Creative Solutions to Information Access from Chicago’s Chief Librarian

There is a lot more to check out at the Chicago Public Library than just books and periodicals.

For starters, the library system through its 80 locations and “Internet to Go” service is the largest provider of free online access to Chicago’s 2.7 million residents. Students, small business owners and citizens of all stripes who otherwise have no or limited connection to the information economy can now at least tap into this foundational infrastructure at any Chicago library. As digital innovations have advanced dramatically in the two decades since the debut of the World Wide Web, however, it is essential that citizens are provided with the tools to create and not just connect.

“Today, more people have more access to more information than at any other time in human history. But that access is not equal,” said Brian Bannon, who for nearly three years has served as Commissioner of the Chicago Public Library. Bannon’s remarks during a presentation to civic leaders at the City Club of Chicago. He added that “for Chicago to compete in this borderless economic frontier, we must ensure that Chicagoans are informed, creative, entrepreneurial, and innovative. It also means that our children must become lifelong learners who are able to absorb and utilize new information.”

Prior to coming to Chicago, Bannon served as Chief Information Officer of the San Francisco Public Library. He possesses both a deep appreciation of a library’s role in the public sphere, as well as an immense understanding of digital information delivery systems. These attributes make him the perfect advocate to showcase emerging technologies like 3D printing and multimedia production within educational settings that are available to anyone.

I’ve had the opportunity to have several conversations with Bannon over the last few months about how all Chicagoans can benefit from information innovations. Here are a few of the key points we discussed.

appoLearning: What is the role for a public library in a time when much of the world’s recorded information is now literally available at our fingertips?

Brian Bannon: We recently surveyed 30,000 people and 95% of respondents said they had used their branch for books in the last year, and 1 in every 4 patrons have used the Library for programs. Of those who have used the Library, 79% said they were very satisfied or extremely satisfied with Chicago Public Library services. And 72% responded that the Library was very important in their lives. Chicago Public Library is adapting. With our expanded digital offerings – like our new website with (periodical distributor) Zinio and movie and music distributor Hoopla, and our Android and iPhone apps – you can quite literally take the Library anywhere with you. We are a wonderful balance of both a community hub for Chicagoans, and something that is still accessible for people on the go in a digital world.

The Chicago Public Library’s new three-year strategy launched earlier this year. Our timeless priorities are to provide access to materials, information ideas and knowledge to all, and to serve our patrons effectively by providing them books, programs and programmatic resources. This strategy will continue to respond to the current and evolving needs of patrons by focusing on three specific areas: nurturing learning for children, teens and adults; supporting economic advancement; and strengthening communities.

appoLearning: How can the library best serve individuals without reliable and regular home Internet access?

Brian Bannon: The Chicago Public Library is already the largest provider of free internet in the city of Chicago, offering computers and Wi-Fi access at 80 locations across the city. In 2015, we plan to go even further with our tech lending with our “Internet to Go” program thanks to a grant from the Knight Foundation we received last year. Earlier in 2014 we submitted a proposal for Internet to Go to the Knight News Challenge and were one of the winners, receiving a $400,000 grant to pilot the project. The Internet to Go Program will lend out Wi-Fi hotspots to patrons for three weeks at a time.

While we aren’t ready to announce the locations at this time, we can share that we plan to pilot this program in three targeted neighborhood locations where internet access is particularly low. If the first three locations go well, we will expand to three additional locations. After that, we can explore how to engage this lending city-wide.

appoLearning: Describe examples of how specialists with deep access to technology and learning tools can take advantage of library resources.

Brian Bannon: Our Maker Lab offers access to digital technology, 3D printers, vinyl and laser cutters and even a robotic knitting machine. Some examples of people using the Maker Lab are:

  1. A patron who comes in regularly uses the laser cutter to design jewelry to sell on Etsy. She draws the designs and then converts them to digital format and laser cuts them here.

  2. A patron worked on a prototype for a dental hygiene instrument—he used the 3D printer to print out these prototypes.

  3. A patron came in to prototype some guitar hardware pieces. He has been printing them in 3D so he can then have molds produced in order to mass produce.

  4. A patron from a volunteer organization came in to laser cut name tags for the volunteers in her organization.

  5. A doctor from a teaching hospital is creating an image of a patient’s skull in order to have a life size model to see where the physical defects are in order to see how they will need to be repaired. It would cost many hundreds of dollars to have this done elsewhere.


appoLearning: Explain the motivation behind installing a Maker Lab within the Harold Washington Center.

Brian Bannon: The Maker Lab began as the first installation in a series of experimental offerings of our Innovation Lab. It’s a hands-on, collaborative learning environment designed to expose Chicagoans to 21st century technology. Patrons come together to share knowledge, design and create. In its first 9 months, our Maker Lab had 42,000 visitors and will be open through June 2015 thanks to a grant from the Motorola Mobility Foundation through Chicago Public Library Foundation. The Library’s Maker Lab brings the latest in technology to patrons from all over the city – in a free and welcoming environment where they can master the skills needed to join the maker community.

These skills are essential in the advanced manufacturing world and skills needed to imagine the future. Inventables donated 3D printers to our Maker Lab prior to opening. Inspired by our Maker Lab’s success, Inventables (a Chicago-based retailer and promoter of 3D Printing equipment) will be donating 3D printers to other libraries across the United States.

appoLearning: Beyond providing access to knowledge and reading materials, libraries can serve as a place to foster social and collaborative learning. What is your approach to this, particularly for middle school and high school-aged students?

Brian Bannon: Opened in 2009, YOUmedia was the first space devoted to high school teens at the Chicago Public Library, occupying a 5,500-square-foot space on the ground floor of our central library, Harold Washington Library Center, in downtown Chicago. We now have expanded this program to 11 locations. The design of the space is based on the research of Professor Mizuko Ito and colleagues, Living and Learning with Digital Media (2008).

His ethnographic study of more than 700 youth found that young people participate with digital media in three ways: they “hang out” with friends in social spaces such as Facebook; they “mess around” or tinker with digital media, making simple videos, playing online games or posting pictures in Flickr; they “geek out” in online groups that facilitate exploration of their core interests.

We see the library as a node on a teen’s pathway to lifelong learning, and we connect teens to other learning opportunities that will lead to skill-building as well as college and career development. YOUmedia connects teens to mentors, 21st century technology, and a space where their social skills and learning can be cultivated in a safe environment.

YOUmedia operates as a drop-in, out-of-school learning environment for teens to develop skills in digital media, STEM and making. We encourage participants to create rather than consume, and teens are encouraged to learn based on self-interest through intergenerational and peer collaborations. Teens learn how to code, record music and videos, create art through different mediums and are encouraged to explore 21st century technology.


Last month Bannon introduced and outlined the Chicago Library’s three-year plan to the City Club of Chicago. You can view a video of that presentation here:

Here are key excerpts from Bannon’s talk.

On providing information access to all Chicago citizens:

Today, we live not just in the information age, but in an economy that is based on knowledge. Known as the “knowledge economy.” This idea has been around since Peter Drucker coined the phrase “knowledge economy” in the 1960s. It refers to a global economy that is driven by competitive advantage and is based on what ideas we can develop rather than what we can do with our hands. It’s about intellectual creativity rather than physical power.

Today, more people have more access to more information than at any other time in human history. But that access is not equal. Cities are becoming more important almost by the day. Right now, half the world’s population lives in cities. By 2050, that percentage is expected to hit two-thirds. That will make cities incubators for innovation. It also means that, for Chicago to compete in this borderless economic frontier, we must ensure that Chicagoans are informed, creative, entrepreneurial, and innovative. It also means that our children must become lifelong learners who are able to absorb and utilize new information. That’s exactly what our Chicago Public Library system is in a position to deliver.

But, as a city, we have some barriers to overcome. One of those barriers is the divide between those who have broadband access and those who don’t. About 32 percent of Chicagoans are without broadband access at home. 19 percent don’t use the Internet at all. That means too many children in too many neighborhoods lack access to the information and education that would lead them to a successful life in the 21st century economy. This challenge is impacting our neighborhoods and putting our city at a competitive disadvantage. Mayor Emanuel, our board, and I believe we can make significant progress in closing this informational and educational divide by reinvigorating our neighborhood public libraries. We must push our neighborhood libraries into the future…

On Creating 21st Century Skills for Chicago Citizens:

Together, we have added new neighborhood libraries with twenty-first century capacity, increased Internet and computer access by adding cutting-edge digital media services, expanded support for kids and families, and we are transforming the library system into a hub for digital learning. Because of these investments, Chicagoans are using the library in greater numbers than at any point in history. Now, let me take you on a quick tour of our 21st century Chicago Public Library. And I promise you, this is not the library of books, card catalogues, and microfilm that you might remember from yesteryear…

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