GARY | Anger, frustration and puzzlement surrounding the closure of the main Gary Public Library and its conversion into a museum echoed Tuesday during the public forum at Indiana University Northwest.
More than 70 Gary residents attended the meeting at Berglund Auditorium sponsored by the Citizens to Save the Gary Public Library and hosted by the IUN Department of Minority Studies.
The library board voted in October to close the main library and spend $3.5 million to convert the facility into the South Shore Museum & Cultural Center. The board hasn't met since March.
Ben Coleman of the citizens group and a former library board member said the current board is using the reserve funds that were set up to run the library system during hard economic times.
Several dozen people spoke during the comment period following presentations by a panel. That panel included Coleman, members of several citizens action groups and a representative of the Indiana State Public Library.
"This public forum should have been held before the Gary Library Board decided to turn the main branch into a museum," Coleman said. "We don’t think all the options have been explored."
The citizens group has collected more than 3,500 signatures on petitions opposing the library board's actions. Among the group's concerns is the lack of high-speed Internet access for adults and children who used the main library.
"You can’t apply for a job at McDonald's without online access," Coleman said. He noted that in 2011 the main library computers were used 86,000 times.
According to panelist Howard Ehrman of the University of Illinois at Chicago, only 58 percent of Americans have high-speed Internet access in their homes. Many job applications and unemployment benefits can only be done online, he said.
Richard Barnes of the Gary Miller Citizens told the audience the Miller branch of the Gary Public Library on Saturday will sell books for 10 cents and DVDs for a nickel.
"If we're going to keep the (main) library open, we have to stop this," he said. "They are selling assets."
Jessica Barnes, regional coordinator of professional development from Lafayette, represented the Indiana State Public Library at the forum.
"A public library, like education, is a great equalizer," she said.
Barnes said, however, there’s nothing illegal about turning a library into a museum.
"Indiana law does allow the Gary Library Board to take this action," she said.
During comment time, Kathryn Campbell said as a Gary property owner she doesn’t want to see the main library building vacant.
"We have a history in the city of Gary of fixing up a building then selling them to private entities that have no connection to Gary," Campbell said.
"We, the people of Gary, have been bamboozled with some information from some library board members," said Linda Peterson, who described herself as a frequent user of the main library.
For Gary resident Therese May, a law student at Loyola University, the closing of the main library means no place to quietly study.
"I know the children need the libraries but so do some adults who need to study," May said.
Ana Grandfield, director of the Lake County Public Library system, said she supported the effort to keep the main library open.
"When times are tough, library usage goes up," she said.
State Sen. Earline Rogers and state Rep. Charlie Brown, both Democrats, attended the forum.
"Being so busy with things in the Legislature and running for re-election, I haven’t had an opportunity to hear what was going on," Rogers said. "I'm here to find out what the problems are and see if we can find some solutions."