Chicago PL To Build Branch in Obama Center

The planned Barack Obama Presidential Center will not contain a traditional presidential library of physical archives from Obama’s two terms as president, but it will hold a branch of the Chicago Public Library to serve the Jackson Park neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel high-fives a local student as Chicago Public Library commissioner and CEO Brian Bannon looks on at May 2 partnership announcement. Photo credit: Brooke Collins

While the planned Barack Obama Presidential Center (OPC) will not contain a traditional presidential library of physical archives from Obama’s two terms as president, it will hold a library: a branch of the Chicago Public Library (CPL), located in one of the OPC’s four buildings. Rather than a presidential library’s usual patrons—researchers and scholars—the new CPL branch will serve the Jackson Park neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side, the OPC’s future home. This partnership will be the first of its kind.

CPL commissioner and CEO Brian Bannon, Obama Foundation executive director Robbin Cohen, and Chicago Fleet and Facilities commissioner David Reynolds signed a letter of intent on April 20. The foundation and the City of Chicago signed a tentative rent-free deal on May 1, and on May 2 announced the partnership. In attendance were Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel; representatives from the Obama Foundation (a Chicago-based nonprofit founded in 2014) and CPL, including Bannon, library board president Linda Johnson Rice, and a local branch manager; and a group of neighborhood children. A detailed Memorandum of Understanding and lease agreement will follow.

On May 14, the public park activist organization Protect Our Parks, Inc. filed a federal lawsuit to block construction of the Obama Presidential Center. The lawsuit alleges that the OPC was an “institutional bait and switch,” as the original transfer of public park land to the foundation was for an official presidential library. That transfer, according to the suit, now violates the park district code, as the OPC is a nongovernmental private entity.

A Chicago Plan Commission meeting to discuss modifications to the OPC’s boundaries and the long-term grounds lease is scheduled for May 17. The joint proposal calls for the Obama Foundation to offer CPL a seven-year, rent-free lease for 5,000 square feet within the 50,000 foot building, one of the four proposed OPC structures on the 19.3 acre campus slated to open in 2021.

The branch, designed to CPL’s specifications and fully funded by the Obama Foundation, will include flexible reading and study space that can be converted to open seating for programs and events; a dedicated children’s area; a YOUmedia learning lab teen program; open meeting space for public use; and a multimedia collection with an emphasis on civic engagement—the core of the Obama Foundation’s mission.

The collection will also include specialized material focusing on Obama’s life and legacy. CPL will hire an estimated eight new staff members to handle core library services, as well as providing computers and collection materials. The city of Chicago will cover the library’s portion of utilities, cleaning, security, and snow removal. Chicago’s City Council will approve the lease and budget.

The branch’s location, adjacent to what is envisioned as the Obama Reading Room, will allow for joint OPC/CPL programming. But first and foremost, the space will be a state-of-the-art public library branch, with a collection, services, and programming appropriate to the local community.

“When designing the campus of the Obama Presidential Center, we’ve listened to what those in the community most want and set out to offer something for everyone,” explained Cohen, who will be overseeing the collaboration. “With a partnership with CPL, we realized we could both address the need for a library in this neighborhood, and give young people in the area a fun and educational way to engage with the [OPC].”

"We are thrilled about this partnership,” Michael Strautmanis, the Obama Foundation’s vice president of civic engagement, told LJ. “The mission of the Obama Foundation is to inspire and empower people to change their communities.… We want to create a place at the OPC that allows us to fulfill that mission, and there's no better partner than CPL to do that.”

EXTENDING THE REACH

CPL first connected with foundation staff in 2016, said Bannon, when he began an ongoing conversation with Strautmanis about public libraries and their vision. Among other things, they spoke about President Obama’s vision for the OPC as a place to “push the envelope on democracy and leadership, and this idea of creating spaces where young people can learn together, create together,” Bannon told LJ.

That turned into a series of discussions about how the OPC could leverage CPL’s existing local network, such as its partnerships with the Art Institute of Chicago or the Museum of Science and Industry, to extend its reach and vision. Bannon brought foundation members to the YOUmedia center at CPL’s Harold Washington Library Center, and to tour the new Chinatown branch. In his previous role as vice president of citizenship and strategic programs at the Walt Disney Company, Strautmanis had worked with CPL in partnership with the American Library Association (ALA). "I knew Chicago libraries were special,” said Strautmanis, a Chicago native. “My mom's a librarian.”

As the conversation evolved, Strautmanis and the foundation began to envision CPL as the partner they were looking for, and Barack and Michelle Obama agreed. “I think what [the foundation] realized is, why would they try to recreate what CPL and public libraries in general already do so well in terms of public and civic engagement?” noted Bannon. “Instead of trying to rebrand and learn from CPL, which is what we were trying to help them do, why not just actually put a library on the campus?” The partnership also moved forward with support from Emanuel, who has allocated significant city funds to CPL in his six years as mayor and who has Obama’s ear as well.

NO PAPER ARCHIVES

In 2017, the foundation made news with its announcement that the OPC would not incorporate the physical records, documents, and artifacts from president Obama’s eight years in office. Presidential records are traditionally administered within presidential libraries or archives by the government-run National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). However, the material from Obama’s administration will be made available online through a separate NARA-run Barack Obama Presidential Library. The physical material—40 tractor-trailer trucks worth—is currently stored in a former furniture store in Hoffman Estates, IL.

Once the original records are fully digitized, they will be stored in an existing NARA facility that meets the agency’s archival storage standards. By choosing not to be connected to the federal presidential library system, the OPC will be able to bypass the design and security specifications that a NARA facility would require. The four-building campus, with its anticipated $500 million price tag, will be entirely funded through private donations through the Obama Foundation. As a privately funded facility, the OPC will be able to have full control over its design, personnel, and services. But the Obama Foundation won’t control any of the decisions made by CPL for its new branch.

"They are going to be all in and don't control who we hire, they don't control the programming, they don't control the collections that we select, they don't get to tell us what to do with our Internet filtering policy,” said Bannon. “They get what a public library does as an independent entity, and they're willing to bet on getting out of the way and putting us there.”

SMALL FOOTPRINT, BIG IMPACT

At 5,000 square feet, the branch’s footprint will be relatively small by CPL’s standards—its neighborhood libraries are generally 10,000 to 16,000 square feet—but the adjacent Obama Reading Room will help expand the available space. Also, noted Bannon, “[We’ll be] embedded in a center where there's state of the art computer labs and digital media studios and performance spaces. We'll be working with them on joint programming in…foundation space.”

CPL will proceed as it would with any new branch over the next year, hiring a manager, teen librarian, children’s librarian, pages, and clerks. The new collection and services will be designed to complement, rather than compete with, the Coleman and Blackstone branches nearby. Programming and services will be created with the neighborhood and the city as a whole in mind, explained Bannon, but will also consider the OPC’s mission: “The plans they have for grassroots organizing, or leadership and democracy, some of these areas they really care about…. We can work with them on citywide programming through our network of libraries.”

Strautmanis agreed. “The great thing about this partnership for the Obama Foundation is, rather than having a presidential center that is just attracting people who may just want to come for a program...or may want to come visit the museum, we're going to have all kinds of people from the neighborhood and the community."

The foundation hopes to inspire people to get involved in their communities, he added, “and we hope that this library becomes a shining example of how we can do that. That's what the south side of Chicago has meant to President Obama…. This is the community that raised Mrs. Obama and where they raised their family. So we expect that this project, in this place, will continue that tradition of vibrant civic engagement."

As Bannon pointed out, this partnership is less about the gift of a new branch, or CPL’s success in marketing itself,  than about the OPC and what it hopes to achieve in the community—as well as the message it is sending about public libraries in Chicago, in the United States, and potentially worldwide. As global funders like the Gates Foundation leave the library field, he noted, it’s critical to see “such a popular president who has such a specific vision for what he's trying to do lean in to public libraries."

The OPC can “use [CPL] as a place to reach a global audience,” Bannon suggested. “Experiment with the hyperlocal neighborhood library that you're going to have right here on your campus to help you better understand how you can reach that kid in South Africa through the network of libraries in Cape Town."

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