On Aug. 19, the Evanston Public Library Board of Trustees voted to close the Chicago Avenue/ Main Street (CAMS) and North branches, citing the need to shift resources to western and southern neighborhoods of Evanston. Let me start out by saying that I fully support increasing library services in these long-underserved communities, particularly now, in a pandemic, when all forms of community support have become critical. But the trustees’ decision to close the CAMS and North branches without engaging all of Evanston in a public discussion on library resources was both ill-timed and ill-considered. It should be reconsidered at their next meeting.
Recent public communications from the library about the branches created a false impression that the board was still considering various alternatives and open to public feedback. Indeed, on August 12, just a week before the August 19 meeting, the executive director of the library, Karen Danczak Lyons, published an op-ed stating that the library is “always evaluating its physical footprint across Evanston.”
But Executive Director Lyons’s Aug. 12 op-ed contained no warning that a decision on closing the CAMS and North branches was imminent and would be finalized at the August 19 meeting. We now know, from the since-published packet of materials provided to the trustees for that meeting, that the Executive Director prepared two memos, dated August 13, recommending closure of the CAMS and North branches.
Instead of closing branches and shifting resources, many members of the public have suggested that the trustees consider raising more resources through public revenues and private fundraising. Prior to the August 19 branch closing votes, the library board president, Shawn Iles, reportedly asserted, “we need to better distribute the pie in our community,” which is true. But the decision to close branches was made without sufficient discussion of how, or why, we should also grow the pie.
The Evanston Public Library says that their mission is “to be the heart of our diverse community by promoting the development of independent, self-confident, and literate citizens, and providing equitable access to cultural, intellectual, technological, and information resources.”
Discontinuing services by shrinking the library’s physical footprint is not the best way to serve that mission because it’s the product of a faulty premise: some trustees framed their decision to close the branches as the only path to equitable allocation of scarce resources. That is a false choice. Another path is to address the scarcity of those resources.
At $85 per resident per year, Evanston’s library currently taxes significantly less than its neighboring libraries. Skokie and Wilmette’s libraries cost their residents $174 and $220 per year, respectively, and they each have fewer branches. That suggests that there is room to expand the Evanston library’s physical footprint while remaining fiscally responsible.
And the Evanston community has already demonstrated time and again that it’s willing to step up and support important civic institutions with private donations. In fact, the CAMS branch was originally a community library, unaffiliated with the Evanston Public Library, that was pulled together with private resources and effort in the aftermath of the closure of the South branch in 2011.
Some will argue that the pandemic is forcing the library, just like other local and state governments, to again make painful cuts to its budget. But it doesn’t necessitate closing the CAMS and North branches permanently. A less drastic cost-saving measure could include keeping the CAMS and North branches shuttered until the virus abates and the fiscal situation improves.
I urge the trustees to reopen this discussion and seek more input and help from the public on how to navigate this crisis. Of course, public health and equity are paramount right now. But in a city that strives to be the Most Livable City, we don’t have to accept the scarcity mindset that says we can’t open another library branch or two unless we first shut down two others.
As we endure this pandemic and historic challenges to our country’s democratic institutions, we need libraries now more than ever. Libraries foster our sense of community, help educate our children, and keep us informed as citizens. Let’s not tear libraries down, let’s build them.
David DeCarlo is glad to be a patron of the Evanston Public Library.