Brian Bannon: From Chicago to New York

Brian Bannon, commissioner of the Chicago Public Library (CPL) system since 2012, was recently named the Merryl and James Tisch Director of the New York Public Library (NYPL). LJ caught up with Bannon during his last month in Chicago to hear about the inspiration for his move to NYPL and his strategies for leaving a thriving CPL.

Brian Bannon head shotBrian Bannon, commissioner of the Chicago Public Library (CPL) system since 2012, was recently named the Merryl and James Tisch Director of the New York Public Library (NYPL). In his tenure in Chicago, Bannon, a 2009 LJ Mover & Shaker, has overseen the renovation or construction of some 30 buildings, the implementation of forward-thinking programs and services such as the CyberNavigator computer assistance program and distance learning support Learning Circles, the expansion of YOUmedia teen digital learning spaces, and innovative partnerships that include a collaboration with Denmark’s Aarhus Public Library and IDEO on the Design Thinking Toolkit for Libraries. In 2014, CPL was recognized with a National Medal for Museum and Library Service.

LJ caught up with Bannon during his last month in Chicago to hear about the inspiration for his move to NYPL and his strategies for leaving a thriving CPL.

LJ : What was behind the decision to make this move?

[Former mayor Rahm] Emanuel announced that he was not going to be running for reelection some time ago. I’d been in my role here at Chicago for essentially both his first and second term. In Chicago, typically when there’s a mayoral transition, a lot of the department heads transition at the same time. So it was sort of natural inflection point. I had a lot of exploratory conversations, and a number of interviews and offers. But NYPL was really the only library that I was considering.

Why is that?

I felt like this was a great match for me [because] I have a huge amount of respect for what [NYPL president and CEO] Tony [Marx] has done in New York. The executive leadership team of NYPL is of the highest caliber in terms of leadership and experience. [A] real compelling piece was what NYPL is doing with its branches. There’s a significant amount of commitment and already some progress made on deep investment in the infrastructure of the neighborhood branches. The chance to lead…a large network of neighborhood-based libraries is super exciting. It’s what I spent my career doing.

[Another reason is the] initial investment of the Tisch family of $20 million to completely reimagine the whole learning portfolio and strategy of NYPL. I think that when that gift was made, there was a big question mark about what this strategy would be, what the approach would be. And as the conversation evolved about the ability to reposition the chief branch library officer into a reimagined role, to lead the education strategy in concert with this whole new revitalization in neighborhood libraries seemed like such a unique moment in NYPL’s history. It was too big an opportunity for me to say no to. I feel like I’ve spent my whole career preparing for it.

What are the next steps in the transition?

Mayor-elect Lightfoot [was] inaugurated on [May 20]. She will soon be announcing my successor, so I’ve committed to sticking around for a month to help with that transition. [Lightfoot has announced her choice of Andrea Telli, CPL deputy commissioner of public services, pending confirmation from CPL’s board of directors.] So I’m done mid-June here, and then I’m taking the summer off, and I start after Labor Day.

How do you see your role as differing from that of former chief branch library officer Christopher Platt?

A large part of it is Christopher’s role, leading the branch library system for the city. In addition, there’s a whole new part that’s about a learning agenda—creating a strategy around education and learning. Christopher was responsible for that, but it hadn’t been elevated to the level of priority that it is currently. When the Tisch gift came in a couple years ago, the strategy hasn’t yet been built. So it’s a chance to essentially look at all of the opportunities that exist in the education and learning space, particularly in the informal learning environment, and apply that to NYPL. There’s certainly been a lot of work already done. This is a chance to take it even further.

Do you plan to work with the NYC Department of Education?

If our strategy in New York ends up being driven by supporting classroom gains, then there’s a need to have a close working relationship there. But it’s too early to tell. At this point, what I will be focusing on is learning the full ecosystem of New York, all of the various different players…in the education and learning space, clarify where our priorities are, and then that will determine who are going to be the primary strategic partners. We’ve done a lot of work here in Chicago with the traditional K–12 space and the community colleges, as well as the public schools. But I’m reticent to start anticipating who the core partners are going to be until I really get out there.

Which of your accomplishments in Chicago are you proudest of?

We’ve now made a little north of $300 million in new investments in CPL programs, people, and buildings. We’ve had a significant amount of capital investment. So I’m obviously really proud of that, and the way that we financed it was super creative. It was all over the map in terms of how we found the money—we didn’t just pass one big bond.

It’s great to build beautiful buildings, and certainly that helps people feel comfortable and safe and welcome in our libraries, but it also is about the programs and the services that we offer within them. We took our summer reading program that in 2012 was reaching about 50,000 kids, and this summer we were up to 110,000 kids—not only are we reaching double the kids, but we’ve been able to redesign that program to deepen the impact and show a link to real learning gains in reading and science and math.

If you look across the full portfolio of our programs what we’ve achieved has shown that public libraries can absolutely be a central player in the traditional K–12 system in a city, and shown with data the impact that we can have and the outcome we can drive in the classroom.

And that’s frankly why I want to keep working in libraries. I feel like the work has just started. This opportunity in New York, there’s so much great stuff that’s already happening there. This experience is going to continue our learning, continue our impact, and deepen the value proposition of what public libraries can do—not just within New York, but across the country and around the world.

How would you like to see CPL build on what you’ve done?

About six months ago, we started our strategic planning process. We’ve already done all of the pre-work. We’ve done 10,000-plus patron surveys and community meetings. We’ve had many, many conversations with staff across the organization, small groups, surveys, etc. We’ve closed out our current strategy already and produced a final report.

So what I’m excited about in terms of a new mayor coming in is that we know who we are at our core as a public library. We know what our value proposition is. We know what our mission is. And it’s a chance now for us to knit those things together with what Mayor Lightfoot wants to prioritize for this city. She’s already talking in really exciting ways about equity across the city. She’s already talking about a renewed emphasis in neighborhoods.

The challenge, I think, for a public library in an urban setting—really, any setting—is to stay true to our mission, stay true to our core values. But we also need to be mindful of where our city is today and is going in the future. And obviously, our mayor and the leadership of the city is an important note in that process. The new [CPL] commissioner is absolutely going to be prepared to work with a new mayor, to take the pre-work that we’ve already done as part of our 2020 strategy work, to be absolutely in line with [Lightfoot’s] vision for the city and also absolutely consistent with our core values and mission as an organization. I think those things together are going to make a whole new chapter for CPL a really exciting one to watch.

Lori Lightfoot has a unique connection to libraries. Chicago has benefited from having two mayors that have really embraced libraries, Emmanuel and Daley before him. But Lightfoot’s wife was a longtime member of the CPL team. She was the person who led, under [former commissioner] Mary Dempsey, the implementation of YOUmedia. Her name is Amy Eshleman.

Chicago doesn’t lack for challenges as a city, but CPL is, I think, in the really interesting position of having a mayor and a first lady who already have a unique window [onto] and understanding of the opportunity and value of libraries. One of our jobs as library directors or commissioners is to help a mayor understand how they might leverage libraries to achieve what they’re trying to achieve as a city. So CPL has a slight step up in this case.

I think it’ll be really fun to watch. We’re poised for a new mayor to come in. The strategy work is set to accelerate the vision of the mayor. We’ve got a great team in place. When the new commissioner is announced, we’ll be able to hand that person a really clear road map. I’ll be watching it very closely from New York and continuing to learn from Chicago—borrowing ideas and sharing ideas.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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