Chicago Public Library is more than just a repository of books. For many Chicagoans, the Library is a special place where we make equally special memories.
Chicago is one of the most diverse cities in the U.S. People from all walks of life call this great city home. Regardless of neighborhood, there is one thing we all have in common – we all have a library memory close to our hearts. As 2018 draws to an end, I want to reminisce on a few personal library stories that that many of us can relate to, stories that I picked up on recent trips to various CPL branches.
Growing up in the library
Raise your hand if you grew up in the library! Many of the visitors I spoke with almost always associate CPL with fond childhood memories. Most would smile and exclaim, “I was raised in the library!” They would delight me with their stories describing a sense of wonder as they wandered around the shelves until a book caught their attention. They gleefully recall their 7-year old selves feeling triumphant as they ran to the checkout counter with their finds. Who knew something as simple as checking out books could feel so exhilarating?
One of the reasons why the library is at the heart of Chicagoans’ childhood is accessibility. The library is open to everyone, from every background and neighborhood. As Eliza, a loyal CPL visitor said, “I always left the library feeling richer than when I arrived. For a little girl who grew up without much, it was nothing short of magical.”
And the tradition continues. These once young patrons are now parents. They, too, take their kids to the library. The experience is a little bit different these days but just as memorable. “You can do so much more than just read. Story times are interactive and engaging. Kids can play with puppets and toys. They can tinker and experiment,” Holly shares.
The library as a sanctuary
It’s ten minutes past three in the afternoon. The glass doors of Harold Washington Library Center’s YOUmedia open, and dozens of teenagers enter with excitement. After exchanging hellos and high fives, students head to their stations instinctively. Some tune up guitars while others pick up paintbrushes. There are those who retreat to a small recording studio. A couple of teens start tinkering with computers. A group head for the bookshelves. The after-school crowd in this corner of the library is noisy and chaotic, but I also pick up an aura of calm – everyone moving in cadence. And as I look around, I see lots of smiling faces. They are where they want to be.
Teens, then and now, have always found refuge in the library. It’s a safe space where they can discover new ideas through books. As CPL has become more immersive with programs like YOUmedia , the library is also a haven for teens to explore their interests while learning about career and college opportunities. “I didn’t even know I could draw until I tried sketching here at the library,” Asia, 17 says. Then she shows me a personal project she’s been working on for a couple of weeks, an exquisite 3D pop-up art piece. “The more I practice, the more confident I become,” she continues.
At the strike of five, Daniel, a YOUmedia mentor, gathers around a group of students for an informal roundtable discussion. “We do this regularly, where we talk about everything – from music to current events – and they just get to say what they feel. You would be surprised by the insights of these students. That’s why it is important they’re given a platform to be seen and heard,” he tells me.
By early evening, the teen space is still lively. You can hear the piano playing almost in rhythm to the chatter. Teens proudly show off their fashion displays. A group of boys huddled at the back invite me to watch their music video, a video they recorded and edited here. “That’s pretty cool, right?” One of them asks. As I watch them in their element, I get why the library is a sanctuary for so many of them. They have a place here, something they can call their own. And that is pretty cool.
A library of the past, present, and future
At 71-years old, Jorge has been visiting his local branch library regularly for the past 25 years. His love for the library is one that stands the test of time. “I used to go to the library after work. I worked in construction, so I was surrounded by noise for eight to ten hours a day. The library was a respite where I could find quiet, if only for a while.” That remains true today. Going to the library gives Jorge an excuse to turn off his phone and enjoy a book in silence.
An avid reader, Jorge, shared his love for books with his children. Trips to the library became a family affair. “By the time I had my children, we were a little more comfortable financially. We could afford to buy books, and we did. But just the same, I wanted them to experience the Library as I had,” Jorge explained.
Now retired, and with his kids all grown up, Jorge goes to the library twice or three times a week. “I guess you could say that aside from my wife, the library is the one constant in my life,” he laughs. Jorge’s love for the Library has grown deeper. “I still love the feeling of excitement when I read a new book. But I also love that I can go to the library to listen to music or watch videos. I love that I can talk to a CyberNavigator who takes the time to patiently work with me when I want to learn how to do something new on the computer. I enjoy running into and catching up with neighbors while at the library. I love that libraries have stayed the same but have also become so much more,” he states with passion.
The Library’s story extends beyond the pages of its books. It is a patchwork of stories of children hungry to learn, of teens exploring the world around them, men and women pursuing lifelong learning and better futures, of seniors excited to learn to use computers for the first time, families creating memories over books and toys, immigrants learning to read and write…it is a story of a vibrant community.
You. Me. Us. We are part of Chicago Public Library’s rich and thriving story.