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Library head talks mission, journey
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times

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Brian Bannon is the newest commissioner of the Chicago Public Library—and, as is expected for someone in that position, he is extremely qualified. His immediate job before coming to Chicago was being chief information officer (CIO) for the San Francisco Public Library, and was previously chief of branches of the same system. He has also managed Seattle Public Library and even worked for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In a comprehensive interview, the openly gay commissioner (who started March 19) talked about everything from majoring in gay and lesbian studies in the '90s to the challenges he faces every day here in the Windy City.

Windy City Times: Eight months on the job—so how has it been?

Brian Bannon: It's been great. It's hasn't just been eight months on the job—it's been eight months in Chicago. It's been a big learning experience, with an accelerated learning of the library and the city. It's an incredibly welcoming city. It's been fun and invigorating.

Chicago Public Library enjoys a really stellar national reputation among urban libraries, so it was a huge honor to become the new commissioner. Chicagoans seem to really love their libraries. I don't feel like I'm fully here yet; after the first year—the full cycle of seasons, including the budget and nature seasons—I'll get a better grasp of things. We have an incredibly talented and lean team.

WCT: What was your biggest concern moving from San Francisco to Chicago?

Brian Bannon: This is the second big move I made to a big city. "Concern" isn't quite the word, but I had a question about the culture and climate of the organization. Then, there's all the learning that has to take place. Part of it is just, "What's the unknown?"

WCT: I want to talk about you going to Pacific Lutheran University. You studied psychology as well as gay and lesbian studies—and this was in the '90s.

Brian Bannon: Yes, but let me go back to high school. I ended up going to Pacific Lutheran by accident. I was actually an openly gay athlete in high school; I came out my junior year.

WCT: Was this a particularly liberal high school?

Brian Bannon: I grew up in a university town: Bellingham, Wash. It's pretty progressive.

So I wasn't sure I was going to college, but recruiters started to approach me my junior year. Some of the local colleges started to aggressively recruit me because I was a swimmer, and Pacific Lutheran provided the best scholarship.

Pacific Lutheran was a pretty conservative campus, and I was almost back in the closet. However, there was an independent-studies program. Early on, I decided that people who were in the process of coming out would have a safe space so I worked with some professors to create a support group for gay and lesbian students.

The group became really popular, [although] it was a confidential group. I then thought it would be interesting to study social justice through the window of gay and lesbian studies. I asked a professor about a gay and lesbian studies program, and she [asked], "Why don't we create a full major?" Some professors and I put together a proposal and took it to the head of the university. We put in courses like human sexuality and then added our own classes.

For me, it was a great way to learn a piece of my own history; it was a wonderful experience. It was also an important time for the university because it created a visibility and it also created a natural conversation point that the university was ready for. At that time, I was the only openly gay student but by the time I graduated, there were 12; today, the university is considered one of the most [LGBT-]friendly.

WCT: You eventually went to library school. What made you [go that route]?

Brian Bannon: An advisor met her partner when in library school, so she had this interest and aptitude around libraries—the history, intellectual freedom, issues of privacy. So it found its way into my [studies]. I was struck by the seminal role libraries have played in social-justice movements in general, such as freedom of expression.

We have these perceptions of what a librarian looks and acts like—they're among the most progressive, forward-thinking agents around the world. So I was interested in the roles libraries and librarians play, from a social-justice perspective.

I was thinking of getting a stronger background in research as a stepping point to being an academic. Of course, I was also interested in the whole ecosystem of what libraries do. But once I got to library school, I was specifically taken by what public libraries do.

WCT: A bit later, you worked for the Gates Foundation.

Brian Bannon: Yes. While in library school, I had a bunch of different internships—academic environments, public-library reference desk. I also had an internship with a nonprofit called Technology Resource Institute, which Bill and Melinda funded to bring connectivity to libraries across the U.S. That was one of the first programs to become part of that foundation.

What was interesting was that the name changed three different times; they finally settled on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But I have, like, four different mugs with names of the organization. [Laughs] Once I got my library degree, I stayed on. I moved from the U.S. library program to the Native American access program, where we worked in tribal libraries in setting up telecommunications infrastructure for computers. So I moved from the Gates Foundation to the Seattle Public Library.

WCT: Eventually, you became CIO in San Francisco.

Brian Bannon: Yes, but first I had been recruited to head the neighborhood libraries. At the time, they had just passed a $200-million bond program to rebuild all of San Francisco's neighborhood libraries. I was there during an incredible time of growth; during my five years there, we designed and opened 22 libraries.

But I always maintained an interest in technology. When the CIO [retired], I temporarily took over and ran [both] construction and IT. We were about to launch a big initiative in investment and IT, and I thought this would be an exciting opportunity, and I was asked to stay on.

WCT: It seemed that years ago, everyone went to libraries. It seems (after talking with friends) that not as many people go, in part because of the Internet. Has the Internet been a double-edged sword for libraries?

Brian Bannon: No, and I would disagree with you. A study has shown that the biggest growth area with library usage is with 19-to-26-year-olds. People's use of libraries ebbs and flows over time. Chicago has seen a consistent uptick in people walking through our doors as well as with circulation and people who use us for computers.

I think one thing people forget—for all the devices we have—is that just under half of Chicago don't have the same access to technology that most of us enjoy. The only point of access for some people is to look to libraries and other spaces that provide the devices.

Libraries have enjoyed a significant increase over the years, but the way people use libraries has changed dramatically. The Internet has saved the modern library; demand for computers here far exceeds supply.

One of the big increases in use that we see is online, so there are the digital downloads. We just reported that we experienced an 80-percent increase in our digital downloads, so people are downloading materials from our website to their mobile devices. We've seen many format changes, from records to tapes to CDs to downloadable—but what remains the same is people's desire to connect to each other and connect to these ideas through different formats.

WCT: How would you say e-readers have impacted libraries?

Brian Bannon: We're still looking at that. Only about three years ago, e-readers became part of the mainstream. Mobile devices and smartphones have only been around for about five years. We're still trying to understand our role in the mobile space.

One of the big impacts that e-readers have in the short term is that people come in here asking us how to use them. We have these programs that teach people how to use them and download items onto them. Some libraries—not us, just yet—have been experimenting with circulating handheld mobile devices with pre-loaded contact on them.

WCT: What's a typical day like for you?

Brian Bannon: In terms of how I try to spend my time, there are different spheres that are important for me to occupy. One is in the management/organization sphere, so that involves working with the senior team as part of our weekly meetings, one-on-one meetings. Another is connecting to the community, patrons and staffers who serve our patrons; that's more of an experiential type of sphere. Another sphere is more political—connecting with counterparts in other city departments, working with the mayor and his office.

WCT: Speaking of the mayor, where do things stand regarding budget cuts? At one point, hours were cut back and then some were restored.

Brian Bannon: Prior to my arrival, the mayor wanted to make a big dent in the city's deficit and had to make some tough decisions about balancing the budget. The libraries experienced pretty deep cuts that ultimately resulted in a reduction of hours. The mayor, in the beginning of 2012, worked with my predecessor to add some resources back to the budget; we went back to six days a week (half a day on Mondays). When I arrived, we did a pretty deep organization evaluation, and through some attrition, we were able to go back to full days on Mondays.

As we come into 2013, the mayor has announced his budget; we feel really good about what's in front of us. Two new libraries have been announced in the last four months—one is in the Back of the Yards neighborhood and the other is in Chinatown. We're maintaining our hours and adding some staff in key locations that are going to be opening.

WCT: Hypothetical: If you had an unlimited budget, what would you implement?

Brian Bannon: We're in a process of taking a big step back and looking at our mission. I think right now our focus should be on clarity of mission, and thinking about who we're serving. Getting back to your question, we need to be really clear about who we serve and why we serve them. I actually believe that there are areas where we have big growth opportunities. The work we have to do is more internally focused on the resources that we do have, and maximizing those to their best potential against our mission—but ask me that question again in a year. [Laughs] We have a lot of initiatives in the pipeline that I'm excited about, but we're not ready to share publicly.

WCT: Let's talk censorship: Is there any type of book you would not allow in the library—an anti-gay pamphlet, etc.?

Brian Bannon: No. Regarding the principles of intellectual freedom and selection, the way that public libraries have focused on looking to provide for their constituents so they can choose the perspectives that most align with their values. We provide a neutral voice of all the voices that exist in a community.

As a selector, there's a whole practice regarding selection. We can't have every book so in some way we have to (what some would call) censor and select what we purchase. Our goals for selection, however, are to get the broad-based ideas that exist. We also select based on demand; some people might say 50 Shades of Grey is not a great piece of literature but demand is there, so we're going to buy it.

From the standpoint of the Internet, you can decide what you want to see. We don't pass judgement. It's all really grounded on our ideas of democracy.

And there are certain items you might want for the purpose of research. Something that may seem homophobic or racist to someone today represents a point in time, and you may want to reflect back as a historian. You never know what people's motivations are, and our goal is to connect people with those ideas without judgement.

WCT: What role do you think the library has regarding the LGBT community—as a repository of history, etc.?

Brian Bannon: We are a people's library, so we're here to serve everyone. I like to see us as the equal playing field for all. I don't know that we want to play more or less a role for any community. For example, "Facing History and Ourselves" is an interesting exhibit that ties into The Book Thief—the "One Book, One Chicago" choice [for this fall]. There are these important moments in the book about standing up and this exhibit is about the same thing: When is it our time to stand up? The exhibit tells a lot of different stories—one's about a gay kid who started an LGBT group in his school and other kid who tells the story of school integration in the 1950s. It looks at the commonalities when people stood up for justice.

I think that's the role we ought to play in this conversation—how we connect people's experiences. Back to your question, I think [LGBT] voices need to be present in these conversations.

WCT: What are three of your favorite books?

Brian Bannon: I try not to play favorites but a book I keep coming back to is Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson, who also tells Steve Jobs' story beautifully; I didn't realize the central role [Franklin] played in the concept of the library as we know it today. I also really enjoyed reading The Book Thief. A book that had a big influence over my life is Paul Monette's Becoming a Man; I read all of his memoirs in college, and it was important for me to read [Becoming a Man] at that time. I was learning what it was like to be openly gay in a time of AIDS and HIV.

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