Twelve years ago, the Chicago Tribune called the city’s public library system “the runt of the litter” among local cultural fixtures. Only six years later, the newspaper was touting it as “a national showcase. Since then, the Chicago Public Library has continued to burnish its reputation as a powerful educational, social and economic force in the city.
The person largely responsible for the turnaround is Mary Dempsey, a prominent attorney who was appointed library commissioner by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1994. Although she had earned a master’s degree in library science from the University of Illinois and worked in libraries in her hometown and at a Chicago law firm, some local groups expressed concern about her lack of experience in the field, especially as an administrator.
But Dempsey quickly demonstrated exceptional management skills and political savvy. She developed the library’s first-ever strategic plan, which focused on rebuilding the human and physical infrastructure. The centerpiece was a professional development and training program for all 1,300 employees. Then, as a logical follow-up to the 1991 opening of the flagship Harold Washington Library Center, Dempsey and Daley persuaded the city council to approve two bond issues that raised $170 million for neighborhood libraries.
The result has been an unparalleled construction and renovation program: Since Dempsey came on board, the city has built 40 new branches. This effort has not only improved the 79-branch network — many of whose facilities had been located in small, leased storefronts — but anchored the revitalization of entire neighborhoods. When the private sector saw the city investing in handsome, freestanding library buildings, new businesses, restaurants and mixed-income housing often followed.
Chicago now is considered a national model in the use of libraries as magnets for development. “I’ve purchased and knocked down more liquor stores, more no-tell motels, more really crummy and dilapidated, burned-out buildings in neighborhood after neighborhood and replaced them with libraries than I’d ever thought I’d do in my life,” Dempsey told attendees at the American Library Association’s annual meeting last summer in Chicago.
The 53-year-old library chief hasn’t been allowed to rest on her laurels. The same year he appointed Dempsey, Mayor Daley also took over the city’s school system. In 2001, when a search was underway for a new superintendent, he asked Dempsey to take the job. She declined. But early last year, faced with a minority-contracting scandal in the purchasing department, Daley again turned to his long-serving cabinet member. This time, Dempsey agreed to a six-month stint as acting chief procurement officer. “Mary Dempsey is a tough, detail-oriented administrator,” the mayor declared. “She has demonstrated an ability to put long-term procedures in place... to be solidly authoritative and unerringly thorough.”
Indeed, Dempsey undertook a “total scrubbing” of the department, streamlining the purchasing process, eliminating a backlog of contracts and revamping the affirmative-action program in an effort to identify white-owned businesses that were using women and minorities as fronts. “The credibility of the set-aside program was in shreds,” says Jay Stewart, executive director of Chicago’s Better Government Association. “Daley not only needed someone he trusted to go in there and fix the problem, but Dempsey had the will and the stature apart from the mayor to do what no one had done before: Namely, apply the existing rules.”
Several of the firms that Dempsey’s staff fingered as fraudulent were run by powerful political players, including major fund-raisers for both Daley and Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. “She ruffled a lot of feathers and made some enemies,” Stewart adds. “There were many sacred cows you couldn’t touch, and Dempsey touched all of them.” For her part, Dempsey describes her time overseeing what she dubbed Camp Procurement as “exhilarating and exhausting.”
Meanwhile, in her off-hours, Dempsey continued to monitor progress as the library system completed its biggest single-year expansion. She returned to the library full time last fall, and “CPL 2010,” a plan outlining areas of strength to build upon as well as areas of new strategic opportunity, was released this summer. “A decade ago, we basically wrote a business plan,” Dempsey says. “This one was scarier. It pushed us to think about the role of the urban public library in the 21st century and how to measure its impact — on both education and economic development.”
Dempsey’s own impact is clear. But, she insists, “I want there to be a strong CPL long after Mary Dempsey. It’s not one person; it’s a whole system.”
— Anne Jordan
Photo by Ralf-Finn Hestoft