At their Aug. 31 meeting, members of the Evanston Library Board discussed a draft three-year strategic plan for the Library and a proposed budget for fiscal year 2012. The discussion on both issues, as well as extensive public comment at the beginning of the meeting, focused on the North Branch library on Central Street, equal access to library services and community outreach.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz appeared before the Board and gave an update on the status of the Library’s transition to a new governance and funding model, under which the Library Board would take control of its own budget and direct the City to levy property taxes for its budget. Mr. Bobkiewicz said the tenor has changed since Mary Johns’s departure as director of the Library, and the opportunity arose to hire a new director who would guide the Library through the transition.

Mr. Bobkiewicz urged the Board to adopt a budget that “made sense” and not to make any “significant changes” beyond the current model. He said he would encourage City Council to consider levying taxes necessary for the Library’s budget. He added it would be appropriate for the Library Board to “coordinate and facilitate” the process of hiring a new director, and that he would recommend changes to the City Code to reflect the Library Board’s decision to move toward a new governance and funding model, which he hoped could be accomplished within 12 months.

The Draft Strategic Plan

Miriam Pollack, a librarian and consultant hired by the Board, presented a draft of the 2011-14 Strategic Plan that was prepared by the Library’s Planning Committee. She said the Committee, composed of two trustees, four employees of the Library and two community members, prepared the plan after obtaining input from the community through focus groups, an online survey, and interviews of community leaders and interested persons.

The purpose of the strategic plan, said Ms. Pollack, is to determine the Library’s “strategic vision, goals and objectives,” and answer the question, “What do we want the Library to look like in three- to five-years?”

One of the most important themes, she said, was that there be “equal access.” Goal 1 provides, “All Evanston residents will have equal access to the intellectual capital needed to support their educational, recreational, and cultural interests.”

Another important theme, Ms. Pollack said, is that the Library expand its outreach through partnerships. Goal 2 provides: “Expand library services and resources throughout the entire Evanston community.”

One way to do this, according to plan, is to “explore and develop partnerships with schools, community organizations, businesses and City recreation centers to deliver services throughout Evanston.”

Ms. Pollack said with new technologies, lightweight materials and the ease of creating “pop-up” libraries, there are many different ways to bring library services to the neighborhoods. She gave as an example volunteer-run activities, such as the TWIG (the privately run facility opened by Evanston Public Library Friends after the South Branch closed) and the YMCA. She also suggested exploring partnerships to provide services in the neighborhoods through the schools, or in City-operated facilities, or in the parks.

“We don’t want to build libraries all over the place, that’s so 20th century,” she said. “We want to find ways to provide services to people where they are and use existing things.”

A third priority “we heard all over,” Ms. Pollack said, “is getting kids ready for school. …so that kids throughout Evanston can succeed in learning.” Goal 3 of the draft strategic plan is, “Children throughout Evanston will have the opportunity to succeed in learning.” To accomplish this the draft plan calls for the Library to “offer a broad spectrum of reading readiness activities” and to coordinate with existing programs “to identify new opportunities for Evanston’s children to develop language and pre-reading skills,” and to “partner with school librarians and educators to help promote a love of reading and learning.”

The remaining four goals in the draft plan provide that the Library will adopt emerging technologies, make people aware of the available library services, recruit and nurture skilled staff and develop funding sources, and develop Board capacity.

Ms. Pollack suggested that after the Board adopts goals in the strategic plan, staff put together an action plan guided by the new interim director Donna Dziedzic “The action plan will put in place specific tasks and accomplishments,” she said.

Comments by the Library Board’s Trustees focused more on the timeline for adopting the strategic plan and on the Trustees’ role in preparing the action plan, than on the proposed goals. Diane Allen said a proposed timeline to adopt the strategic plan in September may not be appropriate. Ben Schapiro said the Trustees should be involved in preparing the action plan and that the plan should be subject to the Board’s approval.

The FY 2012 Budget

The Board of Trustees also continued discussions about the fiscal year 2012 budget.

Susan Newman said she, Ms. Allen and Mr. Gottschalk worked to put together a “base budget.”

Ms. Allen said the “base budget” represents the “status quo” in terms of services. It includes funding for the North Branch for one year, and it also includes a total of $130,000 that would be placed into reserves for operating and capital expenses, which she said is necessary for the Library to transition to the new governance and funding model.

“We’ve scoured every single line item of the budget and have been as ruthless as we could be in tearing down things we can tear down, being very aware of the City’s continuing direction to be sensitive to property taxes and increases and yet still try to make some forward motion on the strategic plan that we have just completed,” said Ms. Allen.

The base budget is $4,844,280, which represents an estimated increase of 3.97% over the prior year, she said.

Ms. Allen said two other budget options were prepared for the Board to consider, each of which includes $85,100 for a “community engagement librarian,” whose responsibilities would focus on increased and equitable library services throughout Evanston.

Budget A includes the base budget plus this new position, and represents an estimated increase of 6.08% over last year.

Budget B eliminates funding for the North Branch, but includes funding for a community engagement librarian and represents a 0.94% increase over last year.

The Trustee’s discussion on the budget centered on whether or not to fund a community engagement librarian. Mr. Schapiro said filling this position was an essential first step toward providing library services throughout the City. Lynette Murphy, citing the strategic plan’s emphasis on outreach to the community, said, “I would echo the need for a community engagement librarian.”

Gail Bush and Ms. Newman opposed budgeting for the new position. While saying she agreed with community outreach, Ms. Bush said she would like to hear from the new interim director before making the decision. Ms. Newman said the decision to allocate personnel should be left to the new director.

Ms. Allen said cost of the North Branch library is borne by all taxpayers in Evanston, whether they can use the branch or not. “The quid pro quo for that is we have to offer something [i.e., the community engagement librarian] to those people. We cannot do one without the other. If an equitable library system is what we’re looking for, then we just can’t go along with the status quo.”

The Board is scheduled to vote on a budget in September. Ms. Murphy’s term on the Board will expire before then, and it is likely that an additional person will join the Board by then.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...