March 16, 2018

First Year in the Second City: Brian Bannon’s First Year at the Helm of Chicago Public Library

The situation Brian Bannon (a 2009 LJ Mover & Shaker) inherited when he took over as commissioner of the Chicago Public Library (CPL) on March 19, 2012, was, to say the least, daunting. Though he had a lot of experience as chief information officer for San Francisco’s public libraries (and previously with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Seattle Public Library), this was his first time in the hot seat, and he was following in the footsteps of 18-year veteran Mary Dempsey (at a salary of $167,000, slightly higher than Dempsey’s).

But Bannon doesn’t seem to mind. He says, “A friend said to me, it’s always harder to follow a great leader, but it’s much better…. [T]here’s this thing where people are always comparing you; we are different people, with different priorities, but many of these were initiatives started under Mary, and I hope I am doing right by her…she has been an incredible support to me, particularly in those early months.”

He also inherited a tense position vis à vis the city’s mayor (and former White House chief of staff) Rahm Emanuel, who had recently announced a $6.7 million cut to the library’s operating budget, including 176 layoffs and Monday closings at all 75 branches. (Debates over whether the cut could be split between two days did little to improve the mood, with Emanuel blaming the union for inflexibility and turning to nonunion workers. Anders Lindall, spokesperson for AFSCME Council 31, did not respond to LJ’s requests for comment.)

Yet one year later, Bannon is enthusiastic about his relationship with the city administration as well. “I’ve found, in this past year, the deep support from our city elected officials, especially Mayor Emanuel—he’s been a staunch supporter of libraries.” Within six months of his arrival, Bannon and Emanuel were able to restore all the lost hours by tweaking CPL’s staffing models. Bannon says libraries are particularly seen as a priority around workforce community development.

“Brian Bannon is focused and fearless,” Rhona S. Frazin, president & CEO of the Chicago Public Library Foundation, tells LJ. “He immediately forged partnerships within government, the philanthropic sector, and our business and technology communities. Brian was clear that he wanted to engage the Chicago Public Library Foundation board members as his thought-partners.”

On the shoulders of giants

Among the projects begun under Dempsey and taken to the next level under Bannon’s aegis include capital improvements and the Teacher in the Library program, which CPL was able to expand by partnering with colleges and universities that do teacher education. “I thought we were going to be quieting on that, but, getting here, I saw there that there was some real need to continue,” Bannon says. The library is opening two new buildings this year and has two more under construction, plus another 20 getting “light and bright miniremodels,” which will provide deferred maintenance and redo the children’s and teen areas—in some cases creating new teen spaces.

One addition of Bannon’s own is hiring specialists to staff those spaces. “We haven’t had a past practice of teen librarianship,” he says. “We just hired our first batch, and a director of YOUmedia, as well as some other support. Our hope is to do the work of serving teens in every neighborhood.”

YOUmedia, CPL’s award-winning teen content creation space, already widely used as a model, is also expanding, Bannon says. It’s been extended to four branches, and CPL and the McArthur Foundation have hired an external evaluator to help create the next iteration of YOUmedia. Says Bannon, “It will overlap with the hacker space and have some relevance to our adult population, particularly the music spaces.”

Innovating by outsourcing

Of the changes Bannon himself has focused on, not surprisingly for a former CIO, many of them have been around technology. He’s signed CPL on with BiblioCommons. “Not having the internal development skills on hand, this is a trend, to outsource the design portion completely,” he says. Working with the library’s foundation, CPL hopes to redesign the library’s entire web environment, working with BiblioCommons on a three-year grant. New services would include accepting credit cards but also a host of patron interactions: they’d be able to add metadata to tags, review, star, rank, and create a link to video about cataloged materials.

Bannon has also upped CPL’s game in providing public technology to patrons. “Chicago, due to cost, had not been providing basic productivity technology: word processing, presentation tech, spreadsheets,” he explains.

CPL couldn’t afford Microsoft’s software, so it installed ­LibreOffice (a free, open source solution) on every public computer and then studied the outcome. “As a result of LibreOffice’s success, we have now been able to secure the licenses to bring the Microsoft products [into the library], Bannon explains. “But it first took a pilot with a free solution.”

FUSION POWERED Bannon explains the 3-D printer at the debut of the first drop-in STEM space at the Humboldt Park Branch. Photo courtesy of Chicago Public Library

Counting on outcomes

It’s not just in the technology sphere that Bannon is focused on impact. The library is working with a firm called Mission Management to help pinpoint the library’s intended social impact with great clarity: not just to support basic literacy but “what are the specific skills in info and tech literacy that we really want to own and how are we going to measure [that],” Bannon explains. “When you think about impact, what is important is not the number of people who show up at a program or materials circulating but what is the change in behavior, understanding, and learning, and how is that change linked to a larger impact we want to have on the city?”

The library’s values on promoting economic vitality, public technology, and serving core populations have led Bannon to decisions like instituting CPL’s first fine amnesty in two decades. Not only did about 100,000 items worth almost $2 million come back to the facilities, but nearly 40,000 patrons who had stopped checking out materials were now able to resume using the library fully. And even now that the amnesty is over, Bannon is making sure that fines don’t create more barriers than necessary. “Our policies around fines were also restricting access around technology. Patrons could not use public access computers if they had a fine,” Bannon explains, so he worked with the board to change those policies.

Bannon also redesigned CPL’s summer reading program as a learning challenge, which includes discovery and creation activities as well as reading, in part by partnering with a local STEM-focused museum. “Last year we had 60,000 kids complete the program and read 1.5 million books. That’s a lot of output, but we weren’t able to link those activities to learning that’s happening during the summer,” he says. “As they participate, they’ll end the summer with essentially a portfolio of projects linked to very clear learning outcomes.”

Design thinking

“We are really interested in how we can design new services for our users [through] more of a scientific approach to program design,” Bannon explains. He’s building a CPL Innovations Lab to experiment with new products and services “that we think might align with the needs of our users” and plans to “experiment and learn quickly; if it doesn’t work, abandon it,” rather than getting too heavily invested in any one idea before it’s been proven.

One of the lab’s first projects is a Maker space launching this July under an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant. Bannon calls the plan “doing program design through partnership”—experts from around the city, including everyone from hackers to museum personnel, will present programs in the space.

Staff selection

Bannon is also applying design thinking to the internal structure of the library. Said Frazin, Bannon “has built a strong leadership team from a blend of people who are new to CPL, seasoned continuing senior staff and dynamic younger talent from within the ranks.” Bannon says CPL lost a number of positions owing to retirement, so he took the opportunity to reconfigure some of the job descriptions. He turned a vacant facilities executive spot into a director of library technology. That’s “really helping us think strategically, not just managing day-to-day IT,” he explains. He also reworked a partnership position into a director of learning and hired the former director of libraries for Chicago’s public schools. The schools likewise provided the deputy director, who also has workforce experience. The new head of children’s services, on the other hand, has been with CPL for 25 years. Overall, he feels, the key to staffing up for managing change has been to “strike a good balance between those with a strong public library background and bringing different [kinds of] libraries to the table, to think outside, but also within, the field.”

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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