The Evanston Public Library provides opportunities for all of us to come together to consider important issues.
This is Evanston, where people demand a voice for their engaged community activism. It is a privilege to be your Library Director and to provide a ready conduit for your intellectualism, spirited engagement, connection and action.
Here, we provide a safe and inclusive “third space,” where we can explore different points of view, whether expressed between the covers of books, through community conversations or in the words of speakers. Evanstonians are informed citizens: We seek information, and we think critically. All of this forms the bedrock of a democratic society. The library is part of that bedrock and we take our role very seriously.
Amazingly, the Evanston Public Library hosts more than 2,000 programs on a yearly basis. We are also an outpost where others provide needed services, from free tax preparation for low-income individuals, to Affordable Care Act sign-up, resume and career services and programs for new immigrants.
Recently we hosted a book talk by Ali Abunimah, the author of “The Battle for Justice in Palestine.” This program was not carried out as directed, as part of a larger, multi-faceted conversation about Middle East politics and history.
This caused unfortunate misunderstandings about the library’s role and actions. We continue to actively seek other speakers and authors on the topic of the Middle East, and we welcome community feedback from our highly engaged patrons.
We hope that a wide array of speakers and points of view will lead to greater understanding, empathy, and possible solutions to the heartbreaking Mideast crisis. This format was remarkably successful in the Library’s recently completed four-part series on Youth Violence.
Evanston citizens from all walks of life – parents, teens, teachers, social workers, ministers, business leaders and our Mayor – came together to exchange ideas and share their unique and collective experiences. These forums were raw and thought-provoking, to be sure, and they were also constructive and bridge-building. Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl highlighted these wonderful community discussions in her recent open letter about youth violence.
In the Declaration for the Right to Libraries, first distributed at the American Library Association Conference in July 2013, ten statements describe the framework that guides our work here:
1. Libraries empower the individual.
2. Libraries support literacy and lifelong learning.
3. Libraries strengthen families.
4. Libraries are the great equalizer.
5. Libraries build communities.
6. Libraries protect our right to know.
7. Libraries strengthen our nation.
8. Libraries advance research and scholarship.
9. Libraries help us to better understand each other.
10. Libraries preserve our nation’s cultural heritage.
Our work in Evanston is also shaped by our participation in a national library initiative in partnership with the American Library Association and the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. We have learned a set of core skills that we are using to focus our efforts to “turn outward” so that we can create programs that match the Evanston community’s aspirations. We will continue our series of community conversations in order to:
• Uncover people’s shared aspirations and concerns and integrate both expert and public knowledge in our decision making.
• Engage the community through conversations and listening.
• Share knowledge from engaging the community to show people their voice matters and to build public will for action. As we intentionally and thoughtfully expand our role as community builder and “public square,” we will continue to seek input from all residents this fall. Watch out for our survey, which will be available both in print and online. We hope to hear from many voices – both our patrons and those who do not currently use the library.
Please sign up for our electronic newsletter and check our website often for updates at www.epl.org.
Evanston is not a typical community, and we are not a typical library. I served the Chicago Public Library for more than 19 years. After just two years at the helm of the Evanston Public Library, I am delighted by the strength of this community, and I’m excited for all the opportunities this library has to better serve your needs and provide a public square for ongoing learning, connection and intellectual discourse.
Ms. Lyons is director of Evanston Public Library. Mr. Tannen is president, Evanston Public Library Board.