How Evanston Public Library (EPL) addresses the idea of equity – or, as many have recently alleged, fails to do so – was a principal focus of the library’s May 17 Board of Trustees meeting.
The meeting came in the wake of the suspension of EPL’s Adult Services Librarian Lesley Williams, who in April received a 15-day suspension for an undisclosed matter. Both sides have remained silent about the nature of the alleged infraction, but Williams publicly said that they do not involve “criminal behavior, sexual improprieties or financial improprieties.”
Ms. Williams also has said that she believes the matter involves four separate episodes going back to Sept. 2016. Ms. Williams is active in local advocacy, and the suspension has sparked protests from her supporters.
Board President Michael Tannen said at the meeting, “There have been some charges and suggestions that we are not equitable,” adding that he had discussed the matter both with the mayor and Rev. Michael Nabors, president of Evanston/North Shore NAACP branch.
According to Mr. Tannen, the NAACP supported Ms. Williams without knowing the full details behind her case. “We talked about how we need to break down the siloes [and] employment issues,” Mr. Tannen said.
Three of the speakers in public comments addressed Ms. Williams’ situation; one of the speakers echoed recent calls from the community for an equity audit at the library. Proponents of such an audit maintain that it would allow EPL to better address structural and systemic barriers to access, diversity and inclusion.
But equity audits are most frequently implemented by schools and school districts, and occasionally hospitals and healthcare systems, settings that have clearly defined benchmarks and desired outcomes. EPL Director Karen Danczak Lyons noted that libraries are by law limited in what data they can collect about patrons and what materials they access. She said, however, that measuring who was utilizing library programs might be possible.
Some board members expressed frustrations with the charges leveled against EPL. Trustee Tori Foreman said that some people had unquestioningly jumped on a “bandwagon,” adding, “Things are being said with no background and no basis.”
Trustee Sandra Smith added, “I wouldn’t come here if I didn’t feel like we are accommodating all walks of life.”
Mr. Tannen said that equity was “in the DNA” of EPL and libraries in general. He recalled telling Rev. Nabors, “We are interested in equity. We do equity. It’s important to us. We told him these protests are counter-productive.”
Ms. Williams is EPL’s sole full-time librarian who is a person of color; board members pointed to an overall underrepresentation of persons of color in the library science discipline. But Board Co-Treasurer Benjamin Schapiro encouraged the Board and staff to look more closely at EPL’s hiring practices.
“The question we must answer as a board is, do we hire with letter and spirit of the law, and the spirit of the community?” said Mr. Schapiro. “How do we do our hiring with regard to the available people in the hiring pool?”
Trustees also discussed the progress of the Robert Crown Community Center. Ms. Lyons said that she and others had toured library facilities in Canada, where it is more common to combine libraries and community centers in the same space, as is planned with the Crown Center. That trip, Ms. Lyons said, convinced them that the complex’s planned multi-purpose rooms will likely need to be larger than originally thought.
EPL will also proceed with repairs to the North Branch Library; those include roof and gutter repairs and ADA-compliance issues, among other components, and will cost just over $321,000.