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Eliminating Barriers to Access

Chicago Public Library, IL

Innovation Summary

In 2012, Chicago Public Library began a coordinated project to break down barriers to access by installing productivity software our public PCs, changing long-standing computer use and fine policies, making laptops available for public use, relaxing our beverage policy, and holding our first fine amnesty in 20 years.

Problem Statement

The Chicago Public Library recognized that our public, and specifically children and job searchers, were struggling with insufficient access to computers. Our role in responding to this need and bridging the digital divide faced a number of challenges, including: the systemwide addition of software and hardware to over 2,500 computers and the resulting staff training; the affect changing a major fine policy would have on our revenue generation; space and infrastructure needs for additional equipment; achieving staff buy-in to a restrictive yet long-standing customer service policy regarding beverages; and the cost benefit of instituting a fine amnesty period. In order for these changes to have maximum impact on the public, we would address these issues in a multi-pronged approach so that those who had been affected by barriers to access would not have one barrier removed only to be encountered with another.


We began by analyzing our core customers and their information and technology needs. Many factors were limiting their ability to use computers and benefit from the services of the Chicago Public Library. These broke down to software limitations, the number of available computers, blocked records due to fines and overdue materials, and existing circulation and customer service policies. Children and the unemployed were disproportionally impacted by these barriers. Together, the CPL Senior Staff developed a systematic approach to offering our customers the access points and services they needed: • May 2012: we began eliminating barriers to access with a pilot installation of free, open source productivity software in 10 of our branch libraries. The LibreOffice Productivity Suite was introduced at no cost, requiring primarily staff time and training. By July, LibreOffice was available on all 2,506 public computers • June 8, 2012: With the approval of the Library Board and City Budget Office, we began a pilot project to allow any CPL cardholder to use a computer regardless of fine status. • We increased the number of laptops available at all libraries by utilizing equipment purchased with federal BTOP funds. Over 70 locations each received 4 laptop computers available for in-house use by the public. • With the availability of Wifi, our customers were using our libraries in increasing numbers as workplaces, study centers and community hubs. As a result, we relaxed the library policy of no beverages to allow covered beverages at all locations. • Finally, Senior Staff began to discuss the impact of a fine amnesty. The amnesty would remove the greatest barrier to use to the greatest number of our patrons.


LibreOffice: With LibreOffice, patrons were able to use word processing, presentation and spreadsheet software to create resumes, research papers, and presentations; and complete homework on the library’s public computers. The pilot program was so successful that by July, LibreOffice was available on all 2,506 public computers. Fine Status: Removing the barrier of fine status to allow patrons to use our public PCs eliminated a financial barrier to access to those who needed it the most, resulting in a 60% increase in online activity by the fall of 2012. Laptops: The introduction of laptops for public use was an important factor in the 60% increase in Wifi sessions (334,230 in 2011 to 534,312 in 2012). Covered Beverages: Relaxing the beverage policy increased patron satisfaction and eliminated the minor security infraction of using the library while enjoying a beverage. This allowed our security officers to refocus on handling more serious incidents, increasing patron safety. Amnesty: The fine amnesty during August and September enabled the return of 37,509 customers who hadn't been able to access services for many years. We also recovered 101,301 overdue items worth nearly two million dollars. Each of these elements would have achieved a positive result in removing a barrier to access. Taken together, however, they represent the most systematic and widespread change in library policies, making the Chicago Public Library safer, more welcoming, and increasingly responsive to our customers in 2012 and beyond.