Library trustees have voted to close the North Branch, pictures above, as well as the Chicago Avenue/Main Street branch of the Library.

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Evanston Public Library Board members voted unanimously tonight to close their North and Chicago Avenue/ Main Street (CAMS) branches, speaking of the need to shift resources to west and far south communities.

Board members cited the effect of the pandemic and social distancing constraints, as weighing in their decision to close the branch spaces.

But a number emphasized the need to bring library services to underserved areas, in line with one of the Library’s main equity goals.

“This isn’t something that we’ve suddenly decided,” stressed Library Board President Shawn Iles before the vote. “This something that we have been working on for a number of years.”

He said from the many letters branch supporters sent the Board, “it’s very clear that people have a deep emotional attachment to the branches.”

He acknowledged they are a boon to the local business districts they are located in too.

“But I’d like you to consider how many times in Evanston have a few dozen well meaning liberal-minded white people written letters and pressured a board to get what they want for their neighborhood,” he said in the meeting which was held remotely, “and their children, to the detriment of Black and Brown residents. If we are serious about dismantling systemic racism we need to better distribute pie in our community,  all public institutions should be reexamining how they distribute resources within the communities they serve. And the Evanston Public Library is no exception.”

In a statement at the meeting, Evanston Public Library Friends, a citizens group which fought to bring back library service after the South Branch was closed in a budget move in 2011, said the argument that some neighborhoods have had library service “long enough” is “small-minded thinking, arguing “equity is not a zero-sum proposition.

“Instead, we challenge the Trustees and Leadership of the Library to think outside the box and to find a way to manage its budget and its resources in a way that is inclusive and equitable, not only for our Black and Brown community members, but also for older adults, people with disabilities, and those for whom race may not be a challenge, but a fixed income is,” the group said in its statement.

Michael Tannen, the Library Board President between July 2014 and July 2017, also criticized the move.

“Does closing branch libraries that are within a Frisbee-throw of five schools and close to where many elderly people live achieve Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion? I think not. How does closing branch libraries in the middle of a pandemic – when schools are closed and internet access to many of our citizens is lacking – do equity? It doesn’t,” he said.

Library Board members pointed to the special conditions of the pandemic and the need to shift resources where most needed as factors in their decision.

Board member Margaret Lurie, who in the past had strenuously argued for keeping the CAMS branch open because of the special populations that use the facility, noted that “no way can we ever socially distance in their facility.”

She suggested that people look at other communities, such as Skokie, which “not only survive but thrive,” with one library facility.

“I think we’ve balkanized Evanston with our branches,” she said. “There are big areas of Evanston that don’t have any access to library services and maybe the solution is not to put a lot of small branches. We don’t have the resources anymore. So between that and the pandemic, it seems to me that this is a good time to just go back to our basics which are the main and Robert Crown.”

Board member Ben Schapiro, a retired library director, spoke of the need for the Board to consider the entire City.

“And that part of our mission is to serve that whole city, is to serve those who have the most need,” he said.

“Karen [Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons] has frequently talked about unserved and the underserved and we have taken that as part of our equity work to look at where those unserved and underserved populations are,” he said.

“And as we look at our scarce resources, but also where we focus our interest as part of our mission,  we need to look for the underserved and unserved communities in the Fifth and Eighth wards. “This is a good time for reappraisal.”

At the meeting, a number of speakers could not gain entry through the video conferencing portal the Library was using, or were cut off on their comments, during the public comment section of the meeting, with library officials blaming technical difficulties.

Within minutes of their vote at the Aug. 19 meeting, Library officials issued a full press release, reporting their unanimous decision, approving the permanent closure of Chicago Avenue/ Main Street (CAMS) Branch and the North Branch at the end of the year.

Officials said the Robert Crown Branch, as well as the Main Library, will continue operations while future Library locations are explored based on equity and need across the City.

“The Library, as good stewards of the Evanston taxpayer dollar, is morally obligated to seek out and pursue the most efficient and affordable path to serving the community with equity,” said Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons. “We began re-evaluating all EPL locations with an equity lens well before the pandemic gripped us with public health challenges.”

Lori Keenan, co-President of the Evanston Public Library Friends, said that group is “stunned and disappointed” at the move.

“Since we were founded ten years ago the Evanston Public Library Friends have advocated for equity, which began by saving two branch libraries,” she said. “We’re frankly stunned and disappointed by the Board’s decision to close the branches and feel that it is shortsighted since they’ve lost a lot of goodwill within the community that cares deeply about the library, and will also be forfeiting a valuable asset in the North Branch building. 

“The Friends are proud of the work we’ve done which included providing an additional ten years of service at two branches, implementing changes resulting in the library controlling its own budget, and allowing them to increase the levy from $5 million to $8 million. We made the pie bigger for everyone. I would say I hope their plan works, but it appears there is no plan, only to close libraries in the name of equity.”

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.