Friday, January 05, 2007

We've Come A Long Way Baby

January 5th marks our third anniversary in our new Merchant Street home. The last three years have been extraordinary. We have received national and international attention for our unique private/public building partnership, as well as for our innovative services and programs. While our library and staff have been recognized for their efforts, very little kudos has gone to the real stars behind our success - the people of Kankakee.

A public library mirrors the community it serves. Kankakeeans have a long history of supporting public libraries. Our Library was established in 1897 and like the City we serve, we have had our ups and downs. Less than ten years ago, Kankakee ranked dead last by the Places Rated Almanac. Our City was in serious debt; we had a high crime rate, high unemployment, and no public transportation. During this same time our Library was located in a sadly rundown 100 year old building which we had long ago out grown. We had no meeting rooms; duct tape held the carpet together; out of order signs were everywhere, tarps covered the reference books to protect them from the leaking roof, and not surprisingly dismal user statistics. One library professional who was working with our Library Board around this time called our Library "a dump." Ouch.

Our City and our Library have come along way since those dark days. In many ways it feels like I have been the director of two completely different libraries. In the old building, we were always reactive, now our Library is proactive. Where once we spent a considerable amount of time addressing building maintenance issues and mishaps; we now spend time planning for our Library's future and the role it will play in our community. We are exploring new technologies, implementing new programs and services to better meet the needs of our current and potential new users.

The new Library was a piece in the puzzle to revitalizing downtown Kankakee. Over the last three years we have been able to attract droves of new library users to downtown; the perception that downtown Kankakee is not safe has been shattered - repeatedly. As I look out the shiny windows of our Library, I see a bustling downtown with new streetlights, new sidewalks, new shops, banks, office buildings, a satellite college campus and . . . buses. The view looks good from here. Our future looks bright.

So here is to the people of Kankakee! It has been my privilege to be your library director these past eleven years. I have learned so much and have worked with so many extraordinary people. The biggest lesson that I learned is that when a community pulls together, anything is possible.

Cindy Fuerst, Kankakee Library Director


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