Magazine article American Libraries

Straight Answers from Mary Dempsey

Magazine article American Libraries

Straight Answers from Mary Dempsey

Article excerpt

Last September, Chicago Public Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey completed a most unusual assignment for a librarian. She and a deputy commissioner, Kathy Biel, had spent six months giving the City of Chicago's Procurement Services Department a "total scrubbing," as she promised Mayor Richard M. Daley she would when he tapped her for the job of interim procurement officer (AL, Mar. 2005, p. 20-21). Dempsey has served as CPL commissioner since January 1994. She holds an MLS from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a law degree from DePaul University in Chicago. American Libraries talked with her recently about the business of cleaning up somebody else's mess, a task that she calls "part of a commitment" to an ever-better quality of life in her city.


Why did you take this "hot potato" assignment in City Hall? I was concerned about the criticisms being leveled at the whole minority and women business contracting program. It's important for the program to be strong, and if you are asked to try to repair something that's broken, I think you have an obligation to try to do it.

How do you connect your library experience with the assignment, or was it being an attorney that was more important? It was both, with the heavier weight on the managerial experience at the library. Being an attorney and being a librarian and having had managerial experience meant that I attack a problem in a direct way, trying to get to the root of the problem and then laying out the ways to address it. We did a whole strategic planning exercise in one day--developed six-month, one-year, and five-year goals--and then set about implementing it.

Did you find the procurement services department to be a "scandal-scarred snake pit," as it was characterized in the Chicago Tribune? Actually, no, I did not. What I found were really good people who were completely overwhelmed by a backlog of contracts and muddled procedures trying to do what was right without the technology or the leadership team to assist them. The new management team said, basically, "Trust us and follow us." For the most part, they did.

So you were able to turn things around? In seven months we eliminated a backlog of close to 1,000 contracts that had not been touched in hundreds of days. …

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