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Meet the Chief Librarian: Chris Brown

For Commissioner Chris Brown, joining Chicago Public Library feels like coming home.

Commissioner Chris Brown

It started in Chicago 

Commissioner Chris Brown is no stranger to the City of Big Shoulders. “I actually lived in Chicago for three years,” he shares. As a matter of fact, it was at the Uptown branch, a 20-something Chris decided to be a librarian.

“After an inspiring conversation with a children’s librarian, I went home and researched the requirements to get my library career started,” he explained. 

Upon his return to California, Commissioner Brown earned his master’s degree in Library and Information Science at San Jose State University. And as they say, the rest is history.

From a career path to a calling 

Commissioner Brown kickstarted his career as a library page and has worked at nearly every position in a library. “I remember just wanting to be part of the library community and learn from librarians. Being a page was also a great way of getting to know what people are searching for,” he recalls. It is this connection with library users and the community at large that guided Commissioner Brown as he became Senior Community Library Manager and most recently, Deputy County Librarian.

“Understanding our patrons’ needs and being responsive and inclusive of these needs is crucial to the Library’s mission,” he explains.

“And it is in this process of reflection that we also ask, ‘Who are we overlooking?’ ‘Who is not in our buildings?’ Who is being left out and how can bring them in?’” Commissioner Brown continued.

His vision of equitable library services could be clearly seen at the War Ink Project, an initiative he brought to life in partnership with Contra Costa County Library and StoryCorps. “10% of the adult population in that area were veterans,” Commissioner Brown shares. Wanting to support this segment of the community who served the country, Contra Costa County library led a coalition of veteran stakeholders. Through interviews and surveys a theme emerged of “veterans being challenged by the return home from service, and not having their experience reflected back home,” he explains.

To empower veterans to share their stories, Commissioner Brown and a coalition of partners created a platform that gives veterans a voice through their art─tattoos.

It is this same vision of equity that fueled Commissioner Brown as he worked on expanding Sunday hours for all library branches at Sta. Clara country and worked with parents of court-involved youth.

It is this same vision of equity that he brings with him to Chicago as he leads 81 branches across 77 neighborhoods.

Building a more equitable Chicago Public Library

Returning to Chicago as library commissioner feels like coming full circle for Commissioner Brown. “What drew me to come back to Chicago was the same thing that drew me to live here all those years ago─the diverse neighborhoods,” he shares.

“Libraries are about exploring our potential as people. What is unique about CPL is our branch presence in every neighborhood. Our libraries are critical in exploring the potential of our neighborhoods. There are no higher stakes than that.”

Three months into the job and Commissioner Brown has visited 81 branches, talking to staff and exploring the neighborhoods. “Our librarians are at the frontlines of service. They know our patrons intimately, working with them every day. I am in awe of how our librarians have adapted programs based on the needs of the community, especially in COVID-19. I want to learn about their creative inspiring work, and find ways to support them,” he explains.

What does a more equitable library look like? “Equity means every Chicagoan in every neighborhood has the opportunity to learn and explore their potential,” Commissioner Brown answers.

“Equity is in our Library’s DNA. CPL has already made strides in ensuring Chicagoans have access to the Library’s resources and services with the fine-free policy and Sunday hours expansion.”

But there is more work to do, especially as we recover and heal from the challenges of 2020. Commissioner Brown believes that the Library’s success depends on the engagement of the community. He is excited to work with the City and the City’s Chief Equity Officer to foster healing, learning, and restoration in Chicago through the Together, We Heal initiative and Mayor Lightfoot’s Invest South/West initiative.

He is also eager to partner with the Chicago Public Library Foundation, grassroots organizations, and Chicagoans to shape equitable services across all our branches.

“Community input is vital to equity work. We want to be more inclusive of who’s at the table informing our City library,” he shared.

A true library champion 

The thread that runs through Commissioner Brown’s career is his love for libraries and his belief in what they could be. As someone whose life has been profoundly impacted by the library, Commissioner Brown knows firsthand how libraries can transform individuals and communities.

Chicago Public Library has an impressive legacy of transformative learning and youth development. From our Virtual Teacher in the Library which supports students after school, to YOUmedia which guides teens to explore and realize their potential─CPL empowers Chicagoans to build and develop lifelong learning skills such as digital literacy.” 

“What a positive force Libraries are. In a country that can be divided on issues, there is a consensus in America of the Library’s role libraries play in giving everyone a chance to succeed,” Commissioner Brown adds.

Chris beyond the Library 

A literature major, Commissioner Brown spends his free time reading. His current favorite? Sweat the Technique by Rakim. He also likes to revisit classics like Fyodor’s Dostoevsky’s The Brother Karamazov. “That book has my favorite quote,” he beams. Then proceeding to recite from memory, he shared the following line:

“If we only have one good memory that can be a means of saving us.”

For Commissioner Brown, this quote is timelier than ever. “At a time of unprecedented change, holding on to memories strongly tied to our identity individually and collectively will help us navigate the uncertainty of the future,” he reflects.

“What are you looking forward to exploring in Chicago?” I ask to conclude the conversation. “My wife and I are foodies so we can’t wait to eat our way through Chicago,” he laughs.

Welcome to Chicago, Commissioner Brown and we look forward to advancing the work with you and Chicago Public Library.

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