The Chicago Public Library Redefines its Role in the Digital Age

By Sean Thornton • April 21, 2014

As global competition among cities grows, there is a stronger need for libraries—not as book repositories, but as learning centers for today’s knowledge economy. Yet in an age where computers and tablets are jumping ahead of books, how can public libraries best leverage technology to better serve their communities’ residents?

It’s an integral question for libraries across the nation. In Chicago, the Chicago Public Library (CPL) has been working on an answer at a rapid pace. Through its innovative new programs and services, CPL is helping redefine what modern learning centers look like—and what libraries are capable of in the 21st century.

Moving Cities Forward

A recent study of worldwide library systems out of Germany’s University of Düsseldorf notes that in the knowledge economy, a city’s flows of information, capital, and power are just as or more important than physical spaces. Thus, successful libraries aren’t just buildings—they are hubs of knowledge where residents have the ability to access those flows and build skills needed in a globalized world.

Brian Bannon, CPL’s Commissioner, is fully aware of this. “We're positioning Chicago as a leader in social innovation and modeling how libraries can help move cities forward in the knowledge economy,” Bannon said in a recent interview. “A library should be a Petri dish for ideas to collide. Looking five years out, I'd like this to be an organization that has offered the right kind of services for the community we live in, with a modern way of responding to change.”

In the knowledge economy, a city’s flows of information, capital, and power are just as or more important than physical spaces.

Bannon, formerly Chief Information Officer at the San Francisco Public Library, came to Chicago in March 2012. A librarian first, techie second, Bannon views his department’s tech-related initiatives as means, not ends; they are tools that offer information and skills that lead to positive outcomes for residents. This can be seen in the resident-facing programs that have started or expanded during his tenure.

CPL's Innovation Lab provides classes in topics like 3D software and printers.

For example, YOUmedia, a digital learning program for teens, connects young adults to interactive media tools, mentors, and institutions throughout the city. While currently offered at five libraries, CPL recently announced a major expansion. YOUmedia offers learning opportunities such as the Innovation Lab—which provides both youth and adults with introductions to 3D software, 3D printers, and laser cutting—and has recently struck up a partnership with Girls Who Code, which offers sessions that bolster young women’s skills in analytics and programming.

Another program is CPL’s Homework Help, which offers on-site and online tutoring to students across the city. Mango Languages, meanwhile, provides online English as a Second Language (ESL) tutorials for any Chicago adult or child with a library card.

There’s a unique commonality threading these programs together: they straddle both physical and digital space to help make the library a versatile learning and knowledge hub. In part because of these key services, CPL has been ranked the top public library system in the United States, and third best globally, in the University of Düsseldorf’s study.

Part of a Broader Plan

CPL’s tech-related initiatives are part of a larger picture of how Chicago is changing its technology landscape. With 3,000 computers available in 80 branches, CPL is the largest provider of free access to technology in Chicago. It’s also a key player in Chicago’s Tech Plan, a long-term framework for how the city plans to use technology to enhance the well-being of its residents.

One of the Tech Plan’s foundational strategies is to ensure that every community is a “smart community”—that is, one with plugged-in, digitally-literate residents. Central to this strategy is CPL’s expanding role as a learning and knowledge hub for Chicago. CPL’s tech-focused initiatives help support broader citywide goals to provide technology training and engagement programs to residents, increase youth STEM education opportunities, expand the public’s access to computers and WiFi, and even develop metrics and benchmarks for tracking the development of fully connected communities.

CPL isn’t solely responsible for making Chicago’s communities smarter, either; it has a deep bench of partners, both within and outside of government, that are helping to make things happen. For example, many of these programs are possible due to support from the Chicago Public Library Foundation, an affiliated nonprofit that supports CPL tech, programmatic, and collection development initiatives.

The City’s Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT), a central player in the Tech Plan, manages CPL’s IT needs. DoIT also oversees the Connect Chicago program, the City’s main initiative that connects people to computers. It does so with the Smart Chicago Collaborative—another key partner on multiple “smart communities” initiatives, such as the long-running CyberNavigators tech training program.

CPL has also partnered with local startups in order to expand its knowledge-and-learning-center model to businesses. The Geeks in Residence program houses experienced local startups to provide free business and technology guidance to local entrepreneurs, in a business-incubator style design.

New Technology, Old Roots

Some may view CPL’s new programs and partners as the beginning of the end of the “traditional” library. Yet CPL plans to remain the public’s go-to source for books—and even an ever-growing number of eBooks. Reading programs like One Book, One Chicago and the Summer Learning Challenge are here to stay and remain popular (so much so that when the program exceeded expectations, Mayor Rahm Emanuel had to keep his promise and plunge into icy Lake Michigan).

CPL has kept its mission statement since 1873—back when it started as a single library in an abandoned water tower, in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire. 141 years later, the institution continues to “welcome and support all people in their enjoyment of reading and lifelong learning, while striving to provide equal access to information, ideas and knowledge through books, programs and other resources.”

About the Author

Sean Thornton

Sean Thornton is a Program Advisor for the Ash Center's Civic Analytics Network and writer for Data-Smart City Solutions.  Based in Chicago and working in partnership with the city's Department of Innovation and Technology, Sean holds joint Masters’ degrees from the University of Chicago, in Public Policy and Social Service Administration. His work has spanned the city's public, philanthropic, and nonprofit sectors.