On April 20, almost 100 people gathered on the fourth floor of the Civic Center in the corridor leading to Room 4802, where a disciplinary hearing was scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. concerning Lesley Williams, an African American librarian at the Evanston Public Library [EPL]. People held signs saying, “We stand with Lesley,” and “Lesley is a Beacon of Hope,” and at times chanted their support.
At about 3:50 p.m., Reverend Michael Nabors, Senior Pastor of Evanston’s Second Baptist Church and President of the Evanston Branch of the NAACP, spoke in the corridor, flanked by people, a television camera, and a host of microphones. Ms. Williams is “one of the great librarians in our nation,” he said.
Ms. Williams has been “so active in the Evanston community,” including coordinating a number of different rallies supporting Muslims, the LGTB community, the black community, Rev. Nabors continued. “I’m here because something is wrong with the Evanston Public Library if they are putting the only African American librarian in a situation where she will not be able to continue to produce results, to produce amazing resources for the community, not just for African Americans, but for every marginalized group, for every group that stands on the fringes. We need her in Evanston.”
Dilanaz Waraich, a member of the Board of Open Communities and from the Muslim Community Center in Morton Grove, said, “I am here to support Lesley Williams, a human being, a person who cares. She is here for all of us. She’s not just here for one group. She’s here for all marginalized communities. Leslie’s a leader.”
Lynn Pollack, an Evanston resident, said Ms. Williams’s programming at the library “is equal opportunity for everyone. We need her desperately to stay here and continue to produce challenging materials and programing that really invites us all to take a harder look at our society and our history.”
She said the disciplinary proceeding against Ms. Williams “was heart-breaking. It’s wrong.”
The RoundTable asked several of the organizers of the rally if they knew what the disciplinary charges were. At that time, no one knew.
Three police officers cleared a path through the peaceful crowd gathered in the corridor leading to the hearing room for Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons and the panel hearing the disciplinary charges. Several people told the RoundTable they were upset police were called.
After a 35-minute hearing, Ms. Williams emerged from the hearing room and said she would be advised of the decision in about five days. About 75 people were still in the corridor. “I can’t tell you how overwhelmed I am to have this support,” she said. “This really reflects why this job is so important to me. Why I love working as a librarian at the Evanston Public Library. It really is because of all of you.”
On April 25, members of the Library Board issued a statement in support of Ms. Lyons. The statement said the “innuendo” that no other EPL employee promotes social harmony, equity, and racial justice is “flatly wrong and it is offensive.” While recognizing that “there is a paucity of degreed librarians of color at EPL,” the statement says, “This problem is not restricted to EPL; the entire public library field is grappling with it. The latest available statistics from the ALA show that only 5% of all credentialed librarians are African American; only 3% are Hispanic.”
The Board’s statement did not disclose the disciplinary charges against Ms. Williams, saying personnel matters are typically confidential.
The Board does say, though, it has “elemental expectations of all EPL staff” which includes that all EPL employees are “expected to work together collaboratively and collegially and to treat each other with dignity and respect,” and that “every single EPL employee must treat every library patron with dignity and respect, regardless of the patron’s race, gender, or socio-economic status. … No patron should be subjected to suspension, police involvement or to the specter of arrest for trespass for voicing their opinions at EPL events, especially if that opinion comes from a unique and thought-provoking perspective.”
The Board’s statement also says, “During the five years Karen [Lyons] has been at EPL’s helm, by any subjective or objective criterion, EPL has experienced a renaissance.” The statement lists many things that have been done during Ms. Lyons’ tenure, including updating the strategic plan; adopting the American Library Association’s statement on Equity of Access; implementing early child literacy initiatives, including ABC Boosters; expanding free distribution of WiFi hotspots; making the library welcoming for military veterans; employing a full-time social worker; partnering to offer taxpayer assistance to hundreds of income eligible Evanstonians; and renovating the Main branch and planning the funding and construction of a state of the art library at Robert Crown.
After the Board issued its statement, Ms. Williams issued a statement saying, “In light of the EPL board’s response supporting my director, and insinuating that my ethics and behavior are open to question, I would like to make a clarifying statement. It’s reasonable that those who do not know me would feel uneasy supporting me without knowing what the charges are.”
Ms. Williams said she could not release the discipline documents, “largely because there is no way to do so without revealing the identities of the individuals concerned,” but she said, “None of the charges against me involve criminal behavior, sexual improprieties, or financial improprieties.
“There are four charges: one involves my handling of a library speaker, one involves my interaction with a patron, and two involve communications with co-workers,” Ms. Williams continued. “I have refuted all four charges and believe they are completely without merit, but I can’t discuss them in more detail without violating the privacy of the other individuals involved.”
She added, “The real question is why these allegations are being made now, especially since one of the incidents occurred in September, and the others over the past several months. I was not disciplined for any of them at the time; my director asked me to write an explanation for 2 of the incidents, which I did; afterwards she did not ask to meet with me or express any further concern about them. She never even communicated with me about 2 of the charges.”
On April 27, Ms. Williams told the RoundTable she received a 15-day suspension, starting on Monday.