pay to get my replacement.” Having conducted research about average salaries for library directors, he concluded the minimum starting salary was $35,000. In 1988, the BPL had paid him $20,800.
He also proposed salary increases for professional and clerical staff, explaining the problem of underpaid personnel was worst in the Technical Services Department, where the supervisory post had been open for a while and books piled up un-catalogued. The BPL also needed money for air-conditioning repairs at the South Branch and a larger custodial budget.
To give the BLB time to find a replacement and give himself more time to work with Thompson, Korbel said he would stay on until March 28th, the day the Berwyn City Council was expected to pass the budget. The budget for the City of Berwyn increased by $217,000, an amount divided among various city government departments that brought a slight budget increase for the BPL.
With a line item transfer, the BLB cut $26,000 from reference and adult book purchases and added $11,000 to salaries and $13,000 to maintenance and repairs. They set the salary for a new library director at $24,126.
On March 8, 1989, Thompson presented his analysis. He pointed out the collections hardly grew, the lack of staff work space meant staff members had to share public tables, and neither building could accommodate senior citizens unable to climb stairs. Thompson said for the BPL to operate at ILA minimum standards,with Berwyn’s population of 46,849, the BPL should have a book collection of 178,698 volumes, not 103,633 volumes.
Based on Northeast Planning Commission projections that Berwyn would have 44,000 people by 2010, Thompson suggested construction of a 76,065 sq. ft. building. He felt this would suit Berwyn for twenty years, after which the construction of a 13,200 sq. ft. addition would be necessary.
Although Thompson anticipated the availability of millions of dollars in state construction funds in the fall, the BLB placed the matter on hold until they hired a new director. In late March, Ms. Maietta resigned from the BLB with the assertion the Library Board was “a powerless appendage of City Hall.”
Apparently, this is my 700th article.
She had starred with Edward Hermann in a TV movie adaptation ofEleanor and Franklinthat ABC broadcast in 1976.
The actual population of Berwyn in 2010 was much larger than projected at 56,657.