When things happen at the Oak Park Public libraries, it isn’t always obvious who is responsible, whether it is a poetry discussion involving race relations, an accessible remodeled branch library, artworks that welcome all kinds of people or a building constructed with sustainability in mind.
Jim Madigan, deputy director, has had a hand in all these things and more during his 25 years at the library. As he retires on Feb. 8, he leaves a legacy of “compassionate service,” “social justice” and “dedicated leadership,” according to a resolution by the Board of Library Trustees of the village of Oak Park.
Madigan, 68, found his first position at the Oak Park Public Library by accident in the early 1990s while he was searching the Sunday Chicago Tribune want ads for a friend.
“I was not looking for a job, but I saw an ad for the library that I thought was an odd combination of skills,” said Madigan, then the executive director of an Easter Seals organization in Oak Park. “They wanted someone to do budgeting, grant writing and community outreach. I thought, ‘I could do all that,’ so I applied.”
He was hired as coordinator of administrative and community services in February 1994.
“The library has been very active in every issue that comes up in Oak Park,” said Madigan, an Oak Park resident since the 1970s. “And I’ve had a chance to be part of all that.”
One of those issues is homelessness, which Madigan points out has been at libraries’ door steps more than 100 years, because they are a place to go during the day. The Oak Park Public Library is part of the 40-plus member Oak Park Homeless Coalition. Madigan is on the coalition’s core team.
Another issue Madigan has taken on is the U.S. Patriot Act. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, the government took liberties with people’s privacy, including at libraries.
According to Madigan, the FBI could take computers or records from libraries and the institutions would be required to relinquish them without revealing this had taken place.
“One of the things libraries pride themselves on is privacy,” he said. “Librarians have developed systems to protect privacy. So, this seemed like a really radical, ill-advised step.”
Madigan put together a program to educate staff and another to educate the public with a representative from the FBI, the American Civil Liberties Union and himself.
Recognizing libraries “play a lot of important roles that society needs,” Madigan has been part of programming that makes everyone feel welcome. He suggested the 2018 summer “One Book One Oak Park” poetry book, “A People’s History of Chicago” by Kevin Coval.
While numerous programming was put on by various staff, Madigan, along with Kelly Knowles, supervisor of branch and access services, came up with Poems and Place, talking to groups out in Oak Park and reading pertinent poems from Coval’s book.
“They were told to meet at the corner of East and Chicago,” Madigan said. “No one knew where we were. It was Percy Julian’s home (firebombed in 1951). And then we read a poem about a kid that was killed in 1919 in Chicago for what was thought of as a white area. … What happened to Percy Julian is not unique and it’s not ancient history.”
Throughout his time at the library, Madigan said he brought a variety of diverse offerings from movies by independent African-American women to Latinx filmmakers, and Asian, Latinx and African-American heritage celebrations.
Malachi Thompson, a jazz musician, and poet Amiri Baraka, performed to a filled room at the library during a snowstorm in January.
“I love bringing people together,” Madigan said.
He also obtained an oral history grant to record the stories of those involved in fair housing and other issues concerning local diversity in the DVD series “Legends of Our Time,” available on the shelves of the main library.
Even the art on the walls beckons to all who come. Madigan oversees the permanent art collection and says the works “speak to people’s hearts, rather than their minds.” The latest artwork, added last March, is “Rennie In Rhapsody” by Jesse Howard, a local artist who often depicts disenfranchised African-American women in his works.
Among his lasting contributions Madigan feels are most significant are the construction of the main library and the renovation of the Adele H. Maze branch.
He worked with Debby Preiser, who handles the library’s community relations, to communicate with citizens about the projects to help get a $30 million referendum passed.
Once the funding was secured, Madigan was on the building committee that worked with architects and interior designers to bring the new main library, which opened in 2003, to life. He focused on making it sustainable, including using EcoSurface flooring made from recycled rubber tires.
When it was time to renovate the Maze Branch Library in 2005, Madigan was project manager. He said it was important to honor the architectural integrity of the 1936 E.E. Roberts and Elmer C. Roberts building.
One way this was done, was through replacing lighting to make it look consistent with the era of the original building. An addition was built and the library was made accessible to everyone.
“On the day we opened that building up, a woman came in pushing her son (who was in his 20s) in a wheelchair, and she said, ‘He’s not been in this building since I could carry him,'” Madigan recalled. “That meant this is a successful project.”
For Madigan, libraries are “the community’s space. It’s not just a cultural center, it’s a community center and it’s also a learning center.”
Last fall, Madigan said he taught a course at the Illinois Institute of Technology called Songs of Social Justice. He plans to continue teaching that course in his retirement, possibly developing another class for the spring semester next year.
While he goes on to teach, the Oak Park Public Library will continue to a be a center of learning, culture and community, all influenced by Madigan’s touch these past 25 years.