As the Chicago Public Library system celebrated the 150th anniversary of its founding on June 10 with “birthday parties” events across all 81 locations, Mayor Brandon Johnson made time for two of the branch libraries that serve his home community.

The very first Chicago public library opened on Jan. 1, 1873, but the library system hasn’t limited the commemoration of the 150-year anniversary to this date. Instead, it has been holding events all year, and, on June 10, the main Harold Washington Library center, the three regional libraries and the 78 branch libraries held “birthday party” events. Johnson attended the party at the Harold Washington library, but he also visited the Austin branch, the community’s oldest branch library, 5615 W. Race Ave., and North Austin branch library, 5724 W. North Ave. In the speech he gave before cutting the birthday cake, the mayor said that public libraries were keys that “unlocked” opportunities, especially in minority communities grappling with chronic disinvestment.

The Chicago Public Library was founded two years after the Great Chicago Fire. According to the Chicago Historical Society, there was a push to establish a free public library even before the disaster, but it didn’t gain traction until after the fire, when a group of British citizens collected more then 8.000 books for a free library. In 1920, Legler Library was established as a West Side regional library hub, and the Austin branch library opened in 1929.

According to sources within CPL, for June 10, library and city officials wanted Johnson to visit Woodson Regional Library, South Side’s regional library which houses the largest Black history and literature collection in the Midwest, but the mayor insisted on spending the rest of the day in Austin neighborhood libraries.

Before Johnson came to Austin library, kids from the Happiness Club arts education nonprofit played drums, and CPL’s owl mascot walked around and posed for pictures. The birthday cake was provided by Eli’s Cheesecake company.

Johnson arrived at around 4:15 p.m., with U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-7) and Chicago Library Commissioner Chris Brown in tow. Branch manager JoAnne Willis and Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), whose ward includes both Austin and North Austin libraries, were on hand to greet them. The officials made their way through the library’s children’s section, shaking hands, accepting hugs and even briefly chatting with some people.

Before he went to cut the cake, Johnson gave a short speech, thanking everyone for coming to the library.

“I’m so grateful, so grateful to the community,” he said. “As we celebrate 150th anniversary of the Chicago public library, we recognize and understand the importance and value the libraries lead to unlocking the imagination of our young people. We know, especially those of us who are descendants of slaves. We fought for our liberation. It’s really about unlocking accommodations and making sure the government invests in the lives of people, particularly young people.”

Johnson gave a shoutout to the librarians, describing them as some of the smartest people in the city, and promised to continue investing in the library system.

“This is the place where young people come, where small business owners come to unlock the world that they’re looking to explore, build on — this is the place where arts and culture come together,’ he said. “As long as I’m mayor of the city of Chicago, we’re going to set up the next 150 years so that libraries can continue to provide the services that they do so well.”

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...