Mural by Kerry James Marshal

Last fall, the City of Chicago and the Chicago Public Library system announced that they would sell “Knowledge & Wonder,” a painting by world-famous Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall, to transform the Legler Branch library, 115 S. Pulaski, into the West Side’s only regional library. 

The move was swiftly criticized by area community groups and by Marshall himself before the city wound up call the sale off. Patrick Malloy, a spokesperson for the library system, said that library officials would make smaller-scale improvements. 

But the plan to transform Legler into a regional library is back on track thanks, in part, to funding from the state of Illinois. Chicago would still provide nearly two-thirds of the funding, with the state funding technology upgrades. The library’s extended hours will kick in this spring and renovations will start this summer.

The library system is made up of the main Harold Washington Library, two regional libraries and 85 neighborhood branch libraries. The regional libraries are meant to be smaller versions of the main library, with longer hours and more resources than the neighborhood branches. 

Although the North Side has Sulzer Regional Library and the South Side has Woodson Regional Library, the West Side hasn’t had a regional library of its own since 1977, when Legler in West Garfield Park was converted into a neighborhood branch library. 

“Knowledge and Wonder” was specifically commissioned for Legler in 1995. Until the sale was announced, it was located on the building’s second floor. When the city decided not to sell the painting, city officials announced that the painting would be returned, but as of Feb. 22, that hadn’t happened. 

Molloy previously told Austin Weekly News that because many portions of Legler are underutilized, the library system has an opportunity to build something new and modern that reflects patrons’ needs in the 21st century. 

The original plan for improvements called for “the addition of multiple community and study spaces, an increase in collections, new lighting and building systems, accessibility improvements, and parking lot and security enhancements.” 

It also called for the children’s area to be upgraded to a children’s library similar to Thomas Hughes Children’s Library, which takes up a significant portion of Harold Washington Library’s second floor. The YOUmedia space would be expanded to include a “state of the art sound studio.” For adults, the library would have a much larger computer lab and adult workforce training on the second floor, as well as a free Maker Lab — a first for the West Side. Maker Labs allow patrons to utilize a variety of technologies in order to create their own innovations. 

And in a first for the library system as a whole, a studio space where an artist in residence “will develop art projects and host adult, teen and family arts programs” is planned for Legler. 

At the time the city was mulling plans to sale Marshall’s painting, Molloy said that proposals for Legler’s transformation were not set in stone and were what the system would ideally do if funding weren’t a factor.   

When the city decided not to sell the painting, Mayor Rahm Emanuel told the Chicago Tribune that there would be a “less ambitious” upgrade, with extended service hours and 50 new computers — up from the current 12. The technology upgrade would be funded through $1.8 million found through a process of “shave this here, get a haircut over there,” Emanuel told reporters at the time. 

But on Feb. 6, the city and Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, who doubles as the state librarian, announced that CPL will get $4 million from the Illinois State Library. The city would still cover the majority of the costs, spending $7.5 million. The state funds will be used for “technology infrastructure” while the city funds will be used for building upgrades and “the expansion of hours and services.”

Molloy did not respond to the request for comment by deadline. But according to the library system’s press release, many of the improvements in the original plan will be part of the package. That includes the studio space and expanded YOUmedia section. It mentions that the children’s section will get an “Early Learning Play Space, designed to support parents and caregivers in developing their child’s early literacy skills through play.” 

It also mentioned that the library will get new community meeting and study spaces, more materials and unspecified changes to the floor plan and “update [of] the technology infrastructure.” 

The library system is expected to add Sunday hours and extend weekday hours to be more in line with other regional libraries sometime this spring. Other regional libraries are open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Monday through Thursday, and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays.

The renovations are expected to start this summer. While the press release doesn’t give any time frame for how long they might take, it does mention that Marshall’s painting will only be returned once the renovations are complete. 

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), whose ward includes the library and most of West Garfield Park, said that the upgrades will have a profound long-term impact.

“A regional library branch on Chicago’s West Side will provide a vital community anchor for our residents and a significant down-payment on a more equitable future for the entire West Side,” he said in the release. “Thanks to Mayor Emanuel and Secretary of State Jesse White for partnering to bring our residents the 21st Century learning opportunities, services and technology that will benefit Chicagoans for generations to come.” 

White said he “applauded” Emmanuel and CPL for recognizing the need for a West Side regional library.

“As Secretary of State and State Librarian, I am proud to support this important project for the Legler branch,” he said.

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