What Makes Chicago’s Public Library System the Best in the Country?


Chicago has a lot of amazing aspects. From a robust food and drink scene to a skyline that’s unmatched, it’s hard not to fall in love with the city. But there’s one huge highlight of the city that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves: the Chicago Public Library (CPL) system.

Chicago’s library system isn’t what typically comes to mind when you think of a library—it’s more like a citywide creative and intellectual incubator. In 2013, CPL received a $1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that allowed for a collaboration with Aarhus Public Libraries to pioneer an innovative library model. The same year, a study out of the Information Science Department of the Heinrich Heine University Dusseldorf found that Chicago’s public library system was the third-best in the world, trailing only Vancouver and Montreal’s systems.

There are a lot of moving parts that go into making CPL so successful and innovative. But what exactly makes it the best public library system in the country, and how can other cities learn from its success?

Chicago’s public libraries have something for everyone


Modern libraries are about a lot more than just books, and CPL is a prime example of such. From music practice rooms to cutting-edge 3D printing technology to a plethora of community programming, the system literally has something for everyone.

“While CPL’s timeless mission will remain unchanged, the library will continue to respond to its patrons’ current and evolving needs by nurturing learning, supporting economic advancement and strengthening communities,” said Brain Bannon, Library Commissioner.

By having a system that’s not only open to the public, but also curated to the diverse city of Chicago, CPL offers opportunities that are unparalleled in any other public library system in the country (and perhaps the world).

The sheer number of neighborhood libraries in Chicago is simply astounding


CPL’s downtown Harold Washington Library is a massive, flagship branch that’s the face of the entire system. But there are more than 75 other neighborhood branches that not only empower the communities in which they reside, but also reflect them.

“The library continues to be a community anchor, offering programs that help residents access the information they need in their lives,” Bannon said. “We are often the most important gathering place in a community, an anchor, where patrons meet, discuss and discover.”

There are 77 unique community areas across Chicago, all of which boast a different style, feel and culture. When put into perspective, fact that CPL has 80 locations is simply baffling.

YOUmedia gives a voice to the next generation


If you want an idea of the paths to success that CPL offers, look no further than Chance the Rapper. In 2011, the Chicago native recorded his first mixtape “#10Day” at the Harold Washington Library’s YOUmedia Studio, which works to offer resources for teens that can inspire their future careers. From music production to graphic design, it puts digital media technology in the hands of kids that will eventually go on to become the next generation of thought leaders and creative minds.

“YOUmedia builds on teens’ interest in technology and motivates them to create, innovate and become active learners,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “By increasing access to digital media and safe, inviting spaces, we are empowering teens to engage technology in new ways and providing Chicago’s teens hands-on experience and training for the jobs of tomorrow.”

New digital media jobs are popping up every day, and whether students leverage YOUmedia to lead them on a career path or (like Chance) use it to record a groundbreaking mixtape, Chicago Public Library has created a model that fosters creativity on a level that’s simply unmatched by other public library systems.

CPL’s Maker Lab literally shows Chicago the future


Perhaps the most cutting-edge facets of the entire CPL system is the Harold Washington branch’s Maker Lab. It offers workshops for the public on technologies ranging from 3D printing to laser cutting. Most colleges don’t even boast the types of technology available in the Maker Lab, much less public library systems.

“With a robust and diverse maker ecosystem in Chicago, the Maker Lab has carved out a niche as the entry point for Chicago makers,” said Mark Andersen, Director of Learning and Economic Advancement at CPL. “Patrons have a low-barrier opportunity to try new tools and techniques and are referred to other maker spaces for further, more in-depth exploration.”

With week-long programming and workshops, the Maker Lab adheres to the principle of “something for everyone.” Whether you’re an engineering student or a hobbyist, the lab is one of the coolest things happening in Chicago right now, and a great reason for Chicagoans to be glowing with pride for their city.

You can explore the Chicago Public Library’s Maker Lab and learn more about the entire CPL system at the Become a Maker with the Chicago Public Library Lab at Chicago Ideas Week on Monday, October 17.

All images courtesy Chicago Public Library

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