Evanston resident Larry Lundy speaks of the effort citizens put in after the former South Branch was closed to keep library service going in the community. Photo by Bob Seidenberg

Taking their show on the road, Evanston Public Library trustees found a group of citizens eager to share their concerns with them.

The trustee held their first of a series of meetings planned for out in the community at the Chicago Avenue/Main Street (CAMS) Branch, at 900 Chicago Ave., on Wednesday, April 17.

More than a dozen users of the library took advantage of the board’s appearance — nearly all raising concerns about the possibility of their neighborhood library being closed once a new 6,000 square foot branch library is opened as part of the Robert Crown Community Center project later this year.

At the meeting, the speakers stressed the many different groups which use the library and its ease of reaching — whether on foot, bike, or through public transportation with the CTA and Metra stops located less than a half block away.

Grace Rabier, one of the speakers, told the board she visits CAMS two or three times a week and “I see so many different people from my community here. There are a ton of kids, but there are also a lot of elderly people who come here and that have easy access to. There are also a lot of young professionals like me who come here.

“I take the train to the Main Street stop and it so easy and convenient to get here. After a long day of work the last thing I want to do is get in my car and drive somewhere in my car to get a book.”

Casey Christensen, another speaker, also stressed the library’s easy access.

“This is such a neighborhood library and so many of the patrons walk or drive their bikes here,” she said. “I hope you all take that into consideration as plans go forward. One of my concerns, one of the things I hope you look at, my hope is that with the library at Robert Crown that there is an increase in library usage, that it’s not this branch has to close so that one can open but they can both be open and have an increase in usage.”

Also in that vein, Rhea Keenan spoke of the makeup of the neighborhood, containing a lot of apartments and condominiums. A lot of the people who reside in the area don’t have cars, she said.

“Robert Crown is not accessible unless you take two buses,” she said, “and that’s going to be a big problem for a lot of people,” she told board members.

“Main-Chicago is such a unique neighborhood and it’s not like the neighborhood where Robert Crown is,” she said. “We’re all unique neighborhoods and we all have our unique libraries, and this one has been such an important part to different groups of people. You have to keep in mind who is this library serving. Is it going to be the same population served by Crown?  Not necessarily.”

Larry Lundy and Lori Keenan (no relation to Rhea), spoke of the history behind the current branch.

Citizens from throughout the city banded together to create a citizen’s run library called the Mighty Twig after the city closed the then South Branch located farther north in a budget decision in 2011.

In a grassroots effort, residents raised $171,000 in a short period of time, getting their library up and running, observed Mr. Lundy.

“I’m especially proud of what we were able to do over eight years ago — creating a library branch which we knew was something beyond a giant box of books,” he said. “It’s a community center, its Internet access; it’s availability of social workers to help with the myriad challenges. It’s a bi-lingual story hour, it’s a place for kids to play, to learn, to invent and to imagine,” Mr. Lundy said.

“CAMs has a unique presence,” he said. “You can park your strollers out front. You can step on the El and Metra a block away.”

Lori Keenan (no relation to Rhea), and the co-president of the Evanston Public Library Friends, a citizen group dedicated to strengthening the library’s community outreach, also spoke of the Branch library’s former existence as The Mighty Twig.

“We opened this branch, which was a tuxedo shop, in one month,” Ms.  Keenan recalled.  A “truck was driven across the country and shelving donated to us by M.I.T. It was an all-volunteer branch — the circulation desk we called the B-52.

“So there’s a lot of history here and I am hopeful because all the branches serve a unique and diverse population — not just color, but socio-economic as someone else mentioned,” she told Library Board members. “I hope as you consider when you’re opening Crown, which I think is going to be fantastic, that this branch also serves a unique population. I hope you’ll consider strengthening that as well.”

Because of the importance of the issue, Library Board President Benjamin Schapiro and other board members departed from normal practice, and gave statements to share their thinking on the Branch issue.

Speaking on his part, Mr. Schapiro assured the speakers that “we are listening very carefully” to those at the meeting as well as “to the community as a whole. Our responsibility as trustees of public library for the City of Evanston is to the whole community, so we have to listen to the whole community,”  he said.

In that regard, trustees will make stops at Robert Crown, Fleetwood-Jourdain, as well as North Branch in coming months, he said.

He said he regarded the decision the Library Board will make on the branches as “the most significant we can make at any time because it impacts a community as well as the whole city.”

No decision has been made about the branch yet, he stressed.” But we will look at all our decisions at budget time through a very strong equity lens,” he said.

Other board members also emphasized the need to look at the decision on an equity basis, on how it affects the entire community.

Board member Shawn Iles said he definitely understood the community’s connection to the CAMs branch. “I encourage you to come during our budget process and I encourage you to read the equity inclusion report that is on our web site (epl.org) because we have to make some decisions about how resources are equitably distributed in this community, and those are very, very hard decisions,” he told residents.

Board member Rachel Hayman said board members have been undergoing equity, diversity and inclusion training. “We’re trying to look at every decision we make as a board through the lens what will best benefit,  especially those people who  have been underserved and need our services that much more. It’s a hard decision to make,” she said.

Margaret Lurie, one of the other trustees, disclosed that her family used the former South Branch library. “When it was closed, there was so much effort put into setting up the Mighty Twig. This neighborhood really wanted a library.  So I hear everything you say.”

While she generally uses the main library now, but “I see the strollers outside, I see the buggies, I see people on the computers, I know this branch is probably used a lot more than even the South Branch, and we will definitely take all this into consideration.”

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.