Evanston Public Library Board members are talking about shifting resources to better serve some areas as part of their budget discussions.RoundTable photo

Evanston Public Library Board trustees are considering a number of scenarios on how best to deliver library services in their budgets for fiscal years 2020 and 2021. Included in those scenarios is the possibility of closing the Chicago Avenue/Main Street (CAMS)Branch once its lease is up.

In a free-wheeling discussion at their Sept. 4 budget meeting, board members discussed the need to begin moving forward on recommendations made in last year’s Equity Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Needs Assessment report, calling for the equitable delivery of services.

Board members were scheduled to revisit the discussion in a follow up budget session scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 18, in the Community Room of the Main Library, 1703 Orrington Ave.

The Library’s proposed FY’20 budget calls for operating expenses of more than $8.4 million, up from $7.7 million for FY’19. The biggest increase will come in the addition of nearly seven full-time positions at the Library’s new 6,000-square-foot branch scheduled, to open at the Robert Crown Community Center at Main Street and Dodge Avenue early next year.

Launching the discussion about the Board’s options at  the Sept. 4 meeting budget hearing, Library Board President Shawn Iles noted that with the lease  on  CAMS coming up, “I think  now is the time for the Board to start  thinking about whether  we are using our resources in the community in an equitable way, or whether we want to increase the resources we are spending in  the Fifth, Eight and Ninth  Wards, and  what that would look like – what kind of co-locating could we use, what kind of space could we project into?”

Looking at the budget, “Do we want to continue to spend as much on the two locations (CAMs, 900 Chicago Ave. , and the North  Branch, 2026 Central St.) we currently have?” he asked Board members.

“It’s a very difficult conversation to have, but I think when you are exploring some of these equity issues they are uncomfortable and difficult conversations for the community at large.”

Board member Benjamin Schapiro pointed out that that the current branch locations made sense at a time when libraries looked “at usage and patronage in a way different than we look at them now – where we’re trying to look at  the underserved and unserved.”

Mr. Schapiro said the budget “is a good place to start to look at how we take this work we do [on equity] – the  geographic locations, the  physical barriers, economic stratification within this community, and what we have identified over the years as served and underserved  communities,”  realigning pieces.

 On the City’s west side, the city’s Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center at 1823 Church St. may present an opportunity as a place to locate library services in the Fifth Ward, he said.

Mr. Schapiro noted that the North Branch is separated from the Fifth Ward by the canal and questioned whether the North Branch helps “with what we want to do in terms of equity.”

In the Eighth Ward, on the City’s south side, all the way at the eastern edge, there is “a totally unserved population … and we ought to be doing something about that,” said Mr. Schapiro.

“CAMs isn’t close enough for them. Certainly, Robert Crown isn’t, but if we could move something down to the Eighth Ward maybe we could reach those people,” he suggested.

The current CAMS lease runs through Dec. 31, Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons told Board members. The lease allows for a two-year extension. Ms. Danczak Lyons said the landlord has already agreed to two one year extensions.

In the meantime, Ms. Danczak Lyons said, she had investigated a number of alternate spaces in south Evanston to establish outposts, including at St. Francis Hospital, a space across from Fire Station No. 2 roughly the size of CAMS, several District 65 sites, and even a building that sits near a playlot in the area.

On the west side, “we are doing more and more programming, especially around teens at Family Focus,” she said. She said the Library also provides after-school programming at Fleetwood Jourdain Community Center, 1655 Foster St., and has stepped up other programming around health issues in the area.

Board member Vaishali Patel asked whether the Board could look at the hours at CAMs and the North Branch and shift them to provide services in the high-need areas.  For now, though, “I think we need to know what things look like at Crown before we make any permanent changes to our branches and what we’re serving.”

She also spoke of the Board’s considering, as an alternative to closing, setting up mini-branches in underserved areas – such as the pop-up one the Library opened at the Dempster-Dodge shopping center some years ago  to encourage  summer reading.

“Maybe something like that – where, if we were to shift resources, we’re not talking about closing and opening, we’re talking about shifting,” she said.

One or two of those spots “could be the step in the right direction,” Ms. Patel suggested.

 Trustee Adam Goodman suggested that Board members consider not renewing the lease at CAMs be treated as one of scenarios the Board is looking at.  “I’d like to be clear about this. I certainly don’t wake up thinking how do we shut down [a branch].  That’s not where I’m headed,” he said.

“But I think as part of the scenarios, we should understand what would be the fiscal impact of turning off that [CAMS] lease, because it is something that we can in fact control,” he said.

New Board member Denia Hester served as a librarian at the West Branch library when the City closed the facility in the 1980s, citing low usage.

Now discussing bringing back services, she said potential library patrons in the area “currently don’t have a clear picture of what we are, and we don’t have a clear picture of what they are,” necessitating work in that area.

Beyond the physical barriers to which Mr.  Schapiro referred between that area and closest service, “I’m always thinking of the non-physical barriers,” Ms. Hester divulged. “How do you deal with the history of Evanston and how people were treated for many years?”

Trustee Rachel Hayman referred to a line in last year’s EDI report as influencing her on the direction library services might go.  Drawing on interviews, the authors of the report observed that “the closing of  the West Branch Library, though  decades ago, continues to be an open wound  for the  historic African American community in Evanston.”

 Ms. Hayman said she came away from that piece “with the very clear recommendation that we have to right a historical wrong with the Fifth Ward. I don’t know how we’re going to do it, or if we can do it, but  it’s  front-and-center, that one piece.”

She said also “front-and-center” for her was a map produced by Ms. Danczak Lyons, blocked off in red, with no circle of service for those areas.

“I just think we’ve got to find a way,” she said. “We’ve got to make certain that the population that does not feel served know what the Library can offer and we’ve got to be there to provide it …within our budget” she added.

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.