After two reports to the City Council on June 28, City Council agreed with the sentiment expressed by Alderman Jean-Baptiste: Closing the branches in August “is off the table.”
Council had set an Aug. 31 deadline for both north and south branches, 2026 Central St. and 949 Chicago Ave., respectively. Evanston Public Library Friends – previously an ad-hoc committee, now a not-for-profit organization – raised more than $170,000 to keep the branches open.
After hearing reports from the Friends and from the Library Board of Trustees’ Sustainability Task Force on June 28, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said that, absent direction from Council, “I will proceed to close the branches as of August 31.”
Aldermen voted 7-2 to keep the branches open another six months.
Funding From Friends
Lori Keenan, vice president of the Friends, reported that “not more than 100 days” after receiving marching orders, they had raised more than $171,000. Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, pointed to a bank statement showing $124,000 in the bank, and $25,000 from a library fund earmarked for branch library renovation, plus $25,000 in matching funds from the Library board itself. The group claims 2,750 families and 5,500 stakeholders, all of whom have joined since March 1. She reported a 90 percent rate of conversion from pledges to actual donations, addressing a concern raised by an alderman.
Sustainable funding options were addressed by Karen Terry, president of the Library’s board of directors, and a member of the Sustainability Task Force. The group identified four options for long-term funding: a public-private partnership in which private groups or corporations could share the financial burden; a library tax under the Illinois Library Fund law under which the Library would levy a tax and fund operations through its collection; a special service area under which the immediate area surrounding library locations would be taxed at a higher rate than other City areas to fund library branch operations; or conversion to a Library District under which the Library would become an autonomous governing body similar to the Township.
Ms. Terry said the Library’s Board did not take a position or recommend a specific funding method. “The job of the task force was to research [funding options]. We’ve done that.”
Jeff Smith, an Evanston activist and an adviser to the Library and Library Friends, was not so constrained. He called the refusal of the City to fund libraries “an abdication of municipal responsibility.” Half of the libraries in Illinois are part of independent library districts; he said, 54 in Cook County alone, including Chicago, Wilmette, Winnetka and Lincolnwood. He cited transparency as an advantage, saying that “everyone would see how much it costs [and we would] be surprised at how little.” The library fund option is also common, he said. Morton Grove and Skokie’s libraries are funded out of independent library funds.
A public-private partnership would be “unique,” said Mr. Smith. “I am not aware of any in Illinois… We don’t hold bake sales for sewers [or have] lemonade stands for curb cuts,” he said. A special service area, creating different levels of taxation based simply on proximity to services, would create a bad precedent, he said. “Libraries are part of the commons. They belong to the public; they are part of the public. [Libraries] incubate freedom for the 21st century.”
West Side Outreach
Ms. Keenan reported on efforts to extend the Library’s reach to the west side of town. She pointed to summer reading outposts opened at Robert Crown Center and Fleetwood-Jourdain, and a new summer reading outpost soon to open in the Dempster-Dodge shopping center. A new Robert Crown Center, in the early planning stages, includes space for a branch library.
City Council fell into three basic camps in response to the reports. Those who had supported the branch libraries all along continued to support them and praised the efforts of the Library Friends: aldermen Wynne; Jane Grover, 7th Ward; Judy Fiske, 1st Ward; and Mark Tendam, 6th Ward. Others said that Council had made a deal, and that by raising the necessary funds the group deserved praise and the libraries had to remain at least through March: aldermen Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward; Ann Rainey, 8th Ward; and Don Wilson, 4th Ward. The third group, Fifth Ward Alderman Delores Holmes and Ninth Ward Alderman Coleen Burrus, said they opposed the branches then, now, and into the future.
The supporters pointed to the importance of libraries as stimulators of economic activity and public gathering spaces. Ald. Fiske said a revitalized South Branch could help the Main Street corridor. Ald. Tendam said that his ward is devoid of public gathering spaces and the North Branch, along with the Ecology Center, serves that purpose. Ald. Wynne and Grover praised the Friends for meeting the goals set by Council and meeting them ahead of schedule.
Ald. Wilson said, “I believed that the branches should have been closed for budgetary reasons,” and that he thought the Friends would fail in their quest to raise enough money. He moved that Council accept $160,000 from the Friends and that Council direct City staff to keep the branches open another six months. “It’s not the way we should have gone about it … but I am pleased with the results,” he added, citing in particular the summer reading outpost at Robert Crown as a positive.
Ald. Jean-Baptiste said that “closing [the branches] in August is off the table.” Ald. Rainey, though she wanted to be sure that Council was not being “hoodwinked” by suspect numbers, agreed that the Friends had done what the City asked.
Ald. Burrus was not swayed. She said that the sustainable funding solutions would all raise residents’ taxes. She attacked the Friends for using the Library’s donor list, obtained via Freedom of Information Act, to solicit donations. She attacked the Library board for diverting funds that could be used by the main branch to the effort to maintain the north and south branches. She questioned whether the $160,000 was enough, saying, “I do not believe that we said that’s all they had to raise.” Ald. Holmes wanted a guarantee that no tax dollars whatsoever would go toward running the branches after Aug. 31, and appeared not to be satisfied by Mr. Bobkiewicz’s assurance that the City would stay within budget.
The end result was a 7-2 vote in favor of accepting the donation of operating funds from the Friends, keeping the libraries open through February, and revisiting sustainable funding options after a report from the City Manager. Applause erupted when the votes were cast.
A proposal brought to the City by Senator Jeff Schoenberg to situate a new south branch library with a relocated state unemployment office (see the June 23 RoundTable) has received mixed reviews. At the June 28 City Council meeting, Lori Keenan of the Evanston Public Library Friends offered to donate funds raised by the group toward relocation costs, should Council agree to fund the branches out of the City’s General Funds rather than her group’s donations.
Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said she agreed a new location was needed, but questioned the wisdom of combining an unemployment office with a library. “Have you ever been in an unemployment office?” she asked. She also questioned situating a library with a State office given the State’s recent failure to pay bills in a timely manner.
Ms. Keenan specifically mentioned 831 Chicago Ave. as the Friends’ “preferred location” for a new south branch. First Ward Alderman Judy Fiske agreed, citing the economic stimulus a library can provide.