Brian Bannon, the 2015 iSchool Distinguished Alumnus, considers himself an unlikely librarian. Dyslexic as a kid, he never felt fully at home in the environment.
“It wasn’t until college that I understood libraries were actually radical institutions,” Bannon said. “Their missions are much bigger than what I fully understood as a kid. I quickly got excited about the possibilities given what libraries are really about and the idea of leveraging that mission to do good in the world.”
A Bellingham native, Bannon received his undergraduate degree from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma before applying to, and attending, UW’s Information School. His first year at UW in 1996, Bannon admits he had a bit of a rocky start. With the MLIS program in transition and in search of a new dean, the road was challenging.
“I had big aspirations about the field of libraries and the world,” he said. “But what I found was a program that had probably more than one foot in the old ways of libraries, but was on a quest to find an inspirational leader that would move the library program into the 21st century.”
Luckily, the iSchool found that person in Mike Eisenberg.
“I was inspired by him as a person,” Bannon said. “He represented why I loved libraries and why I got into the work. He worked with me, along with other students, to make this a great experience.”
And Bannon’s second year was miles above the first. He got an iSchool graduate’s assistantship, took multiple internships, including one at the Seattle Public Library, gaining exposure to interesting things happening in the space of libraries at the time.
After graduating from the iSchool in 1999, Bannon’s internship with the U.S. Library Program of the Gates Foundation turned into a job. Holding multiple positions within the program, Bannon soon realized the direction he wanted to take with his career.
“The experience exposed me to the power of public libraries,” he said. “I realized it was the place I could achieve what I wanted to do within the field of library science.”
Bannon went on to take a job heading User and Technology Instruction at the Seattle Public Library, even managing the opening of a new library in Delridge.
“The leadership challenges, the community and development challenges, are what made me realize I had aptitude and interest in management and leadership,” he said. “But also that it was something that I was really interested in and passionate about.”
From there, Bannon was eventually recruited to the San Francisco Public Library where he was the general manager for the neighborhood library system. Making strides towards innovation in the Bay Area, six years later, Bannon got a call from Chicago. At the time, Mayor Emanuel was looking for a new leader for the Chicago Public Library.
“He was really interested in looking at ways of leveraging the unique mission and footprint of the library to be transformative as part of his new vision for the city,” said Bannon.
Bannon got the job. And for three and a half years, he’s been serving as commissioner of the Chicago Public Libraries. And as the second largest library system in the country, CPL has a long track record for being an innovative library organization.
When Bannon first started, the library was piloting a program called YOUmedia, a digital media program engaging teens in learning. Now he has helped operationalize the program as a central part of what CPL does to serve teens.
“It represents for me the kind of library that would have been welcoming to me as a kid,” Bannon said. “The mission is really to connect people to ideas and knowledge to make a stronger and more competitive and democratic society. It was an insight into how libraries might lead the transition in a thoughtful way, and be more impactful against the radical mission that they have.”
But Bannon continued to seek ways to evolve the CPL, staying ahead of the trends to create the right experiences to grow both customers and business. Invited to join the Strategic Advisors Network for the Gates Foundation Global Libraries in 2011, in addition to his role as commissioner, he and the eleven other advisors once again brought up the discussion of innovation.
“How do you innovate rapidly against the world that’s changing around you?” asked Bannon. “I think one of the issues that happens with libraries in many industries is seeing an interesting idea down the road but just copying what’s working somewhere else. There are risks with not actually changing the DNA of the organization to understand for itself what the problems are to solve.”
Partnering with Aarhus Public Libraries in Denmark, with the assistance of leading design firm IDEO, Bannon and the CPL received a $1 million grant from the Gates Foundation to begin the process of creating innovative library services and programs.
Its new Maker Lab allows the public free, hands-on experience with 3D design software, 3D printers, and other 21st century tools. With the grant, CPL saw the expansion of YOUmedia and revamped the 2013 Summer Learning Challenge, offering kids more ways to participate in creative learning activities. These astounding accomplishments even earned the CPL the 2014 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, for which Bannon accepted the award from First Lady Michele Obama.
As of recently, Bannon has overseen the start of several new programs that are turning heads across the nation. In February, CPL piloted a hotspot-lending program, allowing Chicago residents with library cards to check out Wi-Fi hotspots like a book. The CPL has also made 500 programmable robots, donated by Google Chicago, available for checkout to help teach and practice computer programming. In April, six Chicago-area education, media, and maker startups, hoping to connect their business with the city’s most utilized public resource, even pitched partnerships to CPL.
In his time as commissioner, Bannon has seen the CPL rise to new heights, living up to its reputation as one of the most groundbreaking public libraries in the world.
“I see my role as establishing this new direction of the libraries,” he said. “I want to build the right culture and organization that will allow us to fulfill our mission, and continue to make the connections externally with the great work that we’re doing internally.”
And in May, Bannon came back to his Washington roots to attend the Dean’s Club Dinner. Awarded the iSchool’s 2015 Distinguished Alumnus, Bannon is still touched by the honor.
“I feel privileged to be part of the legacy of such a great and well-respected school,” he said. “To be identified as someone distinguished among an already distinguished group of alumni is a humbling experience.”
As for what’s next for him and public libraries, Bannon says the future is now.
“When I think about the future of libraries, I go back to our roots, our mission as civic and learning institutions,” he said. “Probably our biggest challenge as a field is to continue to fully exercise and realize the radical mission we have as public libraries in the rapidly changing world around us. We need to adopt and implement the techniques and organizational tools that allow for rapid change and experimentation so we can continue to realize that mission.”