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The newest branch of the Evanston Public Library, part of the new Robert Crown Center, is in the active planning stage, with preliminary drawings, community input, and excitement and planning on the parts of the Library Board and staff.
“Things that you hope we would hear [from the community], we’re beginning to hear,” Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons told the RoundTable in an interview that included Library Board President Michael Tannen.
The new 128,000-square-foot Robert Crown Center will have two ice rinks; spaces for fitness, dance, yoga and other recreation; indoor and outdoor fields and courts; and – like only one other sports facility in this country – its very own branch of the library. “One would think that a library and a sports facility would be a natural fit,” said Mr. Tannen, “but there are only 20 in Canada and one other in the United States.”
“This will be the first branch that’s constructed like a branch,” Ms. Lyons said. During her tenure with the Chicago Public Library, she was on teams that oversaw the renovation or construction of 54 branch libraries.
Programming and Space
Although there will be discrete areas for its many planned programs, the building will be conducive to mingling, watching, and chatting. One concept is to have a walking track above and around one of the rinks. Other areas are for “warm-side viewing” of the ice activities – glass-walled lounging areas outside the rinks.
With the opportunities for exercise – sports, dance, fitness, yoga, etc. – and quiet intellectual pursuits, people can develop mind and body in one space, Ms. Lyons said.
Although the planned hours of operation of the center – 5:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. – are more extensive than those for the branch library, “We want to serve even when we’re closed,” Ms. Lyons said. She envisions kiosks to dispense books, CDs, and movies through the use of the library card.
All ages will be welcome. “Sometimes it will feel like it’s a senior citizens’ library, sometimes, a children’s library,” Ms. Lyons said. “We can push book stacks out of the way – and it will look like a different library.”
Carts with laptops can be rolled out for multiple users – rather like a cart with trays in a school lunchroom – and the laptops themselves may be available for checkout.
In summer, the sliding glass doors to the outside could be opened so patrons can step out into a reading garden, which could also be used for storytelling to children. The landscaping will add to the ambience of an active, light-filled, bustling center, she said.
Ms. Lyons also said one idea is to create a special Robert Crown Library card to welcome new patrons, which would be good at all the branches and the Main Library, as well.
Noting the proximity of Washington, Dawes, and Chute schools, as well as Evanston Township High School, Mr. Tannen said, “This will fill a gap on the west side.” He also said he believes the new center and library could attract Northwestern University students not only to use the facility but to volunteer there as tutors for student Library patrons.
Ms. Lyons said she hopes some of the programs offered through the Main Library, such as the free tax-preparation service provided by the Center for Economic Progress and the career counseling offered by National ABLE (Ability Based on Long Experience) Network would establish satellites at the Robert Crown Branch.
The tax-preparation program is an example of the Library’s successful partnerships, Mr. Tannen said. “Last year the volunteers – who prepare tax returns for families with incomes of less than $55,000 and individual with incomes of less than $30,000 – netted about $750,000 in refunds.”
“We couldn’t do what we do without the community partners and the leadership of the Board and staff… We keep the focus on our families, on how we can help them. … We have a great partner with the City departments as well,” Ms. Lyons said.
Ms. Lyons sees the common spaces as more than access to the rooms that house various activities. “She sees the lobby as an agora,” Mr. Tannen said. “It’s a place for people to connect, converse,” Ms. Lyons said. Focusing on the wide stairway to the second floor, she said she envisions it as tiered seating for lectures or concerts as well as the more pedestrian access to the upstairs.
Ms. Lyons said the Library staff would work with the Robert Crown staff when Library programs could use extra space. “I don’t want to negotiate every week or have staff go hat in hand to beg space for at the last minute. There’s got to be room for everybody.”
“The Library Board felt so strongly we could build this library that it has committed to paying $2.5 million toward the building. … We are building in a maintenance fund, based on the lifespan of the equipment.” Mr. Tannen said.
The City will issue all the bonds necessary, and the library will repay its share, Ms. Lyons said. Of course, donations on any level are still welcome, she added.
Michael Happ, Campaign Director for the new center, wrote in an email response to a RoundTable question on the timeline for the new facility, “The current intention is to begin construction in spring 2018 and complete all work by fall 2019.”
A Bit of History
City approval for construction of a new branch library is an about-face from 2011, when the City closed the South Branch Library, and there was talk about closing the North Branch as well. Many people who had tried to save the South Branch opened the Mighty Twig, a privately run lending library at 900 Chicago Ave., which is now the site of the Chicago Avenue/Main Street Branch of the Evanston Public Library (CAMS).
The group that coalesced into Evanston Library Friends helped fund and staff the Twig. In 2012, the City hired Ms. Lyons as Library Director, and CAMS opened in 2013.
Like many other institutions in Evanston, the Library Board has decided to honor retiring City officials Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl and Fifth Ward Alderman Delores Holmes.
“Although Ald. Holmes was at first not on board with saving the two branch libraries and creating a third, she came aboard so strongly that the Board decided to name one of the new rooms after her,” Mr. Tannen said. The Board also plans to endow a scholarship to study library science in the name of Mayor Tisdahl.
Mr. Tannen, whose happiness about the new Library branch, the Library itself, and the Library Board, was evident throughout the interview, said, “If five or six or seven years ago you would have told me we’d have a world-class Library director and could be building a crown jewel on the west side, I would have thought you were dreaming.”