South Evanston resident Silvia Rodriguez addresses Evanston Public Library Board members at their Oct. 16 meeting in support of keeping the Chicago Avenue/Main Street branch open.RoundTable photo

Trustees of the Evanston Public Library formally committed at their Oct. 16 board meeting to lease their Chicago Avenue/Main Street (CAMS) branch through next year.

But the vote was close – with some members arguing it was time to begin shifting resources to other parts of the City that are underserved.

Under the proposed lease terms, officials are looking at two renewals of CAMS, one through 2020. In fall of that year, board members could discuss whether they want to renew the space for 2021, Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons said in her report.

The terms would allow the Board members to inform the landlord as early as Jan. 1, 2021, of their wish to vacate the space after four months.

In discussion, some trustees argued it would be better not to renew the current lease, which runs through the end of this year, and instead devote resources toward finding a space farther south.

Speaking in support of relocating, trustee Benjamin Schapiro said the change is in line with a “First, Second and Third Cities” chart prepared by Ms. Lyons, highlighting where library services are located and what areas are most using them.

When trustees looked at that chart “we saw that we have a very unserved corner of Evanston and that is in that southeast corner,” Mr. Schapiro said. By relocating, “we would be able to move into an area where we can be more inclusive for people who have been denied services for a variety of reasons.

“I’m disappointed that we don’t have an easy out of the [CAMS] property,” he said, but he expressed confidence the officials could “hang on three or four months while finding space in another building.

“My sense of you and my sense of me is we are better, certainly, than kicking the can down the road.”

But other trustees spoke of the time officials would need locating a new site and then converting it into library space.

Trustee Ruth Hays, the Board’s Vice President, noted the lack of flexibility officials will have in the next year, putting efforts to establish a new branch library as part of the Robert Crown project.

Trustee Vaishali Patel pointed out that “a lot of our budget is in our staff. And so where we allocate the staff and how many hours and what we do with the two branches [CAMS and the North Branch at 2026 Central St.] is up to us.”

Trustees need to be “very intentional” looking at those issues over the next 12 months while the library is still in CAMs, she said.

Currently, CAMS “is serving people who need library service,” observed trustee Rachel Hayman.

“I’m not saying that we shouldn’t move it, and that there isn’t a better location,” she said. “But if we were to approve this one-year lease, we would have less than a year to get our ducks in line. We would have to have a plan that fits with our view of the equitable distribution of library resources.”

Trustee Margaret Lurie reminded members of CAMS’ history. Residents mobilized to open up an all-volunteer run library, dubbed The Mighty Twig, after the Library Board voted to close the South Branch just a few blocks away due to budget concerns.

The Board later re-established the South Branch at The Mighty Twig site.

“To just close it now, without anything else in mind, seems almost criminal,” Ms. Lurie said.

Mr. Schapiro acknowledged that officials are going to have to deal with some discomfort in making such a change.

“It would have been nice if we could have segued more gently from one property to the other,” he said.

At this time, “I feel that we need to take the opportunity to do a new space for the southeast, south, and recognize that CAMS is not optimal location for serving the public we need to serve,” Mr. Schapiro said.

After the vote approving the lease, several board members spoke of the need to continue to focus on a plan creating greater equity.

Board President Shawn Iles proposed that the board discuss at its next meeting future plans for staff at the North Branch as well as CAMS, “and how we’re going to spread that staff into the Fifth, Eighth and Ninth Wards so we can start to build relationships in neighborhoods that we want to project our services into.”

During citizen comment at the meeting, Silvia Rodriguez, a heavy user of CAMS along with her family, expressed concern about how officials think about equity.

“And I’m not even talking about counts [usage], I’m just thinking about it overall,” she said.

CAMS staff has done “a great job in creating a community where everybody is welcome.”

Usually, when people talk about equity, they are thinking in terms of race as its most important aspect, she noted.

“If you go to CAMs on any given day,” she said, about half of the people using it live in an assisted-living facility a few blocks west, “which I find remarkable, because I think that people with disabilities are probably the hardest groups to bring to those spaces.

“The fact that they feel safe and well served is very telling how well they [library staff] have been able to create relationships with the community there,” she said.

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.