Especially at a time of a large budget deficit, the City Council has the responsibility of making wise choices. Council’s decisions will impact the entire community next year, and if they decide to close the branch libraries, that decision will have a permanent effect.
Once closed, the branch libraries are gone for good. They will never reopen. For that reason, thousands of Evanston residents hope the Council will give careful consideration before axing these heavily used, long-time treasures to the community.
Consider the following: The entire Evanston Public Library system, the Main Library plus the North and South Branches, is delivered at an amazing bargain price. Last year, an Evanston homeowner with a $5000 property tax bill paid less than $22.00 for library service. So, for about the price of one new book, Evanstonians had access to materials and programs at the Main Library as well as at North and South Branches. In addition, vast resources are available from the library on a 24/7 basis through your home computer.
The usage is up significantly at all the libraries, but more so at the branches. The recession has had a lot of miserable effects, but one benefit is that people have found the libraries a comfort and a resource. Increases in branch library use of 30 percent and 40 percent per month over last year are not uncommon. Job-hunting requires access to computers, and for many people the library is their only source of a computer.
South Branch, which opened during the administration of Woodrow Wilson, has been in the same general location for more than 90 years. Generations of family members have been served there. The branch libraries are part of Evanston’s history, a valuing of education and a mark of our culture. They are community centers as well as libraries. Each branch library has an intimacy and personality that is not possible at our very efficient and valuable Main Library. The branches and Main Library are not in competition. They complement each other.
The community speaks over and over again about its positive attitude toward the Evanston Public Library system by high usage and its willingness to contribute $4,000,000 for improvements to the Main Library and donations of more than $70,000 each year to the Fund for Excellence. The branch libraries are also the recipients of gifts from users including artwork, computers and even a subscription to the New York Times. Many, many people volunteer their time at the branches, stacking the shelves, checking out books, and even repairing shelves.
Critics claim that the small populations that surround the branches get an advantage over those who live at a greater distance and that there is no West Side Branch. Persons who live close to a community resource do have an advantage whether it is a branch library or the Levy Center or Chandler Center.
The South Branch is in the densest part of the City, and the area that has been impacted by newer apartment buildings. North Branch is on a well-traveled street and helps the surrounding businesses. There was a West Side Branch in the late 70s and early 80s. It was closed (without opposition) because usage was low.
Current outreach library services concentrate on the west side. Closing the North and South Branches will not increase the opportunity for a West Side Branch, but will permanently eliminate the chance for one.
About 17 percent of library usage is at the branches. Closing the branches will not eliminate these users, but it will require them to go to Main, a destination that is neither easy nor convenient for many users. How will the increased usage at Main be handled and how paid for? Do the savings projected in the proposed budget account for this? We may be shifting users about at their inconvenience without much of a financial gain.
The $400,000 that would be saved by closing the branches must be found elsewhere in the budget so that the branches can remain open. While I can’t identify line items to be cut, neither could I have anticipated the millions of dollars in cuts that the City Manager has proposed this year. The proposed budget is just that – a proposal that can be altered on the basis of City Council’s judgment. Accepting the proposed budget is the easy route, but not the wisest one.
Bismarck (remember him) said the budget is the philosophy of the government, stripped bare. Evanston’s philosophy should value the culture and literacy provided by the branch libraries.
The branches are warm and welcoming and provide a service and a sanctuary in this wonderful community. Twenty-two dollars a year for the average homeowner!
Come on, City Council. Save the branch libraries.