April 20, 2018

A Hard Act To Follow | Editorial

It came as a shock to hear that Mary Dempsey had resigned as head of Chicago Public Library (CPL) this week after 18 years as the city’s library commissioner. San Francisco Public Library’s Brian Bannon (an LJ Mover & Shaker) will take over March 1. I shouldn’t have been surprised, though—not only because of the continuing budget woes Dempsey’s had to deal with over the last couple of years but also because we’d talked about her future plans.

I remember chatting with her at an Urban Libraries Council conference several years ago, and even then she was thinking about other projects. She had recently been named chair of the Board of Trustees at DePaul University, where she went to law school (she also has an MLS). She was the first woman to hold that chair (2008–11), and she remains on the board as cochair of the school’s “Many Dreams, One Mission” capital campaign, which she launched in 2010.

In a memo to her staff (“With Deepest Gratitude”), and in the press, she took the high road, as she always has, saying she told Mayor Rahm Emanuel in November about her plans to leave and that he asked her to keep the decision confidential to give him time to do a national search. She even had kind words for the mayor, despite his evisceration of the library budget, resulting in materials, hours, and staff cuts. She thanked him for asking her to stay on in his administration (in May 2011), as well as “for his recent action to make restorations to our budget and workforce, and for recruiting such an accomplished successor to me.”

The “restorations” she referred to came in a deal worked out with the mayor over the weekend of January 20–23, while many of us were at the American Library Association Midwinter in Dallas. After being excoriated by neighborhood branch users for closing libraries on Mondays and cutting 176 employees, Emanuel agreed to rehire 65 part-time clerical workers to staff libraries on Monday afternoons, according to the Chicago Tribune, restoring six-day-a-week service.

Dempsey’s greatest achievements came under Mayor Richard Daley, who hired her in 1994. Together they were a formidable team, preaching the gospel of the library as community anchor for economic development and personal growth. With Daley’s support, and with an infusion of capital funds, she undertook a vast construction program, initially building/renovating 44 CPL branch libraries, 11 of which are LEED-certified “green” buildings, and then embarking on an additional 16 in 2009. With her endorsement, Daley was named LJ’s first politician of the year, in 1997, an honor he proudly referred to at the annual Conference of Mayors’ meetings.

Her achievements weren’t all about buildings but what went on in them—and outside. The work of CPL was the focus of The Engaged Library, a Northwestern University report (2005) that highlighted the transformative work of librarians in their communities. CPL was also one of the first cities to hold a one-book, one-city program, One Book One Chicago, which was so successful that it became a twice-yearly event. More recently, CPL launched the YouMedia model, an innovative 21st-century teen learning space at the Harold Washington Library Center, which incorporates digital media for content creation.

Besides Dempsey’s achievements at CPL and her contributions on the national library scene, she’s the person many library directors turn to for advice and answers. She’s also been a great partner to LJ and to me personally. She cohosted LJ’s first ever Day of Dialog at BookExpo America at CPL’s Wintergarden in May 1998 (and many subsequent ones), calling on librarians to flex their market muscle to publishers. Her advice resonates in the current resistance of some publishers to entertain library ebook models. She partnered with LJ on our second Design Institute, which focused on sustainable building. And she cohosted LJ’s first Directors’ Summit in 2009, on fundraising.

It seems appropriate that Dempsey is being followed by SFPL’s Bannon, who managed the design process for San Francisco’s largest-ever library capital improvement program, the Branch Library Improvement Plan. In her memo to staff she wrote, “With [Bannon’s] own strong background as a librarian in urban libraries, I feel confident that he will be a marvelous leader for CPL and equally confident that I leave CPL in very capable hands.” There’s no doubt about that. Still, there’s also no doubt that he has a hard act to follow.

Francine Fialkoff About Francine Fialkoff

Francine Fialkoff (ffialkoff@gmail.com) spent 35 years with LJ, and 15 years at its helm as Editor and Editor-in-Chief. For more, see her Farewell Editorial.

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  1. Norman Oder says:

    As pointed out in some comments in the Chicago media, Dempsey and her husband are wealthy enough for her to act on principle without regard for future salary. Not a typical situation for most mayoral appointees.