Transcript: Library for the People Episode 4

Transcript: Library for the People Episode 4: How Do You Design a Public Library for the 21st Century?

Alison Cuddy: What kind of space is a library?

Chris Brown: Um I'm reminded of that, Chicagoan, Louis Sullivan, “the father of skyscrapers.” What he said about the exterior of our buildings reflecting the interior of the people. And I think that's kind of the vision is to have a, a city library that reflects the interior lives and the interior needs of Chicagoans.

Cuddy: From the Chicago Public Library Foundation and PRX, this is Library for the People, a podcast celebrating 150 years of the Chicago Public Library. I'm Alison Cuddy.

One of the exciting things happening in libraries these days is how they're evolving to support the changing needs of their communities. Or tending to their soul and wellbeing, according to Chicago Public Library Commissioner Chris Brown, who’s charged with leading the creation of new programs and branches.

You've already heard about the new types of programming that libraries are developing. The other equally important way is by creating new types of buildings. Ones that can accommodate different forms of learning, foster community, building and serve as hubs.

Many of these make use of the latest in architectural technology, not just for the “gee whiz” factor, but to build robust public space.

On this episode, we'll look at how Chicago is approaching this project by touring a couple of libraries, a recent one, which has now become an anchor of its community, and another one still on the drawing board.

Before we head out though, we've stopped by Chicago’s central branch, the Harold Washington Library Center, for glimpse into how the library is celebrating its 150th birthday.

The Los Angeles-based artist Tim Youd is busy in the Chicago Authors Room, crafting a new work.

Tim Youd: I'm engaged in a decades long project called My 100 Novels Project, where I'm retyping 100 novels. Each novel on the same make and model typewriter that the author used and in a location that somehow relates to the novel or the author's life.

Uh, so this is the 78th novel that I've retyped, uh, of the hundred. This is Richard Wright's “Native Son,” which you might know is one of Chicago's, uh, most important novels.

Really one of the most important novels of the 20th century. And you can see from the paper here, it's already illegible because I go over and over at the same page.

Cuddy: Youd’s project is interesting. He retypes an entire novel on just one sheet of paper.

Youd: And so, by the end of it - the whole novel is there, but it's, it's entirely illegible. The paper's tattered. Um, it's an abstract drawing in a way of the novel. But it's also a very, uh, specific, realistic drawing of the novel because every word is there.

Uh, so that's my approach to it. I'm starting here for the week and then I moved to the Hall Branch library, uh, down in Bronzeville where, uh, Wright, um, would frequently meet with other African American writers and artists.

Uh, back right before he wrote this novel.

Stopping in and, you know, say I'm visiting the Hall Branch and saying, oh wow, Richard Wright, you know, used to hang out here.

My endeavor is to kind of put the work back into, uh, the place. And devote myself to the novel.

Cuddy: You likely remember our earlier trip to Hall Branch, which was a gathering place for members of the Black arts movement in Chicago, including Richard Wright. Once Youd is finished with a novel, the sheet of paper is often hung on a wall. Like any piece of art, it wouldn't look out of place next to a Robert Rauschenberg.

And in fact, Youd has performed in art museums and galleries around the country, from San Diego to New Orleans. Still, responses to the finished work of art and his process vary.

Youd: I certainly have been told by more than one person that, that this is kind of stupid. Like, why would you sit there and retype a book, you know, over the course of days and weeks that you can't even read the output? You know, what's the point?

Um, I think that for the most part though, people become interested in the idea of the slow reading and the devotion of transferring every single letter and every single word through, you know, through the body physically, you know, through the machine then that becomes the extension of the fingers.

This is a pretty spectacular space. I didn't know about this room until, uh, I toured the, the library, um, yesterday, and, this is like a chapel, right?

I mean, the way it's set up with the chairs and the space and the light and the enclosure, it, it does have this, spiritual quality to it, I think, and it's about the Chicago authors.

Cuddy: Tim Youd is a visual artist from California. After “Native Son,” he'll be typing “Auggie March” at the Humboldt Park Branch library, which is pretty close to the childhood home of its author, Saul Bellow.

Cuddy: Coming up…

Brian Lee: I always liked the idea that perhaps a library could almost be like a small temple.

Cuddy: We tour Chicago's groundbreaking Chinatown branch with its architect, Brian Lee.

[Chicago Public Library Foundation ad]

Cuddy: In a city of distinctive neighborhoods, Chicago's Chinatown stands out. Established around 1912, and a haven for people fleeing discrimination on the west coast and eventually in Chicago as well, it has been the heart of the Chinese community here for over a century.

It's also a popular destination for tourists and locals. People come to celebrate the Lunar New Year and return to eat delicious dim sum on the weekends, pick up a bubble tea or hang out in a karaoke lounge. The Chinatown Branch of the Chicago Public Library honors this history and the currents that form its present.

Located at 2100 South Wentworth, the library, constructed in 2015, is literally an oasis, situated at a confluence of the neighborhood's main arteries. Two miles from Chicago's downtown, or the loop, you can travel here by water taxi, or take the L.

The building features soaring vertical lines of metal and a two-story tall curving glass wall that both reflects the sky and reveals the activity inside.

Many people walking by stop to appreciate the unique architecture for at least a second or two. I'm here to meet the man who designed it.

Brian Lee: My name is Brian Lee. I am an architect, uh, and now consulting partner with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. And a citizen of Chicago.

Cuddy: Lee came into the library's orbit when the previous space in Chinatown could no longer serve the interior needs of its community. The library was a popular destination for many things, including reading Chinese language newspapers, which hung on those old school newspaper sticks. Kind of like a paper version of the fresh catch of the day, but it wasn't ideal for social activities.

Lee: They were really advocating for new library because the old one was on Wentworth in a little rented storefront, and it was kind of a, you know, it was okay space, but kind of like, uh, super packed and people were all over the place. And it just wasn't serving the purpose.

So there was a lot of community desires, right? And frankly, you know, um, pressure to have a, a library, uh, in Chinatown.

Cuddy: Yeah. When did that start? So when did people start saying, “we need a new library in Chinatown?”

Lee: I think it's been going on for probably 20 years, you know? But, we, we first started, um, because I think the city finally said, okay, we're gonna invest in the neighborhoods, which is great.

Cuddy: In a way, Chinatown residents were participating in a tradition as old as the library itself. Before there even were branches, residents petitions for library services in their neighborhood, as you remember from our conversation in episode 1.

Lee: They had, um, a whole program of prototypes. So, you know, prototypes are a design that they, somebody came up with and it's usually a pretty decent design. Everybody kind of signs off on it and they replicate that design in different neighborhoods.

Cuddy: The vision for the new Chinatown Branch was to create a truly memorable building, one that would reflect the community's distinct identity and history. So, freed from a cookie cutter or prototype approach, Lee and his team could then focus on the specifics of people and place.

Lee: We thought, okay, let's really let this community, and this site, kind of tell us what the thing should be about. So we had the workshop with the whole team, which included Wight & Company which are architects in construction, the design/build team. And then, um, site, uh, landscape architects and a number of other consultants.

And we kind of sat down and did a little workshop and said, “okay, we'll have this funny site.”

Cuddy: The library site is on an axis that connects the older part of Chinatown to the newer part. The older section has a traditional looking gate based on a similar one in Beijing that acts as the entrance to the neighborhood. The newer area is anchored by an outdoor two-story mall that attracts shoppers as well as diners.

There's a constant flow of pedestrians between these two parts of Chinatown, which was another important consideration for the design.

Lee: That was like a big thing that on the axis axis of Chinatown Gate, you'd really have the presence and kind of, um, visibility of the new facility. And then the site itself is a funny kinda little odd shape triangle, trapezoid, something with sharp corners because of the geometry of the streets.

We decided that the thing should be maybe pull back from the edges instead of coming out to the street wall.

There's certain feng shui principles in Chinese culture that sharp buildings, angular buildings are kind of aggressive and maybe not the best thing, especially for a public institution that's supposed to be, you know, welcoming and open.

That we kind of rounded off this kind of slightly triangular form into this. I always call it like a pebble shape, you know? It's kind of softened, softened form.

Cuddy: Yeah.

Lee: It allows people to flow around more easily here, as well as on the west side between this site and, uh, the market.

Cuddy: So the library is not an impediment, in other words.

Lee: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It kinda was really kind of a center or a hub. Almost like the hub of a, uh, the spokes of a wheel to the surrounding community, including, obviously importantly the CTA station. Which is, you know, it's really great to have the stop right here, the Red Line stop.

Cuddy: Brian Lee's pebble or hub metaphor is perfect. Rivers of pedestrians stream past and around the building day after day, emphasizing the unique shape and function of the library. During the design process, the team did consult with a feng shui master.

Lee: If you kind of get back past maybe the exotic quality of feng shui being only Chinese, there's many principles that still, we think, apply in a kind of common sense or almost a intuitive way of understanding spaces and movement and, um, architecture.

It's something that, that, uh, is a, it's an interesting additional way that you get, uh, input into how your buildings should respond to the people who are gonna be using it.

Cuddy: Yeah.

Lee: You know, so it's no different than having a community meeting where somebody gets up and says, “hey, I think that we need to have better lighting” or, you know, a, a more expansive plaza for somebody to be as you can hear, playing Chinese music outside. Isn't that great?

Cuddy: The music offers a sonic respite and a reminder of the neighborhood's history. At the same time, the city at large is reflected in the building.

Lee: It did try to take on some aspects of both, not only a Chicago, um, um, personality, uh, but also have, um, tones of Chinese culture and Chinese architecture. And so when I say Chicago personality, it's a tough building.

You know, this is a building that's gonna withstand, you know, our climate here. Right? It has many aspects of the dark metal, um, the kind of metal fins.

Uh, it has a, uh, a very efficient structure in terms of the, the internal structure itself, which we'll see.

In addition to what I believe kind of Chicago oftentimes represents in terms of architecture that is highly pragmatic but tries to approach a kind of poetic quality. Um, we also kind of balanced that part with the idea that it had some allusions to Chinese culture.

So while the base is quite open and transparent, you can peer in, uh, the upper sections we thought that, you know, you might have something that was a little bit more, um, say, protected, screened off. Uh, still allowing great views, but also dealing with the sun exposure so that while it's highly transparent, it doubles as a sunscreen, the facade.

It also has this quality that references the idea of screening they might find in traditional buildings.

Cuddy: After this lesson in how the building's facade came together, we had inside to learn how Brian Lee and his team thought about its interior.

Lee: We kind of wanted to have a central space that was something that could orient you.

So that staff really liked it because oftentimes in a two-story library, they don't know what's happening upstairs and downstairs, so they can kind of have kinda a visual and oral sort of, uh, connection between the spaces. And so that worked out well.

So this little space in here, which obviously doubles as you can see, is a study area and a place where people can come and, wait or read or kind of socialize.

Cuddy: Mm-hmm.

Lee: Is kind of a, a space that was made up of all those specific programs, but then combined into one space that made the space more efficient. And then was a genesis of really the idea of the central volume of space, which I don't know if we call it an atrium or courtyard. I kinda like the idea of a courtyard better.

Cuddy: Yeah.

Lee: You know, cause it's less commercial and less big.

Cuddy: We have arrived here at a moment when the library is starting to stir or reawaken from a late afternoon lull. Traffic into the building is starting to pick up. The school day has ended. The slow transition from what spatially feels like a low murmur to a fuller voice is a critical part of Lee's vision that a library is both a sacred space and a bustling hub.

The two stories of the library are beautifully lit thanks to a skylight or in Lee's word, oculus, almost like a James Turrell installation that is at the center of the library's oval shape.

Lee: I always liked the idea that perhaps a library could almost be like a small temple. And, and very famously in Chinese culture, the temples oftentimes have an nocuous at the top. Uh, just to let light come in. And so we have this, this simple, very, um, you know, it was the cheapest eight foot diameter, the largest sort of skylight you can get.

Cuddy: Mm-hmm.

Lee: That we just kind of cleanly detail it so that it really just see this perfect sort of slice or circle of, of blue sky up above. Bringing light down into this form that reflects, reflects a light down.

Cuddy: The skylight and sight lines, which enable clear views between the ground floor and second story, no matter which level you're on, were designed to make the space as open, visible, and inviting to the community as possible. That design has shaped, whether intended or not, what happens inside.

Lee: That kind of visibility, uh, really made it, I think, easy for people to say, “that's a space I want to use.” So in addition to the kind of scheduled events, after school tutoring, English as the second language classes, there's certainly early voting sometimes that they do here.

We found that people were also doing activities that I hadn't anticipated at all. So there's Chinese opera that happens here.

Cuddy: Wow.

Lee: So that's what makes it a lively place. And so I've given lectures here. People at the colleges oftentimes give talks here.

We had a great event when the library got a number of awards. We had the awards ceremony here. So it's a, I think it's just a really a nice piece that CPL, as a organization, recognizes how important this space is to the community.

Cuddy: Now we head up to the second floor. There's a panoramic view of Chicago’d skyline, including the iconic Willis Tower. A beautiful 60-foot mural by artist CJ Hungerman hangs along the staircase. Its bright colors and busy patterns reflect Chinese mythology and the immigrant experience.

Lee explains how his attention to interior needs included the library's smallest patrons.

Lee: So what we did for the children's area was think about how do you create a series of rooms.

When we proposed the idea, we said that was like a dragon's tale in terms of the curve, linear forms that made these rooms and then had a series of cutouts that kids can crawl through or jump over.

Cuddy: Mm-hmm.

Lee: And we kept the bookshelves all low. It serves as a display space for, you know, the latest and greatest and most used um, uh, children's books and picture books. And then the spaces is flexible enough that we've found that, um, you could organize it with a play mountain or a study area, or a storytelling area, or even we found that, uh, kids love to sometimes just find their own little space.

So sometimes they're just perched on the window bench. You know, just to have, you know, a book or a laptop in the hand and to, uh, um, you know, be by themselves and discover, you know, discover things.

Cuddy: Those low shelves are also part of the building’s overall attention to sustainability.

Lee: They bounce light on the top of the shelves, bounce light up to the ceilings, and then you notice the ceilings are all exposed. And what you see in the, there's a series of grids, um, rotating around in the ceiling.

Cuddy: Mm-hmm.

Lee: Those grids are actually filled with water. So they're radiant panels.

So that's how we heat and cool the building. With the water that's flowing between those, those, um, those gridded panels there. And it turns out that it's a really efficient way to do it.

Cuddy: Spending time with Brian Lee, who also designed branches in Chicago's West Loop and Little Italy neighborhoods, it's clear that new library designs must address larger global issues. Like environmental sustainability or public health, as part of a local community's needs. And in a way, that's how these spaces remain vital.

Lee: Um, I think that the, the libraries also are really important for places, uh, for people to just come get away from the places at work, or as we all know, during the pandemic, you know, cooped up in our houses and apartments. There's a place now that, you know, they are well used for people just to have a quiet place.

In fact, at at, I was just at Little Italy and the librarian was telling us that they've had a huge increase in the amount of university level students that come to the library. And it's kind of strange because you would think that all the library services on school on campus are there, but they kind of gravitate maybe to a place where it's a little bit more vibrant.

It has kind of street life and places to eat and drink and then find a place to quietly study and be away from everything else. So it's interesting that the dynamics sometimes isn't what you think.

Cuddy: Mm-hmm.

Lee: Um, but it obviously is responding to how we live today.

Cuddy: Brian Lee is a consulting partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill Architecture firm and the lead designer of Chicago Public Library's Chinatown Branch.

Coming up, we'll talk about one of the most anticipated public libraries in Chicago history - the forthcoming branch at the Obama Presidential Center Museum. They're placing a special emphasis on digital records, but…

Louise Bernard: There is also just a kind of human desire to connect with the analog, to connect with material culture in its very robust and object driven form.

Cuddy: Louise Bernard of the Obama Presidential Center Museum is next.

[Chicago Public Library Foundation ad]

Cuddy: Dr. Louise Bernard is a museum curator who combines a deep knowledge of American and African American literature with a notable collection of library experiences. This all started for her at a very young age, growing up in a small town in the north of England.

Louise Bernard: The small branch library in the village where I grew up actually looks like it's in a temporary building, but every time I go back I'm just thrilled and amazed to see that it's still standing. But all to say it was very small.

Uh, and so I've always just loved reading and it was something that my parents had encouraged. Uh, I was the first person in my family to go to university and so I would use those resources all the time.

Cuddy: When Bernard came to the United States for graduate studies, she was astonished by the resources to be found in a Big 10 research library like the ones at Indiana University Bloomington. The Lilly Library there even contained a special connection to her home.

Bernard: The Lilly is known, for example, for the Sylvia Plath papers. And growing up in Yorkshire, I'd grown up very close to where Sylvia Plath had lived with Ted Hughes at Lumb Bank.

And so again, those connections were just really powerful, uh, to me.

Cuddy: Bernard went on to be a curator at Yale's Beinecke Library, hd a brief spell at the New York Public Library, and then a major role at the Smithsonian, all of which have deeply shaped her.

Bernard: All to say libraries in the various formats from the smallest of village public libraries, uh, to the grandest of rare books and manuscripts. Uh, special collections have just been really informative for me thinking about the power of the humanities and the importance of books.​

Cuddy: Since 2017, Bernard has been working to shape the Obama Presidential Center Museum, currently under construction in Chicago's Jackson Park. The campus, as Bernard calls it, will include a new branch of the Chicago Public Library.

When it's completed, the Obama Center will be one of the most significant new public spaces Chicago has seen in decades.

Barack Obama: [recording from a previous speech] The Obama Presidential Center is our way of repaying some of what this amazing city has given us. But we're also building this center because we believe it can speak to some of the central struggles of our time. For we are living through a moment of rapid disruption. In technology, in the global economy, in our social arrangements, in our environment.

Cuddy: Bernard says that our 44th president had a very clear idea of what he wanted the overall center, and this branch, to emphasize.

Bernard: So in terms of curation, he was thinking about how you bring that very personal and intimate sense of a connection to books and to writing to a broader public. And really thinking about the association between books and writers in different moments in time. So the historical context of how works are produced and how they're circulated. What they mean at a given time and what they meant for very specific audiences as well.

Cuddy: Bernard drew upon her previous experiences at Yale University to think through these connections. There she developed a collection in memory of James Weldon Johnson, a writer, author of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which became known as the Negro National Anthem, and a pivotal figure in the development of NAACP in 1919. This archive also performs a broader public service, one that is important to how Bernard is approaching her work at the Obama Center.

Bernard: It's a window into how for African Americans, for example, uh, literacy was a way of proving humanity. Uh, so the idea of, uh, the history of literacy being denied to Black subjects in the US.. and a way in which there was constant push against that.

I think there's something really powerful in being able to communicate that story to a broader public. That's how I began to think about the relationship between the archive and the more broader public history aspect of curation.

Cuddy: This is the second time that you are building a museum from the ground up.

Bernard: Mm-hmm.

Cuddy: You were at The National Museum of African American History and Culture and helped conceptualize that and contributed to so many of the collections there. You're doing the same thing, or you're now the director, the founding director of the Obama Presidential Center.

So let's just talk about the Center's relationship to libraries, because in some ways, um, even the name of it signals that this isn't going to be entirely typically a presidential library. So can you talk about that first?

Bernard: So we're building the Obama Presidential Center. Uh, it is situated on twenty acres of historic Jackson Park on the south side of Chicago. I think as many people know, this is the south side of Chicago, is where Mrs. Obama was born and raised. It's where President Obama found his footing as a community organizer, which was the first step in his political career.

So the building of the center and the story that it will house is very much rooted in a site-specific space with a very rich history, both personal to the Obama's and political broadly. Uh, and then we think about the center, in terms of that rootedness in place, as also being a platform for a national story.

It's the story of the nation's 44th President. It's the story of the nation's first African American president, the first Black family in the White House. Uh, and because of the Obamas and particularly President Obama, it also has a global reach. Uh, we think about the president, his particular cosmopolitan upbringing, we think about his worldview, his engagement, uh, diplomatically.

Uh, and his engagement with young people, especially during the town halls that he hosted as he traveled the world across two terms. And that is something that resonates strongly in the foundation's current global programs.

Cuddy: The campus in the center of the historic Frederick Law Olmsted designed park will include a soaring tower that houses the museum. The architects, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, have inscribed words from the speech the president made at the 50th anniversary of the March on Selma onto a lattice like section of the facade.

There'll be an athletic center and two lower slang buildings. One for a community gathering place, and the other for the public library.

Public art by Chicago sculptor Richard Hunt, as well as Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Memorial in Washington will be part of the landscape.

Other art installations are planned. And more - walkways, a garden playground, and central plaza, all of it designed toward one critical purpose.

Bernard: It's a fantastic complex in which we also think about the relationship between the concept of a campus, which often sounds enclosed. And the idea of a civic commons, which is open and accessible to all, to as many people as possible. And a sense of universal, or what we would call inclusive design is also in underpinning our idea of democratic space making.

Cuddy: Can you give us a sense of what the library will look like?

Bernard: So there will be an open, airy, light filled space, um, with kind of open use spaces, including a reading room, spaces for children, the Maker Spaces, a small YOUmedia space.

There's a connection to a library courtyard, a reading courtyard, which will house a sculpture by Richard Hunt. Um, it's called Book Bird, and the sculpture is of a bird emerging out of a book. Uh, so again, thinking about the power and possibility of imagination, of creativity.

Cuddy: How will it look like a typical branch library, and how might it differ given it's got this like literally physical immediacy to the Presidential Center, but also, I imagine has a special relationship to the materials that are going to be housed at the center?

Bernard: It will place a particular emphasis on digital technologies and formats and Maker Spaces.

So we know that books and circulating collections and access to books and to printed matter is, as important as ever. But there are various ways in which we can engage audiences through different kinds of modalities. We know that CPL does great work around YOUmedia. So the idea of youth connected to media, whether that is graphic design, 3D design, thinking about recording podcasts, for example. Uh, other forms of recording mechanisms, but really thinking about training young people, teens, uh, across various forms of creativity and innovation.

And it's something that will have an additional resonance at the center because of our particular emphasis on civic engagement, but also the importance of the arts broadly.

So we have a larger recording studio, for example, in the media suite. We have a 300-seat auditorium.

We have other convening spaces on campus, both interior and exterior. So really the CPL will be able to think about how they can both leverage the programming work that they've already piloted and do very well, but rethink how it can live within this broader complex.

Cuddy: I was thinking about what you said earlier about literacy as a critical, um, aspect of African American history and a, a way of claiming humanity, right?

Bernard: Yeah.

Cuddy: In a world that denied that humanity um, and prevented that form of education and knowledge happening.

Bernard: Yeah.

Cuddy: Um, So I wondered if you would say more about how literacy is at the center. Of the mission, of the presidential center

Bernard: Yeah. So in terms of the story that we tell in the museum, uh, it is naturally that the primary narrative arc, so to speak, is that of the Obama administration and the work that was carried out across two terms. But President Obama wanted us to ensure that that story was situated in among nuanced understanding of American history, so an understanding of the building blocks of American democracy as well as the push and pull of progress. Uh, and I think many people can recognize, for example, that radical pendulum swing that took place between 2008 and 2016, but that didn't emerge out of nowhere.

That is deeply embedded in the history of this nation. So in terms of the story we tell in the museum, the president also wanted to ensure that an understanding of civics education was embedded within it, which is to say, how does government work, uh, how can everyday people, whether defined as citizens or not, uh, be able to engage in that process and to engage in that practice.

Uh, we have developed a civics primer space within the museum.

So we have engaged with a cartoonist who's also a historian called Joel Christian Gill. Um, to develop what will be a kind of, uh, graphic novel brought to life within the space of the museum.

Also working with our media producers to produce a linear media piece, um, which is loosely a, a version of Schoolhouse Rock, which I think many people are familiar with. But a series of animated vignettes to again, really engage people around this idea of public history and how they can be social actors in the making of history itself, and it's this ongoing process.

But with that in mind, civics literacy is of course embedded in all of the work that we do, but it connects to a broader sense of digital literacy. And this goes back to the issue of disinformation and how people can better understand the resources that they have to engage with both the production and circulation of knowledge and I say that being aware that this is becoming increasingly more complex.

Cuddy: Um, even as, digital technology, visual culture is important for conveying these narratives, for conveying the history, it seems like young people are also connected to material culture.

Bernard: Yeah.

Cuddy: And you are collecting materials to create a collection, right?

Bernard: Mm-hmm.

Cuddy: So that's part of how you're telling the story of this historic presidency. And I wonder if you could say a little bit about that work.

Bernard: So we have to be mindful of balancing those two things. I think in a world of increasing digitization and digital access, there is also just a kind of human desire to connect with the analog. To connect with material culture in its very robust and object driven form.

We had the opportunity just pre-COVID, uh, to do a robust series of community collections gathering events, which we launched here in Chicago, actually at the Rebuild Foundation. Where we invited local community to bring objects that connected in some way to the story of the Obamas to share with us for consideration, uh, for our collection, which we're building and for display in the museum. Many of those materials were coming out of the 2008 campaign. Uh, but not just merchandising, these were things that people had made by hand.

Um, that also connected to a particular memory for them of being engaged in this particular election, which was a watershed moment in the nation's history. There's something really robust about the idea of what we would often consider to be ephemera, uh, things that are often thrown away or, or discarded.

These are things that people kept. So it feels really powerful to tell the story of the 2008 campaign, not just about that candidate called Barack Obama, but about the people who made the history happen.

So we have a story, for example, around marriage equality, the work that the president, his administration, uh, was doing to move that, that social issue forward.

James Obergefell, who was central to that story, gifted to us his marriage certificate, um, which I find incredibly moving and is also donating, uh, his wedding ring. So you think about the power of those objects together, uh, to speak to not only the issue of policy and making a shift in the culture, but it's very human.

Cuddy: Will the collection at the public library reflect that history as well?

Bernard: Mm-hmm.

Cuddy: So will there be particular books or exhibitions? Can you talk about how that will also be a repository for that history and what will be in it?

Bernard: Within the president's reading room, we think of that as being a non-circulating reference library.

Uh, and the collection will be curated to support the story that we're telling in the museum. So if a high schooler is writing their book report on the Affordable Care Act, for example, or the idea of healthcare in the U.S. They can go to the CPL president’s reading room space and find a curated selection of books about healthcare and the Affordable Care Act. Uh, we think about other topics that connect to the storytelling in the museum, whether that is the history of Chicago, the history of community organizing in Chicago, the history of neighborhoods in Chicago, particularly on the South Side.

Cuddy: We started by talking about your early experiences in libraries and being an avid Nancy Drew reader and other series. Um, your background also, your Ph.D. is in African American literature, American literature, African American history, culture studies.

Bernard: Mm-hmm.

Cuddy: So what are some of your dream books? The books you think absolutely should be on the shelf at the public library, at the Obama Presidential Center?

Bernard: That's such a great question. So I think about the importance of poetry, uh, and the role of poetry in Chicago with the Poetry Foundation, uh, and all of the great poets that have circulated through this city.

Uh, and thinking about poetry in the spoken word, increasingly being important, especially for young people.

I think about, Caribbean thinkers like Ed Walant, who talks about, uh, his Matan Bon, I think about books like “The Overstory” by Richard Powers. Just such a robust connection to the history of this country, environment, progressive movements, that can lead to so many conversations. And I think it's books like that.

Cuddy: Mm-hmm.

Bernard: Um, that will be central to the kind of collections I imagine we curate.

Cuddy: It’s been great talking with you, Louise. Thank you so much.

Bernard: Thank you. Such a pleasure.

Cuddy: Louise Bernard is the director of the Obama Presidential Center Museum. Next time on Library for the People…

August: It was a weird request. Like I said, it was, um, looking for a song, so technically computer request, but it was like, I only know so much music so [chuckles]

Cuddy: Social life in the library.

Library for the People is a production of PRX and the Chicago Public Library Foundation. The show is produced by Minju Park and Shane McEwen. The senior producer is Andrew Gill, and the executive producer is Jocelyn Gonzalez. It is mixed by Merritt Jacob.

Mary Ellen Messner, Rica Bouso and Shamil Clay gave production oversight for Chicago Public Library, Morgan Church and Edwin Ochoa manage the project for PRX. I'm Alison Cudi. See you next time on Library for the People.

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