Chicago Public Library Helps Chicago Go Digital

| Adam J. Hecktman

Chicago Public Library Helps Chicago Go Digital

“In a digital age that has left book publishers reeling, libraries in the world’s major cities seem poised for a comeback, though it’s one that has very little to do with books.”

This is a quote from an article by Rosie Spinks on the future of libraries posted last week on the Daily Good. The article discussed an Independent Library Report published in the U.K. that basically documented how libraries are transforming themselves from a book lending resource to “vibrant and attractive community hubs”.   In this respect, the future is now for Chicago Public Libraries, having already transformed themselves in a number of ways that support the new economy and digital age.

Last night, the Chicago City Data User Group hosted Michele Frisque, the CTO of the Chicago Public Library (CPL). This is her third year in the CPL system. She leads the department that focuses on: technology, content, innovation and data management and analysis. At the user group, she discussed the library’s transformation, as well as how they are generating and using data. Michele pointed out that the library’s 60 year mission that embraces the freedom to read, to learn, and to discover is timeless. In evaluating their strategic plan, the library did not see a need to change that mission, as it applies to a digital age as much as it did to the analog era 60 years ago.

But while the mission holds its value, the way it is manifested makes CPL services seem radically different from just a few years ago. “Going digital” means far more than being able to check out ebooks and audio. To them, going digital is a platform for new ways to nurture learning, support economic advancement of neighborhoods, and strengthening communities. With 80 libraries serving every community area of Chicago, they are uniquely qualified to be at the center of those activities.

So how does this translate into actual services provided by the library? On the one hand, they have evolved their circulation assets. You can now check out robots and digital content (including digital magazines). There is also a pilot underway called Internet to Go, which will allow patrons to check out computers and tablets enabled with WiFi to give internet access to a household. While that in itself is valuable, the fact that patrons will be able to access digital literacy tools, complete homework, work on resumes and job applications at home on those devices, is what makes Internet to Go a key driver of economic advancement and educational opportunity.

Next, the libraries have started providing tools to help citizens participate in some of the newest economic drivers, including digital manufacturing. The Maker Labs provide access to equipment like 3DE printers, vinyl cutters, laser cutters, and milling machines, along with digital design software. These are supported by free workshops, open lab hours and drop-in demonstrations targeted at all levels.

Targeting teens, and in its fifth year of operation, are the YOUMedia centers. As 21st century learning centers, YOUMedia connects young adults, digital production, books, media, mentors and institutions throughout Chicago in a dynamic space designed to inspire collaboration and creativity. According to Frisque, the goal of these center is to provide spaces for teens to “hang out” with friends mess around” with digital media and “geek out” in groups that facilitate exploration of their core interests.

For teens, adaptation to digital technology is natural. This may not be the case with others. To that end, CPL employs what are called Cyber Navigators. A role unique to Chicago, Cyber Navigators assist people in using library computers in a focused way. Beyond how to use a mouse and navigate the internet, Cyber Navigators are able to help patrons use technology to government services, find and apply for a job, research health benefits, etc. And with more than 50 Cyber Navigators employed by the system, the library is able to deploy them where the greatest need is (usually in neighborhoods where digital literacy may lag).

And then there is the CPL website itself. In an era where focusing on your website as a digital differentiator may seem quaint, CPL has reinvented how its digital presence can create community. They have made the shift from using their website as a one-way communication tool and transformed it into a vibrant community. For example, patrons can comment on books and articles, can create, access, and share lists, and can participate in the broader discussions relevant to readers and learners.

The discussion then turned to the library’s generation of (and use of) data. In a city that embraced Open Data early on, in an age where data is being created by entities of all types, CPL is a full participant in the civic data space. We went through just a few of the dozens of data sets that the library provides on the City’s open data portal. Notable data sets included:

  • Number of WiFi sessions per month provided at Chicago Public Library locations
  • Visitors by location by year
  • Circulation by location by year, which includes new checkouts as well as renewals.
  • Holds placed (where a patron places a hold on desired materials either online or by contacting a CPL location)
  • Holds filled (materials pulled to fulfill patron holds)
  • Number of computer sessions by location by year
  • And, my favorites, lists of popular fiction, non-fiction, teen, and kids titles

Aside from generating data, Frisque discussed some of the insights the library was able to glean from that data. For example, looking at circulation numbers revealed that Chicago’s Summer of Learning program drove up circulation significantly in the summer months, implying that students were staying engaged and continuing to read during the break. Or looking at computer usage and wifi sessions reveals that the highest usage will be in the areas of lowest digital access.

I walked away very energized and excited to reorient myself with an institution that had been in the background of my life for as long as I could remember. Getting to know this “new” library will be like going back to a hometown that I remember the context of an earlier time that has evolved “almost” beyond recognition. Now, where did they put the card catalog?



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Adam J. Hecktman

You may recognize Adam. He’s a regular on TV, you can hear him on the radio, he’s penned numerous articles and is the co-founder of the Chicago City Data Users Group. But some of Adam’s most important work is done behind the scenes in his role as Microsoft’s Director of Technology and Civic Engagement for Chicago. Tech giants, universities and government leaders turn to Adam for guidance on all matters technology, and he happily obliges, helping Chicago overcome challenges and capitalizing on new, exciting opportunities.