Brian Bannon, the new commissioner of Chicago Public Library, at 37 already has a lengthy list of accomplishments under his belt. As the former chief information officer of San Francisco Public Library (SFPL), Bannon was responsible for its digital and technology strategy. Bannon also served as chief of branches during his six-year tenure at SFPL, managing the staff of 27 neighborhood libraries and leading the design and construction process of its $200 million Branch Library Improvement Program—the largest capital improvement program in the library’s history.
Bannon, who earned his MLIS from the University of Washington in 1999, joined CPL in March 2012, succeeding Mary Dempsey, who stepped down after nearly 18 years as commissioner. Now, several months into his new role, Bannon—who says he has “hit the ground running”—took a break from his whirlwind introduction to CPL and the city of Chicago to talk with American Libraries about the library’s recent controversy over staffing cuts and reduced hours; his vision for the future and the use of new media; and what makes a librarian a librarian.
You went to school and worked on the West Coast, in Seattle and San Francisco, for many years. What kind of adjustments have you had to make for life in the Midwest, and Chicago in particular?
BRIAN BANNON: I’ve been surprised by how warm, open, and inclusive people are in Chicago. I’ve already developed a personal and professional network in the city, and I’ve not even been here two months. What people say about Chicago—about it being this warm Midwest city where people are really open, welcoming in a really genuine way—I’ve found that to be true, shockingly so.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned since you’ve been at CPL?
Mary Dempsey, my predecessor, was kind enough to give me a tour of some of the neighborhood libraries. Chicago has a great reputation in the library community for having strong libraries and having innovative programming.
Indeed, we have this incredible footprint in the city, a community that really cares about libraries and uses their neighborhood libraries heavily, and seeing a staff that truly believes in the work that we do—even though it’s been a tough couple of years because of the economic environment.
I met with each of our senior staff one on one, and we had a high‑level conversation about who they are, what brought them to working at the library. From our budget manager to our acquisitions folks to our public‑facing librarians on the senior staff, all of them talked about the mission of the library and how they love working here. It’s great to come into an organization that cares about the work. It’s a real testament to the leadership that Mary brought to Chicago over the past 18 years.
We have some great opportunities for growth. New media provides insight into where libraries are headed. If you look at the research that influenced the first iteration of new media, it’s about understanding where our users are—understanding how they learn, how they interact, and seeing that it’s all part of the process of connecting them to knowledge and ideas in a way that best resonates for them.
It’s about understanding how our users learn and interact, and seeing that it’s all part of the process of connecting them to knowledge and ideas in a way that best resonates for them.—Brian Bannon
This concept of creating spaces for people to feel comfortable first, to then hang out and engage with one another, and then to start tinkering and exploring and seeing this as an important way of supporting independent learning as putting a book in a hand. That’s what we do in libraries.
New media has shown that there’s another angle to how we can continue to look at the work we do in a neighborhood library—to understand who we’re serving, how we build experiences and entry points to learning that are best aligned with folks in that community; that is really our charge.
What I’ve seen with the first stab at new media integration in some of our branch libraries reminds me a lot of what was going on 15 years ago, or longer, when libraries first started to introduce basic public technology into libraries. Our tendency then was to create special little rooms where we put computers and, you know, have all these barriers to getting in to access it because it was a special new shiny thing.
What we found long term, of course, is that public technology needs to be integrated into the fabric of the library and that you have to build systems around getting people signed up and using it. What I’ve seen with some of our first attempts at new media in branches is that all of the tools get locked into a closet. They’re brought out for programming. What we need to do in the longer stretch is look at how we can make these tools readily available throughout the day in the library.
Almost every neighborhood we have has a freestanding, city‑owned library with a meeting space. And the community really values that space. One of the things that has come up in the cultural plan is how can we better use our libraries as a performance and arts space for exhibitions.
One of the things I learned in San Francisco is that it takes just the right idea during the design process; it doesn’t usually take extra money. And if you can incorporate just a few small things, you can create a much better product.
In one neighborhood library, the library was heavily used for performance and arts. At some of our community meetings, there were basic suggestions. For example: how installing power-outlet bars in the ceiling would allow people to clip lighting in for a black box theater.
What we’re going to be doing over the next few weeks is assembling a group of people who have been engaged in the operations of new media. We’re going to bring them together with folks who have been working in our neighborhood libraries, as well as architects and some other key players, to take a fresh look at what we want a library to do. And hopefully we’ll make some interesting adjustments as a result that won’t really cost us any money but will allow us to support in a much more integrated way the work of new media.
You mentioned the economic hardship of the past few years and said this type of project isn’t going to cost much money. But how do you convey to an economically weary public or library staff that this is a necessary step?
What I’m talking about is quick and dirty—a group of people get together for an afternoon, walk through the building, and talk about the additional things they’d like. It’s more like a “lessons learned” type of thing, which we do already for our buildings. It includes more voices in that discussion.
The branch prototypes in Chicago have been designed with rethinking how to use space in mind. These prototypes are big, open, flexible buildings. The challenge is that if you don’t take a step back and look at the open flexible design, you could end up opening with, say, too many tables or not enough chairs. This takes a look at what’s called the functional building program. This is not redesigning a building.
What are your plans for the budget and collections?
Libraries are not unique in that we are large organizations that serve many people with a broad range of needs. Libraries—even though they’re nonprofit—have the same challenges. We need to be clear about why we exist, who we serve, and then prioritize that service.
Some of the work we’re doing on our senior team is answering those questions for ourselves. And those are really tough questions. A mistake some folks make is they say, “Well, we serve everyone.” And they use that as an excuse to not have discipline to really understand who they serve.
So it’s a much more complex question, and we have to start with who we serve, what they value and need, and then align the services that we provide around those. That’s a process we’re going through right now as a team.
There’s been a lot of transition at CPL with staffing levels and hours being cut. The ball was already rolling by the time you arrived. What do you make of all these changes?
At a macro level, this is as tough as it’s been for Chicago. This is a national issue. We’ve been through a tough economic moment, and libraries are not alone in the struggle of how to survive in tight times.
We’ve weathered the storm well in Chicago in that we continue to see our circulation go up [between January and March 2011 and 2012, circulation at CPL increased by nearly 228,000 items]. We’ve continued to see the number of folks who walk through the door go up.
I’m hopeful we can have some good news in the coming months about where we’re going next with our hours. But at this point, I’m in study-understand mode. Even within this belt-tightening moment, there are some opportunities that we’re really excited about.
You mentioned before the interview that you own an iPad. What are you reading on there now?
Most of the stuff I read on my iPad is work related—a bunch of downloaded PDF documents about the history of Chicago; a number of articles about different ways libraries have been looking at education. It’s literally a bunch of research. I use my iPad primarily for email, for reading PDFs. It sort of condenses all those things that I have to read into one little device. I usually read paper books or listen to books on my iPhone.
Fiction or nonfiction?
I like it all. Probably a little bit more toward nonfiction, but I like it all.
Have you found a favorite nook or a space in the library where you like to read? Or just find some quiet space?
I’ve been exploring the neighborhood libraries on the weekends. The other weekend I spent the afternoon reading in the Merlo branch reading room. One of the fun things about having such a big footprint throughout the city is getting to explore those neighborhood libraries and using them as a patron. Sometimes I’ve gone incognito, and they don’t know who I am.
I love the main library here [Harold Washington Library Center]. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful building. And it’s also where I come to work every day.
Where or to whom do you turn for professional inspiration?
In terms of leadership, Luis Herrera, who is city librarian in San Francisco, was a great mentor to me when I worked there. And his deputy, Jill Bourne, is also a great leader in libraries. Deborah Jacobs is someone who has been a longtime friend as well as mentor. She was the city librarian in Seattle and is now director of the Global Libraries initiative at the Gates Foundation. She’s someone who has helped me think through the full range of challenges of working in libraries—the professional, the political, the operational.
In terms of reading, I enjoy reading about management, philosophy, best practices, that kind of thing. I really enjoy all of Peter Drucker’s work. I often will reflect back on some of his writings, particularly when thinking through more of an operational leadership or management challenge.
What do you do en route to work every morning, and from work every evening?
Yeah, I am either on my bike, in which case I’m not listening to or reading anything. If I take the El, sometimes I’ll listen to one of my favorite podcasts or a book or something like that. And if I walk, I like to keep my mind completely open. It’s a great way to prepare for the day, and decompress from the day.
Other than a degree, what makes a librarian a librarian?
A passion for learning and for people, and really caring and staying really true to what it is that we do in our work. The degree is a fundamental part of understanding the underpinnings of the work. And it’s important in the same way a teacher has to stay current with the trends in connecting kids to learning for the purposes of moving them through curriculum. Librarians must do the same. So it’s the degree plus a real dedication to continuing to understand how our society changes and how we realign the work that we do around those changes.