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Library commissioner talks changes, technology
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times

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In the time he has headed the Chicago Public Library ( CPL ), openly gay Commissioner Brian Bannon has made quite a few changes.

Among the implementations is the YOUMedia program, which provides teens across Chicago with digital learning experiences. It was these changes that resulted in CPL being recently named the top library system in the country— and the third-best in the world, ahead of such locations as Singapore and London.

Windy City Times recently spoke with Bannon in his office at the Harold Washington Library about the changes, budgeting and other issues. ( CPL Director of Marketing Ruth Lednicer sat in

on the conversation. )

Windy City Times: Congratulations on the number-one national ranking. How did you find out about it?

Brian Bannon: It was a group of German researchers that was interested in the role libraries play in supporting the competitiveness of a "knowledge city." So they selected 31 cities about a year prior to the study coming out. I had forgotten about it, but they visited Chicago. They visited a lot of cities around the world, and put together a complicated rubric. So they put together this assessment, and they met with library directors, including myself. They did rankings and codings, things like that. The study came out in late December [2013]. Once Ruth saw it we reached out to them and got a copy of the study—and word got around. One of the [items] they looked at was the long-term role that the Chicago public has played in social media—and Ruth is actually our social-media department. [All laugh.] Apparently, we're a standout leader in that way: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr.

Here are a couple other examples they gave. They looked at the services we provide in a knowledge economy. One involves the digitalmedia work we're doing with teens, and another is the Maker Lab, as an example of a creative space. They didn't find other cities that were making those kinds of investments.

WCT: Could you talk a bit about the new media work? I understand CPL did something with the mayor [on Feb. 20].

BB: [Bannon and Lednicer nod.] The program was piloted in 2009, and the Pearson and MacArthur foundations came to us and funded it. It was a very successful pilot that turned into something we really wanted to do. We didn't have a big citywide initiative for teens and adults—until new media came, which has not only informed how we want to work with teens throughout the city. Last year was a big year for us because we hired our first batch of librarians who specialize in teen services. As part of the 2014 budget, the mayor was really interested in the success of new media, and so we had a half-million dollars to our budget for these librarians. We were able to leverage that in our discussions with MacArthur to come back and do a sustainability grant, which is an addition $2 million over three years. So the private investment is allowing us to spread this work around many more neighborhoods.

WCT: When you say you're working with neighborhoods, are there any particular ones you're prioritizing?

BB: Yes. Over the last two years, we added four additional new media sites. They're in Humboldt Park... Ruth Lednicer: Thurgood Marshall on the South Side, [Rudy] Lozano branch in Pilsen, Richard M. Daley in west Humboldt Park, and Humboldt Park Branch Library.

BB: And so this year, we'll be adding six additional sites. New media was a breakout success pilot, as it was modeled in other cities across the U.S. We thought this was a great idea to use this model for teen services.

WCT: I'm just curious. Which is trickier: securing the funding, or budgeting/allocating the funding when you get it?

BB: It's never hard to spend funding. [Laughs] As for allocating, we're going through a strategic planning process right now [regarding] investments. I would say that all those pieces have those moments of being tricky. I think the challenge is to have a strong vision for what we want to achieve, and how we want success to look. It makes it a little easier for those pieces to line up.

RL: I'd say we've been really good that, when we secure the funding, we've gotten the budgeting in line so what you're looking for matches up with what you need to spend.

WCT: I'm going to ask you something I asked you about last time [in October 2012]—and you said to ask you again in a year. If you had an unlimited budget, what would you do?

BB: I may have said this before. There's this quote from Marissa Mayer, who is now the CEO of Yahoo!: "Creativity loves constraints." So I'm almost throwing that back at you, as I prefer to live and work in an environment that has constraints. I have never lived in an environment without constraints. What I've found is that having constraints around a budget spurs innovation and creative thinking.

WCT: But having more funds would provide more options.

BB: Yes—having more funds. The thing is, I think we're doing a lot of those things. As we look at our priorities, one of them is definitely youth. Then there's the work with very young children and their parents; we've increased our investments there, and I'd like to increase them even more. Also, we're looking at being even more strategic with teens. Another area that we're looking to put more resources in ( but we want to have a better vision before doing so ) is supporting workforce and the city's economic vitality. The library plays a role in basic computer access so more people can find employment. One of the things I'd like to look into is how we can be even stronger in that early entry point for people who want to get the skills to get a job.

WCT: How are you helping people on the other end: seniors, particularly retired individuals?

BB: One of the things we're looking at is providing basic access. We want to support learning from zero to however long you live. The other area is how we can have libraries strengthen our communities in general. It's a little squishier, but some examples include the programs we have in the Winter Garden— there's something tangible when you're in a room with another 500 people listening to a Supreme Court justice like Sonia Sotomayor talking about her book. That's the kind of community- strengthening program we do all over the city.

We have a partnership with Steppenwolf Theater Company that involved bringing a full play that had insight about violence. We think the library plays a part in bringing people together and having them exchange ideas. We think someone with an active brain is going to be more active in helping to improve the city. All ages benefit from that.

WCT: Could you briefly talk about the Maker Lab?

BB: Sure. The Maker Lab is a pilot program that is stretching on longer than we though it would [laughs]—but that's not a bad thing. It was a pilot to look at advanced manufacturing. It involves designing objects in 3-D and creating them on the spot. Right now, 3-D printing is available—but most people can't afford them. We just want people to learn this technology. It's like fabrication before your eyes. We've had roughly 30,000 people walk through the space, and about 4,000 have completed a class. But what's even more interesting is that this is a demographic you don't see in the other Makers spaces in the city. It's about 50-percent women, and it's a much broader age range. One of the things we have experienced is community-building; people help each other in the labs. We think it's kind of a cool role for a library to play.

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