Top 6 Strategies Librarians Are Using to Empower Chicago

To kick off National Library Week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and other community leaders convened to celebrate the newest branch of the Chicago Public Library on April 7th. They also announced the opening for One Summer Chicago applications for 2021.

According to CPL’s website, in the summer of 2020 “more than 20,000 young people across the city had summer jobs directly from this program. This upcoming summer, young people will be compensated for participating in career exploration opportunities in fields such as coding and tech, healthcare, media and more.”

Mayor Lightfoot praised One Summer Chicago and the new branch for their potential to remove barriers to access for underserved Chicagoans: "Taken together, these efforts will empower for residents of all ages to skill up, achieve upward mobility, and above all, chase after their dreams without being burdened by a lack of access to knowledge and resources.”

These new projects are some of the recent innovations that Chicago Public Library has undertaken to support learning in our city. CPL’s overarching goal is to unite Chicagoans through access to information and community support.

To help Chicago thrive over the next few years, CPL developed a strategic plan to support their vision of “a city where people are equipped, engaged and inspired to learn and explore...” 

The six objectives of the plan were designed to inspire, empower, and educate every Chicagoan.


Their commitment to Chicago:

“We provide free and open access to information and experiences that reflect and engage Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods and people equitably and inclusively.”

Librarians are passionate about increasing free access to technology and media, and creating a welcoming environment for the patrons who need them. Modern libraries are based on the idea that everyone deserves access to society’s stores of knowledge and entertainment. 

In the digital age, this has taken on new meanings, as librarians broaden their collections of digital resources. To ensure that the patrons who access these resources know how to make the most of them, libraries also train their staff in any technology they offer to patrons. With the librarian available as a skillful digital tour guide, patrons who would normally be intimidated by the technology can experience the joy of learning in a new way.


Their defining value:

“We develop collections, design programs and enable staff to encourage exploration and nurture learning.”

To create connection and knowledge for every Chicagoan, CPL provides an incredible range of programs and services. Whether you want a practical resource or a fun event, whether you’re 12 or 88, the library is there to help. 

Here’s a tiny fraction of what they have to offer:

Art exhibits

Resources for tax season

A book club for the whole Windy City called One Book, One Chicago

Free online homework help for CPS students

ScienceConnections events for kids

To provide the best service in a rapidly changing digital literacy landscape, library staff also engage in constant continuing education through programs like CyberDrive Illinois and resources from the American Library Association.


Their responsibility:

“We create respectful, safe and welcoming spaces that invite personal growth and create stronger, more connected communities.”

In order for patrons to be in the right mental state for growth and learning, they have to feel safe. To make sure everyone feels welcome, librarians are dedicated to conveying safety and allyship to underserved and politically vulnerable populations. 

This article from the American Library Association explains:

“Some kids and parents from marginalized communities, particularly those who are undocumented, see libraries as an extension of the government and therefore are reluctant to ask for help regarding issues related to opposing government policies. These vulnerable communities are among those that need the services and resources of the library the most.”

Their suggestions to support and empower these communities include “creating displays that feature diverse characters and authors, as well as social justice and civil rights topics” and providing access to an ACLU resource list for vulnerable populations. Librarians are always thinking of how to remove the most barriers to access and make patrons the most comfortable, suggesting, “leaving print-outs of relevant sections if you know they would be useful to local patrons, removing the burden and fear in their having to ask, and further communicating your allyship.”


What drives them:

“We share pride and purpose to improve the lives of Chicagoans and strengthen communities.”

To power their innovations and create the strongest Chicago, CPL partners with organizations like the MacArthur Foundation.

A partnership with the Foundation and the Digital Youth Network created the original YOUMedia teen center at Harold Washington Library. The MacArthur Foundation and the Obama Foundation collaborated with CPL on a recent library branch at the Obama Presidential Center.

“We want the Obama Presidential Center to serve as a reminder to young people around the city and the world that their potential is limitless,” said Obama Foundation Chief Engagement Officer Michael Strautmanis. “Libraries and books are windows into what is possible. Hosting this branch of the Chicago Public Library with the support of the MacArthur Foundation is a fitting way for us to honor the legacy of President Obama by inspiring, empowering, and connecting people, especially young people, with resources to change their world.”


What challenges them:

“We value creativity and resourcefulness in serving patrons effectively and responsibly.”

To keep up with the pace of innovation and empower their staff, CPL uses a collaborative, research-based approach to develop new programs that will do the most good for the communities they serve.

To help with this 6-objective strategy, 80% of Chicago Public Library staff gave their input. The information used to create the strategy also drew from 25 in-depth interviews with local library leaders. 

The input of patrons played a strong role as well. According to Andrea Telli (CPL Commissioner) and Linda Johnson Rice (CPL Board President), “We gathered feedback from hundreds of staff and partners and from thousands of patrons about what they were proud of, what they wanted to improve and most importantly, what matters most for the future of our library.”

Telli and Rice explained why this collaboration is so vital: 

“Today’s library thrives because library staff listen to and partner with our communities to design services and programs that resonate with individuals and families.”


What distinguishes them:

“We broaden the perception of what a library can be.”

As humans pioneer methods of creating and sharing info, libraries evolve to increase community access to that info. One of the most exciting library developments to come out of Chicago is YOUMedia.

The YOUMedia teen learning space grew out of an experimental program at Harold Washington which was designed to help multiple literacies flourish among teenagers and draw them into “progressive levels of participation in traditional and digital media.” The goal was to take teens from enthusiastic consumers of media to innovative creators. Along the way, the program provided a positive environment of social interaction and support.

The experiment was so successful that it has led to 23 Chicago Public Library locations that allow teens to “engage in projects across a variety of core content areas including graphic design, photography, video, music, 2D/3D design, STEM and hands-on making.”

This fusion of digital and physical spaces provides the ideal place to go from knowledge acquisition to creation. This process naturally grows media literacy in teens, while maximizing their engagement and enthusiasm. The resources teens access also show them possible futures in creative and technological fields, and let them hone the skills they’ll need to create their chosen future.

The social aspects of YOUMedia are just as life-changing: teens can collaborate and bond over what they’re passionate about, and benefit from the knowledge and encouragement from their creative librarian mentors.

In this way, YOUMedia is exemplary of all the best parts of the library. Every aspect is designed to meet the needs of its patrons. Its greatest goal is to empower them to create a brighter future for themselves, and to make sure that journey includes education, passion, and unity in equal measure.

A unique city like Chicago grows alongside many sources of inspiration, and the Chicago Public Library reflects that diversity. As Mayor Lightfoot puts it: “The City of Chicago thrives because of the richness of its culture, the vibrancy of its neighborhoods and the diversity of its residents. No organization enables and celebrates this more than Chicago Public Library.”



At Conquer Life, our goal is to build a community that celebrates those who work hard and follow their passion, to remind each of us that we have the power to do the same. To inspire, motivate, and empower.

Need more inspiration in your life? We’ve got you! 

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Image credit: Taisiia Shestopal

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