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Yes, Evanston needs to trim its $234-million budget for next year, but to get rid of the two much-loved branch libraries would be a sorry choice for this City once praised as the Athens of the West.

A Guest Essay
By Janet G. Messenger

In the early 1870s, Evanston led the way in pushing for a state law allowing public libraries and in 1873 became one of the first cities in Illinois to establish one. This early commitment is hardly reflected in what we pay today to support our library system, made up of the Main Library and two branches.

Last year, for every $5,000 paid in property taxes, $22 went to library services, not even enough to buy a hardback book. That comes to about $63 per capita, or half what our North Shore neighbors pay. Wilmette funds its library at $140 per capita and Glencoe at $198.

Not only do the branches – at 2026 Central St. and 949 Chicago Ave. – provide books, periodicals and Internet connections to old and young, rich and poor and everyone in between, but they also create a small-town sensibility in a city of 74,000 people.

Branch patrons tell how they love the smaller libraries:

• the connection with branch librarians, who often know their names.

• the convenient branch locations, within walking distance of homes and schools;

• the comfortable setting, in which seniors can read the newspaper or meet friends, and parents and children can browse in different sections without losing each other.

Simply put, they like the intimacy, the sense of belonging.

When residents visit the library, they tend to stop in at stores, bakeries, coffee shops and restaurants along the way. Neighboring retailers want the branch libraries to stay put. They are realistic business people who make no bones about how the branch libraries create street traffic that brings in customers.

Central Street Merchants Association members say the north branch library is vital. “Losing the library would hurt every business on the street,” says Dave Schaps, owner of Great Harvest Bread Company.

The library anchors this street, says Perennials owner Patty O’Neill-Cynkar. Not only do many of her customers come in toting books, but, she says, they “pick up tea to accompany their read.”

“We’re like Main Street U.S.A.,” says Stella owner Rachel Hershinow. “We have an eclectic mix of retail, restaurants and service, and the library is central to Central Street.”

Main-Chicago retailers say the same about the south branch, says Susanne Donoghue, co-founder of Ten Thousand Villages and president of the Main Street Merchants Association.

“Our customers often shop the whole street after a visit to the library,” she says. “If the south branch closes, it won’t be good.

“The City just doesn’t get it. To them, it’s all about cutting expenses. What about the other way around? How about helping businesses so we can bring in more tax dollars? Keeping the branch libraries open would be one way to help do that.”

So when the City projects yearly savings of $425,000 by closing the libraries, it needs to consider the possibility of lost tax revenue from shops along Central and Main and the risk of two more empty storefronts. The last time the City tried to sell the north branch, it couldn’t find a buyer.

South Branch has been around since 1917 and north since 1912. South opened at 926 Chicago and in 1934 moved across the street to 949. North Branch was based in the old Crandon School (now the site of Independence Park) until 1927, when it moved to the newly-opened Haven School. It moved again in 1952, to a Jewel food store. The City bought this building in 1978.

Enthusiastic fans of the branch libraries suggest Evanston should add, not cut, branches. Though the branches are not as magnificent as the new downtown library, user numbers show they provide what patrons want. Circulation at the Main Library increased 5 percent from 2008 to 2009 but 19 percent at North Branch and a whopping 46 percent at South. Visitors went up 7 percent at the Main Library but 13 percent at north branch and 31 percent at south.

May the Evanston branch libraries bend but not break in this current financial storm. Before the proposed budget cuts become final, urge the aldermen, mayor and city manager to reconsider cutting out the branch libraries, to find other means to fund the library, perhaps by separate taxing districts or superstickers, and to keep these almost 100-year-old branches rooted on Central and Main, where they can continue to support and strengthen their communities.