New Media and the Chicago Public Library: Interview with Mary Dempsey, Part II

Tuesday, May 31, 2011 at 11:52 am

This post is part of a series of interviews highlighting leaders in the field of New Learning (what we call “NLI at Inquiry”). Recently, we interviewed Chicago Public Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey on subjects including how the library has reshaped the city, new media’s role in the library, and her thoughts on the future of urban libraries. Here, in Part II of the interview, she discusses the ways that CPL’s new media learning center, YOUmedia, meets the needs of youth in Chicago and her thoughts on how urban libraries will evolve to meet students’ needs in the future.

Listen to the full interview here:


Commissioner Dempsey, what specific needs is the YOUmedia center meeting for Chicago's youth?

It’s a place for youth to come and feel comfortable and welcome. We don’t even advertise it. But through the word of mouth and their whole social network, it’s out there dramatically. I would say 50% of the kids who are part of YOUmedia don’t physically show up there; they are in the social network, and they are talking with their peers, critiquing each other’s work, and enhancing their writing skills just through the social network – or they’re appearing in person every day, or once a week, or once every couple of weeks at YOUmedia. There are some kids who come every day after school faithfully. I guarantee these are not kids who would have normally come to a public library after school, but they see this as a place to spark their creativity, to feel safe, to do their homework, to work with their peers from other schools. We serve kids from high schools across the city: public, parochial, private schools… In any given day, you’ll see kids in ROTC uniforms working with kids dressed like hip-hop artists. In a normal school setting, those are two groups that may not necessarily mix. And you’ll see kids working beautifully together, because they’re coming together around interest-driven learning. It’s a project that excites them and they want to work on it together, whether it’s art, or science, or technology, or poetry. We’re seeing them – without any difficulty at all – kids from different high schools talking to each other, working together; different age groups talking together and working together. There are none of the tensions that they might be expected to emulate in the outside world; none of that is brought into the library. So they see the library in a whole new light as a place that is really engaging their brain, which we love.

How do you envision the future of urban libraries?

I envision the future of urban libraries as very bright, because I think urban libraries understand that, in order to continue to be that place of lifelong learning and information literacy for the people of our cities, we have to stay ahead of the technology curve, we have to embrace new ideas; but we don’t have to just willy-nilly embrace any technology. We have to say, “How does this serve our mission?” In our case, YOUmedia worked for us because it was something that we fashioned together, that we created together. We brought the print, the book collections in with the technology, mentors, and librarians. I see that as the future. I see urban libraries as continuing to be those very important, strong community anchors that really provide a higher quality of life for families, for children, for small business owners, for seniors in every neighborhood of our city. It’s one of the reasons why Mayor Daley made it a point to build 59 new libraries in his 22 years in office. And it’s why Mayor Emanuel [the new incumbent] is very interested in what we are doing, where we’re building, and how we’re using digital learning to continue to enhance our mission. We will always have print, and we will always have technology – and the balance will be something that we’ll constantly work on – but we know there’s nothing wrong with embracing both of those formats in order to provide better access for what people need, whether it’s fiction, or nonfiction, or movies, or music, or research, or their own content that they generate themselves using our technology – this is all part of lifelong learning; it’s all part of quality of life; it’s all part of an appreciation for the people that live in the city by the government that helps support them.

Special Thanks

We’d like to extend a special thanks to Chicago Public Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey for taking the time to talk with us.

Additional resources on Chicago Public Library, YOUmedia, and urban libraries: