Press Release

Mary Dempsey’s Acceptance Speech for Public Humanities Award 4/27/06

Illinois Humanities Council
April 27, 2006
The 2006 Public Humanities Award

  • IHC Chair Art Sussman, luncheon chair, Jack Wing and the members of the IHC Board
  • Executive Director Kristina Valaitis and her staff
  • Board of trustees of the Chicago Public Library
  • Board of trustees and staff of the CPLF
  • Secretary of State and State Librarian Jesse White
  • Elected officials
  • My CPL colleagues
  • Distinguished librarians from across the country
  • Cheryl Johnson Odom and Pennie Holmes Brinson
  • Family and friends of the humanities

I am profoundly grateful to the Illinois Humanities Council for this very generous recognition of my work and the work of the Chicago Public Library. I am but one member of a large and incredibly talented group of individuals who are responsible for the operation of the Library we love. Thank you for including so many members of the Chicago

Public Library family at today’s luncheon and for publicly acknowledging the value and the impact of their work. I consider it a particular privilege to work with them and with our incredible Board of Directors and Library Foundation everyday. It is their striving for excellence and their pride in the mission of the Library that has made Chicago’s library system, a model for our nation.

As a result of their combined efforts, the Chicago Public Library brings the worlds of literature, art, philosophy, dance, poetry, music, and history to every neighborhood of our city, seven days a week. In the name of all of these people here today and all of our colleagues who are not here because they are engaged in doing this very important work right now in libraries across our city, I am proud to accept this 2006 Public Humanities Award, and to join the distinguished ranks of the previous honorees.

This award is one of the more important recognitions that the Library has received in its 134 year history because we hold the work of the Illinois Humanities Council in such high esteem. In a world increasingly driven by technology, celebrity and ephemera, the Council’s unflagging advocacy on behalf of the humanities in Illinois is an affirmation of the infinite creativity of the human mind. The Humanities Council has honored our Library with grants in support of many important programs. As you have just seen in Pennie Brinson’s story, the Council’s Odyssey Project reinforces the role of libraries in the educational continuum of countless Illinoisans. Ralph Waldo Emerson called libraries, the People’s University, and thanks to the Illinois Humanities Council, we continue to play that role in the lives of people across this City and across this state in meaningful and important ways.

What makes me especially happy is the realization that the Chicago Public Library is receiving this recognition because every single day, in neighborhoods from Little Village to Jefferson Park, from Mount Greenwood to Uptown and from West Pullman to Edgebrook, we are living and fulfilling our mission – which is simply to preserve and support the freedom of all people to read, learn and discover.

When we first coined that mission statement almost a dozen years ago, it was an ideal that we hoped we would someday achieve. Thank you for celebrating how far we have come in those twelve years.

As I said a few minutes ago, we could not fulfill that mission were it not for the work of the women and men of the Chicago Public Library. Neither could we fulfill our mission without the unparalleled support, counsel and wisdom we receive from our Board of Trustees whom you also honor by this award, the trustees and generous funding partners of the Chicago Public Library Foundation, Mayor Richard Daley and the members of the Chicago City Council.

I would like to echo Art’s earlier acknowledgement of them and thank our

Board of Trustees – represented here today by Board President Jayne Thompson and her fellow trustees: Cherryl Thomas, Crisitina Benitez, Paul Dykstra, Tina Tchen, Mellody Hobson and Jay Jordan; and

the board and staff of the Chicago Public Library Foundation, represented here today by Foundation Chairman Marshall Field, Chair Emeritus Cindy Pritzker, President and CEO Rhona Frazin, board members: and

Secretary of State and State Librarian Jesse White whose financial support for the Chicago Public Library and for libraries across this state is vital and so very much appreciated.

Mayor Daley was unable to join us today, but if he were here , I know how he would explain the extraordinary growth and increasing prominence of our city’s public library system. The public library, he frequently says, is the heartbeat of the community. At a recent conference held here in Chicago, Mayor Daley spoke to elected officials and library directors from cities across our country, and told them “the only way to improve the quality of life in America is through education, and libraries are part of the education system…. When you invest in libraries, it’s good for the community, it’s good for education, it’s good for the economy and it’s good for families.”

His vision and his support have emboldened us to develop and implement our capital program, our cultural partnerships, our technological innovations, and our nationally recognized outreach programs that support reading and learning in more than forty languages in 79 neighborhoods.

I am very happy that some of the members of our City Council are here today as well. My thanks to Alderman Edward Burke, Alderman Tom Allen, Alderman Rey Colon, Alderman Ted Matlak and Alderman Emma Mitts for joining us. Their willingness and that of their colleagues in City Council, to fund and support the work of the Library sets Chicago apart from other cities across this country. In New York, Boston, Pittsburgh Philadelphia, and in countless other cities, public libraries fight an often futile annual battle to raise their funding levels and to make good library service a civic priority. In Chicago, on the other hand, libraries matter.

Chicago’s public libraries enjoy a level of public and private financial support that is unmatched anywhere in the United States.

It is this shared vision which has allowed us to make our dreams a reality.

Those beautiful new branch library buildings which have been built over the past decade, welcoming thousands of patrons each week, would not exist had our aldermen not supported the Mayor’s program to rebuild the Chicago Public Library. Our libraries are built or renovated, stocked and operated primarily with taxpayers’ dollars, and it’s not always popular to raise taxes.

And so each time we build a new branch library, I remember the words of 38th ward alderman Tom Allen. In 1996, during the City Council debate over whether to pass a tax increase to support branch library construction Alderman Allen said simply, “I oppose higher taxes for the residents of my ward, but I will vote in support of this measure to pay for library construction because a new library will be a source of lifelong learning for the people of our neighborhood.” That measure which resulted in the first of two multi million library bond programs, passed the City Council by a vote of 47 to 3. Today, the Austin Irving branch is one of our more heavily used branches and no one has complained about how much that library cost to build nor questions whether the money we put into book collections, computers and staff salaries is worth the investment.

I also want to acknowledge and commend Alderman Ed Burke, alderman of the 14th ward, Chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee, and himself a published author. He has long supported programs to highlight the arts and reading in our libraries as well as the construction of new libraries. In fact, just this morning, Alderman Burke dedicated a new reading park in his ward, not far from the Archer Heights Branch Library which he helped us build.

And I think too about 35th ward alderman Rey Colon who represents Logan Square. Alderman Colon was elected in 2003 in a hotly contested race against the incumbent. Within just days of wining the election, he faced fierce criticism from his own supporters who opposed the location where the library proposed to build a new branch. In good faith, the Library had worked with his predecessor to identify and purchase property on which to build the new branch. Ald. Colon could have listened to his supporters and indefinitely delayed the construction of a new library, but he did not. “This library” he said, “is too important to the people who will use it, to have it caught up in an argument over who selected the site. Build the library without delay on the site you have chosen, so that the people of Logan Square can use it.” That new branch library opened in September 2005. No matter what hour of the day or evening you stop in that branch today, it is filled with the happy sounds and sights of library users of every age, background, ethnic group and education level.

With Alderman Ted Matlak of the 32nd ward which serves Bucktown and Wicker Park, our challenge was to select and purchase a site before the condo developers did. We could not have had a more assiduous partner in our quest to find the perfect site for that new branch at a price we could afford. Even after we purchased the land and began construction, his assistance continued. An additional parcel behind the new building was purchased by the Alderman with his own discretionary ward fund, so that a larger reading garden could be created for the branch. At his request, a new stoplight was installed at the intersection so that our library patrons can safely cross Milwaukee Avenue to come to the library. That new branch will open next month.

Also opening next month is a new branch at Chicago Avenue and Lamon, on Chicago’s west side, in the 37th ward represented by Ald. Emma Mitts. When we began looking for property in the 37th ward for a first time library, Ald. Mitts had also just won a hard fought election against an incumbent and many were waiting for her to make a misstep. When we approached her about selecting land for a new library, she said, put the library where the children and their parents can walk to it. Put the library in the heart of the Chicago Avenue commercial district even if it means taking a property off the tax rolls. Because the property you will be removing will most likely be a liquor store or a place where bad elements congregate. Let’s send the message, she said, that the library is where all people should feel safe and let’s send the message that the Austin community believes in the potential that a new library represents.

Thanks to the courage, the stewardship and the vision, of Mayor Daley, these aldermen and their City Council colleagues, Secretary of State Jesse White, and the wisdom and guidance of our Board of Directors, fifty two new neighborhood libraries have been built in our city since 1989.

As the Illinois Humanities Council has acknowledged today, it is through these neighborhood libraries – and I include in that group our central library, the Harold Washington Library Center which serves its own very large and unique downtown neighborhood – it is through these libraries, that we are able to give the people of Chicago a world of possibilities.

For that is really what a library does. We open our doors, and we invite you to explore the wonders that the human mind creates.

Great writing has a transformative quality. It allows a child in Pilsen to follow Odysseus on his fantastic adventures in the ancient world. It shuts out the noise of the subway and invokes the magical spells of Isabel Allende. Great writers like James Joyce and Toni Morrison weave fantastic tapestries with words so magnificently strung together that we are left breathless. While others, like Willa Cather, William Trevor and Gwendolyn Brooks evoke the most complex human emotions with subtle and achingly beautiful simplicity.

I think the thing that has always attracted me to libraries is that the wisdom of the universe really is contained in a library. And the library also contains the great successes and the spectacular failures of the universe. The record of our highs and our lows. The reassurance that we are all imperfect and the optimism that encourages us to continue. All this is contained within the collections of a library.

The possibilities are endless and are ours for the asking. And although an important portion of what we do in libraries today is related to information technology, I derive a deeper satisfaction from knowing that our voluminous collections of music, dance, the visual and applied arts, philosophy, great literature and poetry stand ready to be plucked from their shelves by everyone from the casual browser to the most learned scholar.

For what would our world be without the arts? And what would the arts become if they were not accessible to all people? Since 1988, thanks to the generosity of the Chicago Public Library Foundation and its donors, the Library has added more than $2.4 million dollars worth of collections in the humanities to our shelves. These additional funds from the Library Foundation and from Chicago’s generous corporate and philanthropic community supplement our funding from the City of Chicago, and enable us to bring the very finest of the humanities directly to patrons from every walk of life.

John Updike was once asked, who is your audience, for whom do you write? and he replied, “When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but a vague spot a little east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teen-aged boy finding them, and having them speak to him. The reviews, the stacks in Brentano’s [bookstore] are just hurdles to get over, to place the books on that [library] shelf.”

The Chicago Public Library is an instrument of civilization, a place for renewal, imagination and intellectual development because we are present and we are able to open our doors and invite tens of thousands of Chicagoans inside every day. And, I assure you, that despite the steady use of technology in our libraries, it is those books, those singular and tangible instruments of human creativity, that continue to draw people into our doors in increasing numbers. Every time the City opens a new branch library, and everytime the Chicago Public Library Foundation enhances our programming or collections, library usage, circulation and attendance surges. In Chicago, the Peoples University, the library, has become that great third place where no entrance exam is required, and where community and intellectual curiosity are nourished and encouraged.

And so, how do we ensure that all of this we celebrate today continues? What contributions can each of us make to the future of the humanities, of libraries, of education in our city and in our country?

First and foremost, we must state unequivocally, that ours will be, must be, a city of readers. It is the only way to ensure that our city and its people will thrive in our global economy. Our city will not survive, if we do not have an educated workforce. Our city will not prosper if we lose our middle class to the school systems of the suburbs and if we fail to eliminate illiteracy and the poverty it breeds. Our city will not eliminate the digital information divide, if we do not ensure that all children first learn to read and comprehend the written word with proficiency.

Thanks to you, the Chicago Public Library is already actively engaged in supporting reading, discovery and lifelong learning in every corner of our City.

And we invite you to join us in this effort to help Chicago become and remain a city of readers.

So, although I have talked to you today in lofty and somewhat philosophical terms about the essence of the humanities and the role that libraries play in civilization, I wish to leave you with four very practical and common sense messages. Creating a city of readers is everyone’s responsibility and here is how to begin. I welcome you to join us in spreading these four simple messages:

1. Get a library card and use it. It’s free. Even if you live in the suburbs, a Chicago Public Library card is free. Our collections are vast and current – from bestsellers to valuable art, music and science books; in print, online, on CD and in downloadable audio format. And not being able to find a library is not a valid excuse. As you have already heard, CPL is everywhere.

2. Read aloud with a child for twenty minutes a day. Research tells us that 75% of a child’s brain is formed in the first 12 months of life. Research also tells us that if you read aloud to a child, for only twenty minutes a day, starting from birth, that child will start school ready to read. Most middle class children start preschool knowing their alphabet and their numbers because someone took the time to read more than 1000 stories aloud to them between the ages of 0 and 5. Most poor children start kindergarten or first grade not knowing the alphabet or their numbers and having had very few books read aloud to them. They are not ready to read in kindergarten or first grade, and even with the efforts of extraordinary teachers, they may never catch up.

3. Have books in your home. If a child sees books in the home, the lessons of the value of books and reading are reinforced. How to do this easily and with no cost? See point number 1. Get a library card and use it.

4. Get caught in the act of reading. Children are sponges. They watch and model what the adults in their life do. If adults get caught in the act of reading, their children are more likely to become lifelong readers. And adults who read are much more interesting people anyway.

Finally, allow me a note of personal privilege and the opportunity to publicly thank my parents, who are here today, who did all four of those things I just mentioned and more, to instill in my three brothers, my sister, who is also here, and in me, a love of books, music, art and learning. It is they who sparked my passion for reading and libraries. And my husband, Philip whose selfless generosity and pride in my accomplishments energizes and sustains me to do this work. I am so fortunate that he shares my belief that the public library can and must reflect, elevate, renew, nurture and delight all the people of our great City of Chicago.

My thanks again to the Illinois Humanities Council for this award and for supporting and highlighting the work of the Chicago Public Library, and my congratulations to the Council for its unswerving dedication to the humanities.

Thank you very much.