May 12, 2018

Cynthia Fuerst | Movers & Shakers 2005

An Open Mind


Librarians like to say their libraries are the heart of their communities, and in Cynthia Fuerst’s case, it’s a fact. For the Kankakee Public Library, this took long, hard effort by an inspired library director, the mayor, and a developer who wanted to revive business in an economically devastated downtown.

When Fuerst became the library’s director in 1995, the roof leaked, the phone system didn’t work, there were out-of-order signs on every library machine, and there were no public computers. The tiny building was overcrowded, the staff completely demoralized. Kankakee itself was in even worse straits. With double-digit unemployment and a 25 percent illiteracy rate, it placed last in the 1999 Places Rated Almanac.

Fuerst was undaunted. “For many years I had John Wooden’s words hanging on the bulletin board above my desk: ‘Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.’ What happened in Kankakee is an example of taking little steps, side steps, and reaching out for a helping hand to get the job done.”

Circulation supervisor Allison Beasley says, “Cindy tirelessly applied for grant after grant for computers, building repair, you name it. Within a couple of years she had received enough grants to have the library’s entire interior repainted, the roof repaired, and a world of new technology brought into the library.” Fuerst also weeded the collection, hired and trained talented new staff, and expanded programs.

She didn’t plan to stay in that little building, though. She hired a consultant to develop a space needs assessment and a fundraising consultant to determine the community’s potential to pay for a new facility.

When a major employer moved out of its seven-story executive center at the corner of Kankakee’s main thoroughfare, it left a gaping hole in the town’s economic heart. Joe Franco, of Heritage Development, proposed reopening it as a combined library and office building. Stephen Bertrand, the library’s assistant director, says that to meet the timetable, Fuerst “would need to cram a multiyear building project into just one year. Her reaction was ‘Let’s go!'”

The city passed a $4.5 million bond in January 2003; construction began in March, and the new library opened at 1 p.m. on January 5, 2004 – just 105 years to the second after the original building opened. Since then, the library and downtown Kankakee have enjoyed the renaissance for which everyone had hoped.

The library’s statistics skyrocketed in every category in the first year: attendance was up 113 percent, circulation by 32 percent, reference questions by 566 percent, and program attendance by 311 percent. Since 1995, Fuerst has increased the library’s space from 9000 to 30,000 square feet and its budget from $200,000 to $1,419,700.

As for downtown Kankakee, Fuerst says that in the past 12 months, “new street lights and planters were added, a new sandwich shop and barber shop have opened, a new gazebo for the farmers’ market was completed, a new office building is near completion, and a historic building is being renovated to be a satellite college campus – all within blocks of our new library.”

Fuerst credits her community partners for this success: the mayor for seeing the library’s potential as a catalyst for downtown redevelopment; the attorney who worked out the creative financing scheme; the library board, which helped her build community relationships; her diverse staff; and the developers, Joe and Scott Franco, who made sure that things got done on time.

What Fuerst will take credit for is making the most of what she had, keeping an open mind, and being ready when the opportunity presented itself. Her reward is watching an ever-increasing number of people use the library, like the elderly man who told her, “It makes me feel important just to be in this place. It’s so beautiful, I can’t believe this is Kankakee.”



Current Position Director, Kankakee Public Library, IL

Degree MLS, Northern Illinois University, 1992

SuperLibrarian When her son’s preschool class studied community workers, she appeared in a mask and cape, with an L on her chest