Just a few weeks after being named library commissioner, Mary Dempsey did something her immediate predecessors in their years of power had never done–she met with the people who use the libraries the most.

Since her appointment in December, Dempsey, a corporate lawyer and professional librarian, has had several extended discussions with many of the grassroots activists who have been among the system’s severest critics. The activists have come away hopeful that maybe, just maybe, the library finally has a forceful commissioner, willing to battle City Hall budget cutters who want to limit services and reduce hours.

“Dempsey’s got a librarian’s attentiveness to the public and a lawyer’s flintiness–it’s a great combination,” says Richard Bjorklund, a member of the Chicago Public Library Advocates, a citywide watchdog group. “She could be the best commissioner this city has had in years.”

Some cynics warn that activists are being suckered by savvy public relations, and that should City Hall order cuts in services, as it has over the last few years, Dempsey will go along with her boss, Mayor Daley. Dempsey contends such confrontations need not take place. “I’m willing to do what it takes to build a world-class library system,” says Dempsey. “I will fight for more staff. I think I have the administration’s support on this.”

Dempsey inherits an enormous system–$67 million budget, 1,500 employees, and 82 branches–riddled with problems. The collection is woefully shallow, as much of the bookbuying budget in recent years was used to stock the Harold Washington central facility.

Many of the neighborhood branches are in dire need of renovation or repairs. According to a recent survey of library users conducted by the Advocates, “problems ranged from leaking roofs to worn carpets to walls defaced or cracked to heating or air condition systems that did not function properly. Many maintenance shortcomings threaten the safety of patrons and the security of priceless collections.”

In addition, two decades of budget cuts have reduced staff from about 2,400. As a result, branch hours have been trimmed, checkout lines are longer, and fewer books are shelved. “It’s frustrating to go to the shelf and not find the book you need,” says Bjorklund. “But you can’t shelve books without people.”

The system faces serious questions about its role and function. Should it emphasize literacy programs, or should it spend more of its money expanding sophisticated and expensive computer information networks?

How should it divide its budget between the central library and neighborhood branches? What should be done to replace the Municipal Reference Library, an invaluable repository of city documents that Mayor Daley closed to the public? And why go along with Daley’s plan to build more branches if he isn’t going to allocate the money needed to stock and operate them adequately?

Perhaps what’s most frustrating is that the sheepish apparatchiks in charge over the last few years rarely addressed these questions. Since the summer of 1992 the system has gone through three commissioners; one of the nine board positions is unfilled, the terms of the other eight members have all expired. And no official or board member publicly protested when Daley closed the Municipal Reference Library and cut the budget.

“It’s a system without leadership,” says Kang Moy Chiu, chairman of the Advocates. “A system that’s drifting.”

Like many activists, Chiu initially reacted with discontent to Dempsey’s appointment. It seemed to them as though the job were offered to her as a favor to her husband, Philip Corboy, a prominent personal injury lawyer, Democratic Party insider, and friend of the Daley family.

“When the Sun-Times called to ask me for my reaction about her appointment, I said it seemed like an inside job,” says Chiu. “Then a funny thing happened. After the story ran, I got a call from state senator Art Berman, who told me that Mary’s a good person and I should call her. I called her office and got right through, and she said I want to meet with you. I thought I’d get five minutes, but we talked for 90 minutes. I came away thinking this lady has some steel, and that she was going to stand up for the system.”

For one thing, Dempsey is a professional librarian. In fact her first job was at the public library in Hillside, the western suburb where she was raised. She was 13.

“I did everything at that library,” says Dempsey. “I shelved and repaired books, I ran projectors, I did story hours, reading stories to the little kids. I’ve always loved books. When you grow up next to an expressway, like I did, there’s a certain temptation to be transported by books. Literature took me to the worlds on the other side of the Eisenhower Expressway.

In 1976 Dempsey earned a master’s degree in library sciences at the University of Illinois and went back to work at Hillside, this time as chief librarian. “They had just completed a new library and they gave me a budget of $60,000 and told me to build a collection,” says Dempsey. “I built a core collection–reference books, art books, history, literature, children’s collection, catalogs. It was a librarian’s dream.”

After almost three years she left to work for Kirkland & Ellis, a corporate law firm. “I was only making $8,000 a year and paying my own health care,” says Dempsey. “I answered a blind ad in the paper for librarians. Kirkland needed librarians to catalog rooms and rooms of documents from antitrust cages. I guess they thought I was smart because several of the partners suggested I should go to law school.”

Dempsey graduated from DePaul’s law school, and over the last few years she’s worked as an in-house lawyer for Michael Reese Hospital and, most recently, as a counsel with Sidley & Austin, a corporate firm. For the most part Dempsey’s represented corporations–her expertise is governmental policy, particularly health care–but she’s also worked with school activists and helped draft the school reform law of 1988.

“I respect Mayor Daley but I barely knew him before I was offered this job,” says Dempsey. “Actually, my political roots go in a different direction. In 1983 I supported Harold Washington for mayor over Daley and Jane Byrne. I was one of the original members of Lawyers for Washington. I’m very proud of that. I liked what Mayor Washington stood for.”

Apparently Daley offered her the job at the urging of his chief of staff, Gery Chico. “Gery and I worked together at Sidley,” says Dempsey. “There was no conspiracy. This was not an ‘inside job’ and I certainly didn’t get it because of my husband. Gery knew of my library background. I see this as a return to my original profession. I feel I’m qualified for the job.”

One of the first tasks she set for herself was to meet with staff, whose morale had suffered over the years.

“I want to listen to staff and let them know I’m one of them,” says Dempsey. “I truly love libraries, and I believe in their mission. They are repositories of information. A public library does not judge what information is right or wrong: it puts books on the shelves and lets people decide. We don’t judge people when they walk in the door. We don’t ask them to pay for our services or what they will do with our information.”

Dempsey hesitates to get specific about proposals, since she’s so new on the job. But she pledges to bolster the book budget and to figure a way to offer low-cost access to computerized information services.

“One of my first goals is to bring more stability to the book budget, so it won’t go up and down and we can maintain our collection,” says Dempsey. “I think we can supplement the budget with private endowments. I don’t think corporate leaders have been as vocal as they could have been when we faced cuts. I don’t know why that was so. I place no blame on anybody. I think a lot of corporate leaders would be surprised to learn how much their staff uses us. The problem with information is that you don’t tag it. When you gather it you don’t say this came from the Chicago Public Library. But I can tell you that as a corporate lawyer I certainly spent a lot of time researching facts in the library.”

Most importantly, Dempsey says she will strongly resist any attempt to cut staff. “Volunteers are great, but you cannot depend on them to operate a system,” says Dempsey. “On Saturday I was walking through the Washington library and I introduced myself to users. There were kids doing homework, professionals conducting research, people doing recreational reading, and others reading the stock market tables. I was moved by the vitality–the library ends up being all things to all people. I’m determined to see that vitality continue.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Sue Hostetler.