One of the highlights of the ALA Annual Conference this year will be the Chicago Public Library’s 150th anniversary festivities, which will kick off with a citywide celebration on June 10 and continue throughout the rest of 2023. Attendees at ALA can tour the city’s libraries. And Library commissioner Chris Brown says that along with 10 exhibits set up in historic libraries in neighborhoods across Chicago there will be a mural alongside the Kennedy Expressway commemorating CPL’s contributions.

The CPL’s impressive presence today in all 77 Chicago neighborhoods (for a total of 81 locations) goes back to the early vision of a chief librarian named Henry Legler, who in 1916 made a commitment to the city to offer every resident library access within walking distance. But perhaps the library’s most impressive feat is its comeback from the 1871 Great Chicago Fire. “We really rose out of that fire and the ashes of our city,” Brown says. “Civic and philanthropic commitments to restoring the library helped it find a way back. And Great Britain, then ruled by Queen Victoria, donated 8,000 volumes to help our collection rebound.”

CPL’s comeback from that devastating fire is one of the stories featured in the library’s first podcast series, Untold Stories, which tells listeners about the past, and future, of the library. Among the other stories, the podcast covers how Chicago pioneered neighborhood library deliveries in 1874, with horse-drawn carts bringing books to places that didn’t yet have their own library buildings, and how the Bronzeville library building once housed the offices of the Chicago Sunday Bee, one of the nation’s most important African American newspapers.

Today, the CPL’s YouMedia spaces for teens and the mixed-use co-locations it has created in partnership with the Chicago Housing Authority are popular places to meet, learn, and create. Brown notes that artists like Chance the Rapper and No Name came up through the open mic nights at the library, and even created their own early mixtapes there. And looking ahead, Brown stresses the library’s desire to help “revitalize” neighborhoods suffering from decades of disinvestment and neglect.

“We want to embody for the rest of the country the idea that libraries are part of the solution,” he says. “That we can be that ‘anchor tenant’ that connects people to valuable resources.”

Brown says CPL is especially proud to welcome librarians from around the country to this year’s ALA Annual conference given the challenges libraries are facing in terms of book bans. “Since 1936, when our first statement in support of intellectual freedom was released, the Chicago Public Library has stayed true to our values,” he says. “And we are continuing to find ways to support our diverse readers and authors. As we’re exiting the pandemic, to have this chance to be together and connect is a real high-water mark for our nation’s libraries, where we can stand up for the inclusivity and discovery that have long made our spaces so important.”