Growing up in the western suburbs, Vicki Rakowski was “very familiar” with the Forest Park library, and the village in general. This is where she began her career as a librarian – and she said the lessons she learned as Youth Services reference assistant stayed with her for the next 14 years.
“I learned a lot about how to work with kids. I learned a lot about how to work with the community. So it was wonderful to be able to put together what I learned here, and what I learned at library school at Dominican [University],” Rakowski told the Review. “This community has been special to me for this reason alone.”
Now, she has returned to the library, this time as executive director, after working her way up the ranks in library districts throughout the Chicago area. Most recently, she served as executive director at the Barrington Area Library District, which collectively serves all or parts of 17 municipalities (five of which have “Barrington” in their name) across four different counties in the northwest suburbs. Forest Park’s library board approved her hiring Dec. 12, 2022, touting her “experience and empathy.”
Rakowski said that, after only about a month on the job, she is focusing on getting to know the staff and the community. In the long run, she hopes to expand collaborations with other public bodies and private organizations, especially local schools. And, with the rising number of challenges being made against the content of books in library collections, Rakowski said she would engage with the complaints while defending patrons’ rights to access materials that suit their needs and tastes.
Her first stint at the Forest Park library was from September 2008 to July 2009. Rakowski went on to work in several west suburban libraries. She joined the Barrington Area Library District in 2017, becoming its executive director in February 2021. Rakowski said she wasn’t actively seeking another position, but when she saw the Forest Park library was hiring, she couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
“I didn’t think that this opportunity would come up, just because [previous library director Pilar Shaker] – she’s about at the same point in her career as I am,” she said. “I was just really surprised and excited that that job opened up.”
The fact that she and her husband have lived in Oak Park since 2016 and the job would mean a shorter commute didn’t hurt – but Rakowski said that it wasn’t the main reason why she was excited.
“If the pandemic taught me anything, if you’re lucky enough to put the energy in a place that means something to you, that you should take this opportunity,” she said, adding that, as she went through the interview process, she was increasingly sure that it would be the right choice.
“The first year is really just about getting to know everybody and making sure that you have an understanding, if you’re [making] the change and you want to do something differently, that you understand what the impact of change might be,” she said.
That isn’t to say that Rakowski doesn’t have broad priorities. She reflected that, as the country comes out of the pandemic and people are returning to the library, they want to make sure they provide whatever patrons need – and meet them wherever they are. If the patrons only use online resources and never set foot at the library, Rakowski said, that’s perfectly OK.
“In the library, we’re always looking to serve better, and making sure that literally everyone in town has something for them,” she said.
As part of that, Rakowski wants to build on the district’s relations with the village, the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce, Forest Park School District 91 and Proviso Township High School District 209.
“I think for us, one of our big goals is to get into the two school districts even further, see what we can do to help, how we can support them,” she said.
Rakowski said the library can help schools by providing resources for teachers, working together on programming and providing space for events. They also want to get students library cards, since it would allow them to check out books and other materials that may not be available at their school libraries.
“Sometimes, it’s providing a support, sometimes it’s providing a program, sometimes it’s providing a partnership, sometimes it’s providing space for meetings,” Rakowski said.
In recent years, the library has been working with the Mohr Community Center and the village in general to assist homeless patrons who use the library to wash up, access computers and other resources, or generally to spend time. Rakowski said she’s been impressed with the work the library has already been doing, and she plans to keep an eye open for anything else they can do to help those patrons and connect them to resources outside the library.
“The most important thing we can do is pay attention, be open-minded, and be able to help with the resources we can help with,” she said.
The question of what kind of materials libraries circulate has increasingly become a hot-button issue. The American Library Association found that between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, 2022, there have been “681 attempts to ban or restrict library resources, and 1,651 unique titles were targeted.” The issue surfaced in Riverside in December 2022, when two residents asked Riverside Public Library Director Janice Foley to remove Gender Queer – a request that the library board denied.
Rakowski said that she has “a deep respect for the first amendment” and that “our entire job is to provide access, free of judgment, to the materials that the community desires and needs.” If she gets those requests, she will try her best to engage with the patrons.
“If you see the book that you don’t like or don’t agree with, it would be our pleasure to find one that you do,” she said.
Overall, Rakowski said she was looking forward to what the job will bring.
“I still have the art that children made for me when I [previously] worked here,” she reflected. “To be able to come back is just special, and it’s not something a lot of people get – to be able to come back to a place that meant so much to you personally. It’s just great to come full circle.”