Obama Foundation makes unique library deal for Obama Presidential Center

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From left, Obama Center Museum Director Louise Bernard, Executive Director Robbin Cohen , CEO David Simas (pointing) and Vice President of Civic Engagement Michael Strautmanis met with the Sun-Times Editorial Board and unveiled the model for the center Friday, Jan. 12, 2018. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

WASHINGTON – The Obama Foundation and the City of Chicago signed a tentative rent-free deal for a Chicago Public Library branch to be in the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, officials told the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday.

“I really think it’s kind of an ideal combination of uses, to have a Chicago Public Library at the OPC,” Obama Foundation executive director Robbin Cohen told the Sun-Times.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the first chief of staff for the former president, said in a statement: “In the spirit of Barack and Michelle Obama, this branch will serve as a neighborhood anchor with 21st century learning opportunities and shared spaces that will bring together community residents to gather, share and succeed for generations to come.”

The announcement comes as the application from the Obama Foundation for city zoning and other approvals for the Obama Presidential Center is scheduled to come before the Chicago Plan Commission on May 17.

The Sun-Times reported last November that the CPL and the foundation were on track to strike an agreement for a branch. Talks have been ongoing for about a year.

The Obama Presidential Center will be unique in two ways when it comes to libraries:

• The OPC will have the first public library in a presidential center.

• The OPC will not include an official government-run National Archives and Records Administration presidential library.

There is a Barack Obama Presidential Library that is part of the NARA federal presidential libraries system. It is housed, for the time being, at 2500 W. Golf Road in Hoffman Estates. The northwest suburban facility is closed to the public.

The documents, other records and artifacts from the two Obama terms were hauled there before the final decision was made by former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle to not be part of the federal presidential library system.

That decision, fueled in part because so many of the records will be digitalized and accessible around the globe, also meant that Obama did not have to raise millions of dollars for the endowment NARA would have demanded, or pay for more expensive structures in order to be in compliance with NARA design and security specifications.

The Obama Foundation is in the process of negotiating the final agreements with NARA for the federal piece, and with the city of Chicago for the public library branch.

Last month, a letter of intent – the first step towards a lease – was signed by Cohen, Brian Bannon, the CPL’s Commissioner and CEO, and David Reynolds, the city’s Fleet and Facilities Commissioner who is responsible for managing city public buildings.

What will make the OPC CPL branch different is that there will like likely be “a specialized collection that focuses on the life and legacy of Obama,” Bannon said.

“We envision a close collaboration with the Center,” Bannon said. “It’s a pretty exceptional opportunity for us.”

There is no official name yet for the CPL branch. The proposal calls for:

• A seven-year, rent-free lease for a 5,000-square foot Chicago Public Library branch.

• The space to be embedded in a 50,000-square foot building that is one of the four major structures proposed for the 19.3-acre South Side campus. The complex will also include a museum, athletic/conference center, a forum, and open space.

• The branch library to be designed to CPL specifications. The idea, though is to build in flexibility – such as putting book stacks on rollers – so the space can be opened up for CPL or OPC programs.

• The CPL branch to be adjacent to what is being conceived at this stage as an “Obama Reading Room” to be under the control of the foundation.

• The “initial vision” in terms of programming to be – besides traditional story times and book discussions – an emphasis on “civic engagement,” a central mission of Obama in his post-presidency. The CPL branch will also offer homework help; areas for teens and children and staff trained to provide job seekers with help to find work and education opportunities.

• The CPL to fund eight full-time staffers who will handle the “core” library services.

• The CPL and OPC also have the option of joining forces for fundraising opportunities. Some donors may want to underwrite the part of the structure housing the CPL. No public decision has been made yet on naming rights, Cohen said.

The deal leaves open the possibility of staff paid with private funds – from the Obama Foundation and the Chicago Public Library Foundation, which has been raising money to bolster the CPL since 1986.

CPL staffers paid for by city taxpayers will need written approval from the Obama Foundation to “perform programming at the OPC,” the letter states.

The cost of purchasing the basic collection will be between $150,000 and $200,000, Bannon said, and will include fiction and non-fiction material for children, teens and adults.

The city would pay for the library’s share of utilities, cleaning, security, landscaping and snow removal.

Chicago’s City Council will have to approve the lease and the budget for the Obama Center branch library. The Chicago Public Library Board does not control library contracts, budget or leases, Bannon said.

The foundation has been hoping to break ground this year. However, a series of federal reviews will still need months to complete. The aim is to open the complex in 2021.

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