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Mayor Daley and the Chicago Public Library

The city’s system loses its biggest advocate.

Photo illustration: Jamie DiVecchio Ramsay

As Richard M. Daley transitions out of the office he’s held since 1989, his critics might remember him for the midnight dozing of Meigs Field, the cost overruns at Millennium Park, or the big parking-meter sellout. But the mayor’s most enduring civic legacy may be his commitment to the Chicago Public Library system, as evidenced by the 59 newly constructed or renovated branches in the mayor’s 22-year run, an unprecedented building boom through economic ups and downs. He was first recognized nationwide in 1997, when Library Journal chose Daley for its inaugural Politician of the Year award.

Envisioning libraries as a critical part to the city’s livability, Daley provided the capital structure to move them out of rental storefronts and invest in technology, new collections and human resources. To spare CPL the chronic funding crises of other city departments, Daley created a separate line item for libraries on the real-estate property tax bill, thereby securing money for planning and operations, according to library commissioner Mary Dempsey, who was recruited by the mayor in 1995. “He literally said, ‘You tell me what you need and you’ll have it,’ and he’s been true to his word since the beginning.”

Since late 2009, four new branches replaced outdated storefront locations (and a Park District field house), and the LEED-certified Greater Grand Crossing Branch opened in April in a community previously without a library.

“Libraries are the community anchors that contribute to the quality of life for everyone,” Daley said through assistant press secretary Vanessa Hall. “Especially in these tough economic times, libraries are a place where people benefit from free services.”

Though many branches scaled back hours during the recession, they were not closed any additional weekdays. Nationwide, the American Library Association’s Office for Research and Statistics reported that as of fall 2009, 13 state library agencies reported library closures due to budget shortfalls. And last year, Evanston controversially closed one of its three library branches. Meanwhile, President Obama was endorsing the nationwide adoption of CPL’s YOUmedia teen center concept. Created at the Harold Washington Library Center, YOUmedia—a media and technology center where teens make movies, music and magazines—will open in three additional branches. Nationally, the Institute of Museum and Library Services is announcing 30 planning grants to replicate YOUmedia, Dempsey says.

“A strong and vibrant Chicago Public Library is essential for a strong and vibrant Chicago—now and in the future,” Daley said through Hall, but he’s leaving a vibrant Chicago that is also mired in debt. Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel’s call to slash $75 million in spending in his first two months could be directed anywhere. “I will conduct a top-to-bottom review of each agency to determine how we can most efficiently provide taxpayers with the best services for the best price,” Emanuel said in a carefully worded statement through press secretary Tarrah Cooper.

A clearer indication of his intentions might be his announcement at the end of April that Dempsey would remain commissioner. Dempsey recalls the mayor-elect as being “extremely supportive” of the CPL as a congressman, when Emanuel hosted an annual “Rahm’s Readers” program for third-graders in his district.

Emanuel echoed the statements of his predecessor, calling branches community anchors and sources of civic engagement. “If a city is to continue moving forward, residents must have ready access to the resources they need to raise their quality of life,” Emanuel said. “Fortunately in Chicago, we have an outstanding library system that provides that access and forms the core of lifelong learning for everyone.“

For 22 years, CPL has been protected by arguably its biggest advocate. The effect of his absence remains to be seen. What is certain is that Emanuel will be dedicating two branches this summer, including the West Humboldt Park branch. And it will be named the Richard M. Daley Branch.

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