Evanston Public Library trustees pressed Interim City Manager Erika Storlie for more details about City plans to move services into the Main Library, reminding her that approval of an agreement is subject to the memo of understanding between the two governmental units.

The trustees’ reaction came after Ms. Storlie gave a short report at the Board’s July 15 meeting.

Ms. Storlie noted Council interest in the plan to move some of the City’s functions into space on the third floor of the Main Library, 1703 Orrington Ave.

“So, we’ve been evaluating the space that the Library staff has communicated was potentially available and could be utilized by us with minimal interruption to your operations,” she said, participating in the meeting over Zoom with other participants.

“So, we’re very much looking forward to and excited and grateful that there’s going to be this partnership for a temporary period of time. It’s not forever; it’s temporary; but it probably will be for some long duration, because we have no idea how long this pandemic is going to last.”

Responding, Board member Margaret Lurie noted that while a City staff member had presented a report on the City’s interest in the space at a previous meeting, “we have never discussed it – the Board of Trustees has never voted on this — and according to our Memorandum of Understanding, the City can’t come in without our consent.”

“I know that Karen [Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons] intends to negotiate with you, before the Board consents to having the City come into the library,” she told Ms. Storlie “So, I don’t I don’t want people to start making plans before we even discuss it or negotiate.”

In a presentation at the City Council meeting two days before, City staff had recommended a phased move out of the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center, the City’s longtime home, and a move of public-facing activities, including a customer service desk, occupying just under 6,000 square feet of space on the third floor of the Main Library.

Capsulizing discussions with Library officials, Lara Biggs, the City’s Engineer and Capital Planning Bureau Chief, told Council members the feeling basically was that Library space could be “easily transformed to City uses with minimal impact to Library services at this time.”

But EPL trustees at the July 15 meeting indicated they still have a number of questions about the move.

Board member Adam Goodman said that while “certainly I want to find a way to get to yes,” there were still a number of concerns that needed to be addressed.

“Where I’d like to start, at least with us as a Board, is understanding the mix of services or public-facing units the City would like to have here,” he said. “How does that dovetail with what the library does – and how does that line up with our strategic imperatives?”

Library Board member Benjamin Schapiro, a member of the Library Board’s Facility Committee, said he would also need a better understanding of the details than Board members have received so far, including some idea of “the numbers, square footage needed and other demands that might be placed on us.”

“And we need to be able to sit down with our facilities managers and make sure those numbers make sense or are something that we can handle appropriately,” he added.

Mr. Schapiro noted further that, “this comes at a time when we’re trying to pivot a number of Library services away from traditional things. And those spaces had been earmarked for some of the new things that we wanted to do. So this is actually a setback in terms of our developing the new Evanston Public Library in terms of its outreach services, and other internal offerings.”

Ms. Storlie told Mr. Schapiro and Board members that those are all details “that we’re going to be working on over the coming weeks.”

“Because now that the Council has given us direction that this is something that they would like to pursue,” she said, “we can go forward and working out those details on exactly what kind of what the operations would look like, what impact it may have, what the financial obligations might be, what the timeline is like. All of those details we’ll start putting those together.”

Ms. Storlie said she would work with Ms. Danczak Lyons on the issue and then bring back a proposal to the Board, possibly by next month.

Several board members also asked clarification from her on comments at the July 13 City Council meeting relating to the Library as a renter of City facilities.

Ms. Storlie explained that her comments were referring to the services that the City provides the Library.

“So it’s all encompassing for HR [Human Resources], IT [Information Technology] — all of those services that are provided to the Library on an ongoing basis.”

“I’m not an attorney and I’m not super well-versed in the MOU [Memorandum of Understanding], so I’d have to look at it closer to determine if it speaks to anything about rent, but I never communicated that to the City Council the other night,” she said.

According to a recording of the meeting, responding to a question from Mayor Stephen Hagerty, Ms. Storlie said, “We own the building and the Library is a tenant in that building.”

She also reported, according to the recording, that the City received an annual payment from the Library, she estimated at $250,000, which covers services that are provided by the City, such as Human Resources and Information Technology.

Mr. Schapiro pointed out that the maintenance of the Main Library and the branches is paid out of the Library’s budget, not the City’s.

“We have done extensive interior exterior work on the main library. It’s over 25 years old. So we take this building very seriously,” he said.

During public comment, a letter was read into the record from former Library Board President Michael Tannen, who helped draft the Memo of Understanding 2014. The agreement outlines the rights and responsibilities of the EPL and the City after the Library separated from the City and became an independent governmental unit.

“The MOU says it in black and white: ‘The Library will determine how it chooses to use the Library facilities for the Library services it offers,” said Mr. Tannen in his letter.

“The City’s relationship with buildings it owns is not one of steward and property,” Mr. Tannen maintained in his remarks. “It is closer to parasite and host. Time and time again, the City has inhabited buildings; laid them to waste through overuse and neglect of the fundamental principles of deferred maintenance; and then moved on. The fact that the Civic Center is an inefficient and unusable hulk does not mean that the City can take over EPL facilities and repeat that pattern again.”

“EPL is facing tremendous hurdles in meeting is goals of delivering equitable library services in the teeth of a pandemic and contracting budgets,” he wrote further. “Ceding library spaces for nothing and closing branches does not achieve equity. Indeed, with students attending classes on line and with thousands of people out of work, Library spaces and services are needed now more than ever.”

Bob Seidenberg

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.