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The Evanston Public Library is in the process of creating an equity, diversity, and inclusion study it hopes will serve as a model for other institutions across the country. The Key, according to library director Karen Danczak Lyons, is to determine the proper “metrics” – how to measure achievable goals in the library setting. It is expected the study would be conducted by an independent third party consultant.
The initiative continues efforts undertaken by the Library for years, she said, citing as an example the decision in 2013 to send seven librarians to Washington, D.C., to participate in a seminar on the Harwood Approach. The Harwood Institute, noted primarily for its training of Fortune 500 companies, began offering training in “turning outward” to libraries that year, and Director Lyons said she felt it important to embrace the opportunity.
The Library’s director of community outreach, Jill Skwerski, agreed. She participated in the 2013 D.C. program, and called it “awesome.” The program taught librarians to “focus on turning outward and going into the community,” she said. The Library asked for “people’s aspirations and the barriers to achieving those aspirations.”
Director Lyons said the Library conducted a “listening tour” at the time. “The whole notion of libraries’ getting outside the walls … is something we have been doing for year,” she told the RoundTable. “We are absolutely committed to providing equitable, diverse, and inclusive service to everyone,” she said.
The efforts have been complicated by a vocal contingent of the community calling for an immediate “equity audit.” Lesley Williams, the library’s only full time African American librarian, has led a group of supporters in calling for an audit, challenging among other things the diversity of the Library’s collection. Ms. Williams is currently on administrative leave pending the results of a disciplinary hearing. This is her second suspension in 2017.
Her first suspension was for, among other things, silencing and having a black man removed from a public library program. The second suspension resulted from her public Facebook attack of a Library poster designed to make immigrants feel welcome in the Library. Ms. Williams called the poster “stupid” and “tone deaf.”
Ms. Williams’ supporters, many of whom do not live in Evanston, have attacked the Library for its alleged “refusal” to conduct what they call an “equity audit.” They point at times to comments by Library Board member/Trustee President Michael Tannen, who wrote at one time that he is “vehemently opposed” to an equity audit. Trustee Margaret Lurie is also on record as being opposed to an audit.
The Library Board, however, at its May 17 meeting, tasked Director Lyons with investigating how to conduct an equity, diversity, and inclusion study. Mr. Tannen and Ms. Lurie’s objection to the term “audit” stems from the common definition of “equity audit.” At the same May 17 meeting, Mr. Tannen said equity audits “apply almost exclusively to public school systems.” At the same time, he asked Ms. Lyons to “investigate what other library systems are doing.”
Critics point out an audit should have been conducted much sooner, perhaps even years earlier. Some, including Ms. Williams, refer to the equity consultant hired by District 65. Evanston Public Library should have gotten out in front and addressed this issue, they argue.
The audit concept may have been a sticking point. “When I hear the word ‘audit,’ my mind goes almost immediately to metrics,” said Ms. Lyons. She said she spoke with Dr. Eric Witherspoon, Superintendent of District 202, about his experience with an equity audit.
Libraries are different, she said. “You don’t have to come to the Library, and I don’t test you before and after story-time,” she said. Unlike schools, which can measure results such as test scores and graduation rates across demographic groups, a library does not produce measurables. Hospitals can also track measurable results based on class and demographic data. While some libraries across the country have addressed issues of equity, there is no model for a “library equity audit.”
Library usage is not tracked based on demographics. It is Library policy to keep patron usage, such as books checked out or programs attended, confidential. After the 9/11 attacks, libraries stood tall in resisting efforts by the government to track usage by certain individuals, and the sentiment remains strong.
That does not mean an equity, diversity, and inclusion study is not possible – just that it would not look like the typical “equity audit” we see in school systems and hospitals. Ms. Lyons said the focus would be on “bringing new voices to the table. Once we hear what the concerns are, we can identify metrics and determine how to help.” She said she spoke with a library professor as well as Dr. Witherspoon to determine “what kind of metrics would make sense.”
To an extent, she said, the Library’s efforts should coincide with the larger efforts of the City of Evanston to be more equitable, diverse, and inclusive. With that in mind, she said the Library is working with the City’s Equity and Empowerment Coordinator, Patricia Efiom, to “align and coordinate” efforts.
One example of efforts to listen to community needs is the availability of WiFi hotspots. Residents can check out boxes from the library and take them home, giving them access to WiFi internet at home. The Library has 100 hotspots available to check out, and more may be on the way. When a librarian at the North Branch several times arrived to people sitting on the sidewalk in front of the Library connecting to the Central Branch’s WiFi connection, the Library shifted some of the hotspots north.
A pilot program at Lincoln Elementary School helped identify who needed WiFi at home and matched those families with the mobile hotspots. While most resident have access to the internet, Sprint, the Internet service provider for the hotspots, agrees with the Library’s estimate that 12% to 15% of households do not.
“I always think we can do better,” said Director Lyons. “I always think there is room for improvement.” She said she expects to present details of her proposed study at the next Library Board of Trustees meeting on June 21.
The complaints of Ms. Williams’ supporters have not gone unnoticed by the Library or the Board of Trustees. The demand for an equity audit has been directly addressed and details will be presented shortly, but other complaints have also been acknowledged.
“Our work is not about any one person,” said Director Lyons at the May 17 meeting. “This work is not about me. It’s not about any one staff member. The fact that we bring so many of our services outside our walls speaks to equity. We seek out patrons, we do not sit back and wait for them to come to us.”
Two black women on the Board of Trustees, Tori Foreman and Sandra Smith, also expressed frustration with the attacks on the institution. “Things are being said with no background and no basis,” said Ms. Foreman. “It’s insulting. To say that one person is the benchmark of diversity is insulting. I feel for staff” who hear all too often that Ms. Williams is the only one who cares about equity.
Ms. Foreman said she would not sit on the Board if she did not believe in the work the Library was doing. “I am not going to sit here when I hear something is not right. Are you kidding me?” she said.
Ms. Smith, said, “I live and walk and breathe every day as an African American woman. … People need to come here without just jumping on the bandwagon.” She said she, like Ms. Foreman, would not volunteer her time on the Board if she believed the institution to be racist, or if she did not believe in its commitment to equity.
Board member Shawn Iles said, “It was very difficult to see people assign motives to us that didn’t exist.”
Ben Schapiro, another Board member and former library director in Morton Grove, addressed the Library’s hiring practices. “Is it equitable?” he asked. “We are at the mercy of the employment pool when a position comes open.” There are very few African Americans graduating from library school.
The ability to attract qualified candidates to Evanston is “much more difficult when there is a conversation about Evanston Public Library being a racist institution,” said Ms. Lyons.
As for the collection being equitable, the Library has a link on its website allowing anyone to request materials. https://www.epl.org/find/catalogs/request-for-purchases/?platform=hootsuite
“Not as much as we would like,” said Director Lyons, when asked how often the link is used by the public. She said the Library is looking to see “if there are other ways to invite people to request materials. … Our patrons can help us develop out collection.”
Other complaints allege the Library should have branches in underserved area of Evanston. Right now, the Main Library is on Church Street, on the border of the First and Fourth Wards, less than three blocks from borders with the Second, Fifth, Seventh and Third Wards. The North Branch sits on the border between the Sixth and Seventh Wards, the Chicago Avenue/Main Street Branch (CAMS) is in the Third Ward, steps from the Fourth and Ninth wards’ borders.
The planned 6,000 square foot library branch in the new Robert Crown Center will be in the Fourth Ward, but on the border with both the Ninth and the Second Wards.
While it is not possible to have a library presence within several blocks of every household in Evanston, Ms. Lyons reiterated the mission to take the Library outside the walls and meet patrons where they are.