Brian Bannon, the new library commissioner for the Chicago Public Libraries, stands next in the special collections room at the library, Wednesday, April 18, 2012. The books on the shelf were donated to the city by the country of England after the Great Chicago Fire. (Photo for the Tribune by Alex Garcia / May 4, 2012)
Budget cuts aren't the only enemies that libraries face, he said. "In our profession right now, there's an absence of leadership."
"Lots of reasons," he replied. "People are retiring, moving out. Great leadership like Mary Dempsey's — well, unfortunately, we don't have that at every one of our great libraries."
And so there it was, suddenly right out in the open: The name that hovers above any conversation about the library. Dempsey, a native Chicagoan with a library degree as well as a law degree, married to one of the city's most prominent attorneys, is a woman whose deep love of literature is rivaled only by her impeccable political instincts and savvy management skills. She served longer in Daley's cabinet than anyone else. She built and renovated branches; she put the One Book, One Chicago program on the map. And she did the seemingly impossible: She proved to the world that Daley, long regarded as a man engaged in a hostile standoff with the English language, is actually a devoted reader.
Dempsey, in other words, is a tough act to follow. Even Ben Joravsky, one of her most persistent critics, admitted that his reservations about Bannon aren't personal; they are, rather, the same hesitation he would have about anyone who followed Dempsey.
"It's really hard" to imagine another library commissioner, said Joravsky, a scrappy and astute political writer and blogger for the Chicago Reader, who has been outspoken in his opposition to Emanuel's budget priorities and especially aghast at what he sees as Emanuel's "cavalier, even hostile" attitude toward the public library.
"When all is said and done, I appreciated the job Mary Dempsey did," Joravsky declared. "I wish we had a person like her who had the guts to stand up to a powerful person. She showed an independence to Emanuel that no other public servant in the Rahm era has shown."
Joravsky termed the transition from Dempsey to Bannon "a confused and clumsy handoff," adding, "I'm not sure, based on his [Bannon's] comments, what he believes about libraries."
Truth be told, no one can yet be sure, given Bannon's brief time in Chicago. His first day at work was March 19. But peering beyond his impressive résumé and talking to those who know him personally and professionally yields at least this much certainty: He will bring a different look and feel to Chicago's library system. A different vibe.
As one of Bannon's former bosses, Deborah Jacobs, put it: "I wondered if Chicago would be bold enough to hire someone like him. There is no doubt in my mind that he'll be successful."
Jacobs, director of Global Libraries for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, added, "I'm excited to see how Brian will lead Chicago."
The city's readers just might be in for the ride of their lives.
Books and berries
Some librarians may have dreamed away the hours of their childhoods in comfy, climate-controlled reading nooks — but not Bannon.
He was out picking strawberries. And not as a casual lark, either. It was a paying job that helped his family deal with the bills.
"Eight-hour days in the sun, on your knees," he recalled. "One year I was one of the top pickers. I was really into it. I picked one ton of berries. And I made $312." Plainly the total is branded on his mind; he rattled off the number the same way you'd recite the year of your birth when getting your driver's license renewed.
His parents divorced amicably when he was still an infant, Bannon said, and he grew up with his mother — an artist and florist — in an old farmhouse outside Bellingham, Wash. Summers and holidays, he was shipped off to his father's home near Ashland, Ore. In both places, the living was rough and rural, the chores seemingly endless. "I call both of those places home," he said. "We worked hard, but we played hard. It was a fun childhood. Sometimes — and here I am, generalizing wildly — I think kids who grow up in urban environments don't get the same opportunity to know how to work really hard."
Bannon graduated from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., with a major in psychology and gay and lesbian studies. The latter subject required him to set up an independent course of study; it was during that research, he said, that he began to realize how crucial libraries and librarians have been in helping to promulgate social justice. "I was struck by the seminal role played by libraries in being champions for learning and for opposition to censorship," he said. "They've pushed our country forward."
Chrystie Hill, a college friend who met Bannon in 1995 and with whom he has remained close, said, "He was one of the only out gay kids on campus, so everyone knew him. I thought he was very brave." They bonded during a long, soul-searching talk while crammed in a van with other students on their way from Tacoma to San Francisco to attend a human rights rally featuring Gloria Steinem and Jesse Jackson.