OUR KIND OF TOWN: HOW THE CHICAGO PUBLIC LIBRARY IS CHANGING THE CITY
Building or renovating 52 libraries in 17 years would be a feat for any community. That this renaissance occurred in Chicago—the city that “makes no small plans”—is perhaps not surprising.
That it has occurred when many library systems are struggling to keep branches open—and that the quality of the construction rivals its quantity—is.
Today the nondescript storefronts and dilapidated buildings that once characterized the Chicago Public Library system are largely gone. Almost 70 percent of its 76 branches are new or extensively renovated, full-service libraries. In neighborhood after neighborhood, Chicago’s new libraries have demonstrated their power to transform. Not only does library use soar, the neighborhoods themselves are revitalized. Aldermen now vie to have new or renovated libraries in their neighborhoods—and community residents sing their praises.
And while it may not be the largest library-building project (Los Angeles has built 67 libraries since 1989), Chicago’s revitalization reflects an exceptional partnership forged by Mayor Richard M. Daley with Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey. The two share a vision of the library as an integral part of education, a center of community life and catalyst for economic development. Last year Dempsey was named one of the “Public Officials of the Year” by Governing magazine.
It was Daley who lured Dempsey, then a prominent attorney, back to libraries in 1994. Dempsey had earlier earned a master’s in library science from the University of Illinois and, while working at the Chicago firm of Sidley and Austin, was lured into the library and city government. Her charge: Create a world-class library for a world-class city.
Dempsey responded with the library’s first strategic plan. Developed with input from the library board, staff, and community, the approach provided a map for rebuilding the library’s infrastructure.
“This is a big city with a significant and diverse population,” said Jayne Carr Thompson, president of the CPL Board of Directors. “We needed to look at the established system and determine which communities had a need for library services and weren’t getting them, and how we could reallocate services in a way that made more sense.”