A Library for the Ages

Daniel Leibowitz

Danielle Leibowitz at the town hall meeting.

“Selecting UIC/North Lawndale to host the Barack Obama Presidential Library has the potential to not only propel the work of our university, but also to make change in the city of Chicago,” said Danielle Leibowitz, LAS senior and UIC student member of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees. “It’s time to invest in the future of our public education system and our neighborhoods, and I’m proud to be on UIC’s team for this bid because that investment is exactly what we stand for. Now that we have submitted our final documents, we are all anxiously awaiting the foundation’s decision!”

On December 11 UIC and its North Lawndale community partner submitted a comprehensive proposal to host the Library. The proposal outlines a vision for creating an east-west cultural and civic corridor extending from the lakefront Museum Campus through UIC to North Lawndale. It would unite and serve community and academic purposes and establish dramatic new public green spaces throughout the corridor. 

Rendering of the library

Barack Obama Presidential Library Rendering by Megan Strand.

The proposal envisions the use of both the UIC and North Lawndale sites in order to create a library and museum on a currently vacant, 23-acre city-owned parcel in North Lawndale and a visitors center and proposed “O-4 Institute” for academic-civic collaboration at the corner of Harrison and Halsted on the UIC campus. The UIC site, overlooking the downtown skyline and Jane Byrne Interchange, is directly above the Blue Line’s UIC-Halsted station. 

The O-4 Institute—named for optimism, outreach, opportunity and one world, in keeping with the Obama policy agenda—would host fellowships for academics and junior fellowships for high school students. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has gone on record supporting the UIC proposal.

The road to the current moment began in July 2013 when a steering committee was formed to study the idea of UIC hosting the Barack Obama Presidential Library. Working with faculty, staff, and students from across the university, Steering Committee Co-Chairs Mary Case and Michael Redding produced a 193-page initial proposal. It presented the proposition that, as a Research I institution profoundly committed to serving underrepresented students and communities, UIC was the most appropriate site to advance the President’s legacy of social justice and creating knowledge that solves real world problems. It suggested a tripartite site located on East Campus, West Campus, and in the adjacent community of North Lawndale where Obama began his community organizing. The sites would incorporate the library, academics, a museum, and a community center. The UIC/North Lawndale corridor would take advantage of existing transportation, including public transportation, to link the campuses and neighborhood, and would serve to revitalize an underserved neighborhood. 

In June 2014, Chancellor Paula Allen-Meares submitted the proposal to the Barack Obama Foundation, along with letters of support from U.S. Congressman Danny Davis, Alderman James Balcer, former MacArthur Foundation President Robert Gallucci, and National Museum of Mexican Art President and Founder Carlos Tortolero. In her cover letter, the Chancellor noted that UIC is “one of the most diverse universities in the world, with no ethnic majority predominating.” As such, we are uniquely suited to host the library. Leibowitz and Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Barbara Henley, and five additional students including LAS students Jauwan Hall and Fuentes Cortes, travelled to Washington D.C. to meet with Illinois congressional delegation staff and to officially present the initial proposal to the foundation. 

On September 15, Martin H. Nesbitt, Chairman of the Barack Obama Foundation, informed Chancellor Allen-Meares that the UIC/North Lawndale proposal had been selected as one of four finalists to host the library and museum and invited UIC to submit a more detailed proposal by the deadline of December 11. The other finalists are the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and the University of Hawaii.

Audience at town hall meeting

Town hall meeting at UIC.

One month later, UIC and North Lawndale partners hosted a town hall meeting to update the UIC and city communities on progress and next steps. Leibowitz provided welcoming remarks and Dick Simpson, professor in the Department of Political Science, served as moderator. Lisa Lee, Director of the UIC School of Art and Art History, explained the design rationale for the three proposed sites, stating that the committee followed the aesthetic principles of UIC architect Walter Netsch. Charles Leeks, of Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, spoke of the historic link between UIC and North Lawndale and addressed the benefits the library would bring to the community. Audience input was gathered via several brainstorming breakout sessions.

LAS Dean Astrida Orle Tantillo, who participated in strategy summits during the proposal process, said: “The Obama Library belongs in Chicago and it belongs at UIC. The President’s life work and continuing legacy is one of intellectual rigor, civic engagement, and social justice within the context of the urban experience. As Illinois’ public, urban, Research I institution, fully engaged with the city and the region, UIC is the natural and best choice to host and steward the Obama Presidential Library for future generations.”

The final UIC proposal, a video, letters of supportm and other materials can be accessed here:
UIC Presidential Library Website

Some material in this story adapted from UIC News. Meeting photos by Edward Drogos