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Chicago Public Libraries Are Having A Moment

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Chinatown library

The Chinatown branch of the Chicago Public Library. which has won awards for its architecture.

Andrew Gill

By the end of 2019, Chicago will have 12 new library buildings and 18 other locations with major renovations and expansions.

These projects are part of the city’s efforts to modernize the public library system, as highlighted by its ongoing “Branching Out: Building Libraries, Building Communities” campaign launched in 2011.

Chicago Public Library Commissioner Brian Bannon stopped by the Morning Shift for the latest in the city's library modernization initiative.

What is the Branching Out campaign?

Brian Bannon: The "Branching Out" campaign really represents the vision for revitalizing the remaining libraries in our portfolio and also reimagining spaces all over the city in the new direction we’re taking our libraries. 

On finding funding sources

Jenn White: Since CPL doesn’t have its own annual capital budget, my understanding is that you’ve had to get creative with funding sources. Talk about that.

Bannon: So we didn’t pass one giant bond, which many cities do and, historically, (then Mayor Bill) Daley actually didn’t do a bond to do many of the libraries that happened during his period. But instead what we’ve essentially done is gone neighborhood by neighborhood, and organization by organization, and come up with a variety of different collaborations that have made a net gain of roughly almost $300 million of new investments in our libraries.

Deciding where to build new libraries, renovate old ones

Bannon: We have 81 libraries around the city, and so part of it was looking at existing infrastructure and the state of the building… and another was looking at what buildings are not city-owned… In terms of adding new libraries... we’re really looking at neighborhoods that are growing. For example, on the West Loop, there was a strong neighborhood and aldermanic desire to bring in city investment, such as neighborhood libraries, as they’re seeing housing growing, population growing and density in the neighborhood.

The shifting role of public libraries in communities

Bannon: When we think about the mission of a public library, it really is about connecting our community to the world of ideas and information to make a stronger, more democratic society. So that mission hasn’t changed. But the way in which we’ve had to reinterpret how to program that mission has changed pretty dramatically in the last decade… For example, we opened the very first neighborhood library maker lab, as part of the new Whitney Young Library. 

White: And when you think about the role of a librarian in a neighborhood, what role do you hope it plays?

Bannon: It’s really about bringing the world of ideas in a print form… in an experiential way. The premise of a public library, and it also dates back to Benjamin Franklin, is about how we create community spaces that are populated with interesting ideas and things that can spur people’s creative thinking to create a more vibrant society.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.

GUEST: Brian Bannon, commissioner and chief executive officer of Chicago Public Library

LEARN MORE: Mayor Rahm Emanuel Announces Continued Investments in Library Branches on the South and West Sides (Chicago Public Library 2/6/19)

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