Brian Bannon is The New York Public Library’s first-ever Merryl and James Tisch Director. In this role, Mr. Bannon acts as the chief librarian, responsible for the operation and direction of NYPL’s 89 neighborhood branches. He focuses on the Library’s educational planning efforts to foster a culture of learning, reading, and education across the city. Mr. Bannon has over 20 years of library services experience, having worked at the Chicago Public Library (as CEO), San Francisco Public Library (as CIO), Seattle Public Library, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2016, Mr. Bannon was named one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business for his innovative approach to the 21st century library.
Going back to your roots as a child growing up in Washington state, how did you come to the realization that you were dyslexic?
I grew up in Bellingham, WA, which was a remote small town, and the understanding there about learning differences, particularly dyslexia, was not as advanced as it is today. My mother intuited that something was off because there was such a clear difference between myself and my older sister, who was unusually advanced for her age and read many grade levels above her age group. When I entered school and had to learn the basics of how to write my name, read, and spell, it was clear that it was not computing. My mom talked to my teachers who would say, “Boys can sometimes be different mentally, so let’s just wait and see.” But my mom was not going to let it go. I was a happy kid before, and she could tell my experience in school was impacting my self-efficacy. She ended up doing a lot of research herself, and eventually she was able to get me tested and diagnosed with dyslexia. This was a long time ago, so there was no internet, but she was dogged in her efforts.
What was your school experience like once you were diagnosed with dyslexia?
My schools weren’t set up to deal with a dyslexic kid. What that meant for me in terms of academics was that I was placed in special education primarily with kids who had serious behavioral issues, developmental issues, and intellectual disabilities. I was sort of the regular kid, just dyslexic. I really struggled to learn to read and write at grade level. I was always behind my peers. Like many dyslexic kids, for every three hours I spent working on an assignment, my peers were spending half an hour to an hour. Everything took way longer for me.
Many dyslexics experience challenges with self-confidence or question their own intelligence due to their difficulty with schoolwork. How did you navigate this common hurdle in your youth?
My mom realized it was important to find other ways for me to build confidence, because she knew that school was always going to be an uphill slog for me. So, she had me get involved in theatre, art, and sports, and she also encouraged me by saying there are lots of successful dyslexic people. Theatre was great for me, and my mom would record my lines so that I could listen to learn them. I was always the first kid to have my lines memorized because of that.
Your success as a swimmer earned you an athletic scholarship to attend Pacific Lutheran University (PLU). Can you share how your experience as an undergraduate differed from your formative years in school?
By my freshman year at PLU, I had developed a set of disciplined practices around studying and reading. I already knew that it took me two or three times as long as everybody else to do the work; so I had very good study and organizational habits, just so I could get marginal results. In order for me to get a C in high school, I had to move mountains. I knew how to work hard, I knew how to learn, and I knew how to advocate for myself. That was another thing that my mom really instilled in me: to be able to talk to my teachers to get extra time on tests. I was used to saying, “Hey, I’m dyslexic, I need help”; so I did that in college too. Frankly, I was not college-bound and, in hindsight, it was a combination of a few really great teachers, a very engaged parent, and activities that helped me build some confidence that allowed me to go to college in the first place. But through my habits, I ended up graduating the top of my class at PLU.
I knew how to work hard, I knew how to learn, and I knew how to advocate for myself.
Becoming a librarian is a unique career path. One would think you spent your childhood absorbing books, yet reading was extremely difficult for you. How did you discover that this was the type of job that was suited for you?
I struggled so much with reading, so I was not interested in books as a kid. Libraries for me then translated to this incredible place that I knew was filled with knowledge in books, but I imagined it was knowledge that I would never be able to access. I just never thought I would be able to read the books; libraries were not a place for me. So, the way I ended up in libraries was sort of an accident. I came out as gay in high school and pursued LGBTQ studies and psychology in college. I learned about social justice movements because I was interested in information access, activism, and access to justice. One of my social justice professors asked me if I had considered a career in libraries, and I thought she was joking, because she knew I was dyslexic. She educated me how the field of librarianship is really about accessing knowledge—connecting society to the world of information and ideas to create a more democratic society. It isn’t about books and reading; the mission of libraries is much bigger than that. Through that lens, I saw libraries in a completely different way. From there, I did my graduate work in information science at the University of Washington and started my professional journey.
The field of librarianship is really about accessing knowledge—connecting society to the world of information and ideas to create a more democratic society.
Although libraries were not a place for you as a child, you are now the chief librarian for The New York Public Libraries, one of the largest public library systems in the world. What is your relationship with reading like now?
It turns out that I actually love to read, but I primarily listen. I’m in five book clubs, so I’m definitely a reader! I use a lot of assistive tools, like listening to all of my emails using text-to-speech technology. I use accessible tools in order to increase productivity.
Libraries typically have the reputation of being long-standing, austere public institutions. Why do you believe that libraries are in fact institutions of radical innovation?
So many people like me thought as a kid that a public library was just about books and reading, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s fantastic that libraries are a home for many who have a passion for books and reading in a particular way, but they’re really a step above that. Public libraries are about the creation of new knowledge, lifelong learning, and the building of community around understanding. We can create dynamic spaces and interventions at public libraries that enable all people to pursue their love of learning and support self-directed creation of new knowledge.
Have you considered whether being dyslexic has influenced or shaped your approach to your work as a librarian?
I’m definitely unusual in my peer group of librarians. As a dyslexic, I have the experience of being outside the norm, so I think outside the traditional way of learning. This has influenced my leadership lens, like how I prioritize the development of strategy that caters to a broad base of users. For example, when I was CEO of libraries in Chicago, we were rethinking our approach to our summer learning program. Since the dawn of time, every library has had a summer reading program, which is a high-quality learning activity. However, engaging in other high-quality exploratory activities, like conducting science experiments, is as beneficial as reading. We completely redesigned that program by incorporating a range of activities that supports a child’s learning in addition to books. For kids like me who didn’t gravitate to summer reading programs, the expanded exploratory learning activities provided opportunities to keep all our kids’ brains active. Not everyone learns and thinks in the same way, and in an institution such as public libraries, we must make sure that we’re catering to all needs.
Not everyone learns and thinks in the same way, and in an institution such as public libraries, we must make sure that we’re catering to all needs.
For children who are also dyslexic, what is a message you would share with them?
For dyslexic kids, growing up we often think about dyslexia as a disability and a deficit. I wish our culture was one that had more of a mindset that dyslexics were born with a Maserati that you just need to learn how to drive, not like you are stuck with a tricycle while everyone else is driving. You simply have a complicated machine, and it is going to take a little longer to learn how to properly use it. But there is going to be a day when you learn how to drive, you’re going to hit the gas pedal, and you’re going to go faster than you ever thought you could go. All of a sudden, you’ll realize that all this time you have been learning how to maximize your incredible brain. Stick with it, and it’ll pay off.