Updated: May 3, 2013 12:14PM
Originally published: May 9, 2004
Where’s the best place to get smart about money? Consider the Chicago Public Library.
This is MoneySmart Week in Chicago, sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank, the city, the Chicago Sun-Times and the business and financial community. Activities abound for all ages, all ethnic groups and all levels of financial sophistication.
Many of those activities will take place at the city’s libraries.
The commissioner of the public library system, Mary A. Dempsey, was one of the first supporters of MoneySmart Week when it started three years ago. Why?
“MoneySmart Week is about financial literacy,” she said. “And I think our society needs greater understanding of personal finances. We reach people in 78 neighborhoods in the city, offering opportunities for lifelong learning. Financial literacy fits right into that.”
So this month at local libraries, you’ll see programs like “Money Savvy Generation,” co-sponsored by LaSalle Bank, where teens and their parents can sign up for sessions where they’ll receive a free financial organizing system called Cash Cache -- and lessons in the importance of saving, investing and controlling your money.
If your library card has expired, you might want to visit your local library. You’ll be surprised at the differences. Since Dempsey became commissioner in 1994, Chicago’s public library system has opened 32 new neighborhood libraries and has an additional nine facilities under construction.
The libraries have been modernized. Don’t look for that old card catalog. Now you’ll search on a computer.
Behind it all: money. Dempsey initiated a capital program and raised $150 million in city-backed bonds. With a $94 million annual budget, the library system is run like a corporation, while providing a valuable public service.
Dempsey began her career as a public librarian in suburban Hillside, where she started working part-time for 75 cents an hour at age 14. She has a master’s degree in library science from the University of Illinois. But a stint working as a legal assistant in a law firm convinced her to get her law degree from DePaul. She practiced law at major Chicago law firms before Mayor Daley talked her into taking the library commissioner’s post a decade ago. It’s more than a full-time job to her -- it’s a consuming passion.
On changing the library
“A lot of us arrived here together 10 years ago. The first thing we started with was a strategic plan and a mission statement -- and a goal to rebuild our physical infrastructure and our human infrastructure.
“First we created a staff development and training program. There had never been one before. In fact, this week we held our 10th institute program, closing every library, and bringing all the staff downtown for workshops to broaden their horizons. We also offer up to 3,000 hours of training each year to each member of our staff -- in everything from library sciences and computer literacy to how to deal with people issues or organize book discussion groups.
“We get employees involved at all levels in talking about books and understanding books and promoting books. And we have educational programs built around a theme. So they can encourage others to enjoy reading.”
Dempsey pointed to a frame on her bookshelf, displaying the mission statement the team created 10 years ago. It concludes with the statement, “We believe in the freedom to read, to learn to discover.” Said Dempsey: “It’s very simple but we measure everything against it.”
Her own lessons in financial literacy started early.
“I made 75 cents an hour, and saved every dime so I could afford to go to college. And the first time I ever withdrew money from my account was to pay $50 for my high school class ring. That was a big deal, so I remember that.
“My deal with my parents was that if you wanted to go to college you needed a scholarship and jobs, and they would make up the difference. I’m one of five kids, and all of us worked.”
Is she inherently a saver or a spender?
“I think I’m a little of each. I don’t think I’ve ever spent foolishly, but I also believe that you don’t save every single dime, and that you make money to enjoy it, or to help other people. My family was very smart about saving and spending, and we always went to Catholic schools, and we never felt deprived. But we always saw our parents saving money for our tuition. I got a full scholarship to graduate school in library science. Later, I worked 30 hours a week at a law firm, while I went to law school full time.”
On marriage and money
In 1992, she married prominent Chicago attorney Phil Corboy. Both are recognized for their civic and philanthropic commitment to the community, but their lives are complicated. Saturday, she gave the commencement address at the graduate program at Dominican University in River Forest, while he gave the commencement address at Loyola University Law School.
It’s tough enough to organize their schedules. But now my favorite, and most intrusive, question: How do they handle their money?
“Basically, we each do our own thing, though if it’s a major purchase, we discuss it. We have a family foundation because we both believe you have to give to charity....
“We just started a program with Phil’s eight grandchildren -- ages 7 to 19 -- who each year will research an appropriate charity, and write a letter explaining to the foundation why it should make a small grant.”
On MoneySmart Week
Dempsey reminded me that all library activities are listed at www.chicagopubliclibrary.org, which gets 13 million hits a month.
A final thought from Dempsey: “People are afraid to ask fundamental questions about saving, spending and investing. The resources of the library offer a non-confrontational way to learn. This week is a big event, but remember that our book collection will always be here.”
As I left, Dempsey offered me a tour of the newly created, ground-floor Popular Library in the Harold Washington library center. She suggested I check out a copy of The Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek, being read as part of One Book One Chicago this year.
I sheepishly confessed that my library card expired. No problem. Dempsey took my business card, and said she’ll have a new library card sent to me. In the meantime, she whipped out her own library card and signed out the book for me. Now all I have to worry about is returning it before they start charging overdue fees.
Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser, and appears weekly on WMAQ-Channel 5’s 4:30 p.m. newscast. Distributed by Creators Syndicate.