New leaf

Brian Bannon takes over as Chicago Public Library reader-in-chief

Brian Bannon, the new library commissioner for the Chicago Public Libraries

Brian Bannon, the new library commissioner for the Chicago Public Libraries, stands next in the special collections room at the library, Wednesday, April 18, 2012. The books on the shelf were donated to the city by the country of England after the Great Chicago Fire. (Photo for the Tribune by Alex Garcia / May 4, 2012)

To understand why the hiring of Brian Bannon as Chicago's public library commissioner caused a more-than-ordinary stir, let us quote a learned cultural authority.

That authority is not Socrates.

It is not Shakespeare.

It is not Goethe.

Nor is it John Milton or Ralph Waldo Emerson. And it doesn't come from the Bible or "Moby-Dick."

The relevant wisdom emanates instead from Merle Haggard and the 1970 country-music hit he wrote and recorded: "The Fightin' Side of Me": "If you're runnin' down my country, man,/You're walkin' on the fightin' side of me."

Just as Haggard gets riled up about perceived slights to his homeland, so, too, do Chicagoans grow pugnacious in defense of their public library, toward which they maintain a passionate attachment. For almost two decades, the library was in the able hands of Mary Dempsey, an elegant and steadfast warrior on behalf of books and the buildings that shelter them.

Then Mayor Richard M. Daleyannounced his retirement. Rahm Emanuel won the battle to run the city. Soon Dempsey, too, headed for the exit.

On Jan. 25, her successor — a dapper, bespectacled, 37-year-old San Franciscan named Brian Bannon — was introduced. Whereupon the wary murmurs among library-lovers reached a crescendo of such feverish intensity that, had a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore been left open on one of the big rectangular tables at the Harold Washington Library Center, the resultant breeze might have ruffled several dozen pages:

Just who is this guy?

And if his selection signals even the slightest ratcheting-back of interest in and support for the public library from Mayor Emanuel — wellsir, you're walkin' on the fightin' side of a great many Chicagoans.

Because we love our library.

Hence you mess with it at your peril.

As he sat at the polished conference table in his still mostly bare office on the 10th floor of the HWLC on a recent morning, Bannon made one thing abundantly clear: He loves our public library, too. In fact, he loves all public libraries. But not with a sighing, dreamy-eyed, love-you-just-the-way-you-are sort of way. His love is profound — but practical, too. Such affection must, these days, be a thing not only of poetry, but also of arithmetic. Of budget numbers.

Libraries are changing. Some of those changes are benign and even intriguing — technological advances continue to revolutionize how we read books and access information — and some of those changes are sad and ominous. A stalled-out national economy has brought devastating cuts to city services; the public library has not had the luxury of living outside the cruel arc of that ax-swing. Emanuel, like Daley in his final years, has shortened operating hours at branches and reduced staff.

Instead of lamenting those challenges, however, the peppy, energetic Bannon seems to relish them. If change must come, his sunny self-assurance implies, then he's the man to manage it.

"I've spent my life focusing on changing lives through the work we do in libraries," Bannon declared. "While I knew there was a lot I needed to learn, coming into this new role, I felt like I could really do something here. This is why I do this work."

Although he said he'd never met Emanuel before interviewing for the job, Bannon shares the mayor's rapid-fire way of speaking. An onlooker once noted thatPresident John F. Kennedyalways ate as if someone were about to snatch away his plate; likewise, Chicago's mayor and its new library commissioner talk as if they're seconds away from being gagged: They have to get it all out in a headlong rush.

Which is not to say that either Emanuel or Bannon babbles. They don't. Their fast-flying phrases are crisp and articulate.

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