Evanston Public Library officials have intentionally been moving Library services outside the walls of their libraries in recent years and may follow a similar course to fill the gap in services to underserved areas such as the southeast Eighth Ward, officials suggested at an Eighth Ward community meeting Aug. 26.

Evanston Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons and Library Board member Benjamin Schapiro spoke at the meeting, reviewing the Board’s recent decision to permanently close the library’s branch libraries, the North Branch at 2026 Central St. and Chicago Ave./Main Street (CAMS) at 900 Chicago Ave.

Library Board members voted unanimously Aug. 19 to close the two branches by the end of the year despite strong opposition from users of the branches who say the facilities play vital roles in the neighborhoods they are in.

Speaking at the Aug. 26 Eighth Ward meeting, Ms. Danczak Lyons said officials took into account both short term and long term factors in the move, which she described as “a very difficult decision for everyone at the library,” and “for every one of the trustees.”

“First, because of the pandemic and the size of our two smallest branches, it’s just safe and it’s not practical to open up those two locations right now,” she said.

Even before the pandemic, however, “for more than a couple of years now we’ve been looking at our work through a racial equity lens and trying to find ways to do a better job,” she said.

“And when I talk about who we serve, and who we do not, and where we need to do better, certainly the Eighth Ward is on that list along with the Fifth Ward [west Evanston] and Ninth Ward [also south].”

Ms. Danczak Lyons indicated the services the Library would like to deliver could come in different forms. In recent years, “we have intentionally been moving our services outside the walls of the main library,” she said at the meeting, held virtual because of social distancing constraints.

“Some of you may have seen us at the Levy Center, at Brummel Park, at James Park, with different programs for different age groups. During Covid, we’ve been also doing much more electronically remotely doing programs to help all ages.”

With the Library “woefully underfunded,” and no new funds on the horizon likely, she said officials will be looking for new ways to deliver services in the 2021 budget.

She said a bookmobile is one of the suggestions she has heard from Alderman Ann Rainey and others about filling the service gap in the Eighth Ward. She said the bookmobile would include books, “and we love reading, but it would be more than that if we’re able to do this.

“It would be technology and have [WIFi] hot spots and programs and, of course, books; and it will be mobile, and we want to staff it in a way that there is regular staff there and you can predict and expect us to be there,” she said, inviting residents to participate in the 2021 budget discussions scheduled next March where different options are expected to be discussed.

Mr. Schapiro, a retired library director and a former 30-year resident of the Eighth Ward, spoke about the equity issues before the Board.

“The Board members have taken this all very, very seriously,” he said. “We see using those resources for the best possible good, for the greatest number of people in need in the community.

“So when we look at how we’ve been distributing our resources, we’ve looked at our unserved and underserved populations who have had resources removed from them, who  never had them made available to them,” he said.

For that reason, with resources already stretched out [the Evanston Public Library ranks near the bottom of the scale of per capita spending among surrounding communities libraries] “we need to look at how we can serve people in South Evanston in West Evanston, in the Fifth Ward better with the resources that, in the existing branch structure, really doesn’t allow us to do that in an equitable way,” he said.

Mr. Schapiro has pointed to a southeast section of the Eight Ward as an area particularly in need.

Designated “City Three” in a racial equity map broken down by age, race and ethnicity, the census tract, 8102, bounded by Howard Street, Asbury Avenue, Oakton Street and the CTA tracks, has seen more than a 20% change in the proportion of regional per capita between 1970 and 2017.

“We have never been able to adequately serve the south of Evanston and as a 30- something-year resident I was always frustrated by that, and I know and you share some of those frustrations from time to time,” Mr. Schapiro said, addressing the audience listening in on the meeting.

Mr. Schapiro, former president of the Library Board, maintained that the Main-Chicago area “is served well by the Robert Crown,” and that “the branch that was there [CAMS] was not one we wanted to put in place – it’s way too small to offer anything meaningful.”

He said a bookmobile to serve the area in this case “comes in as a kind of an interim measure that can come in quickly as we look for places to do physical facilities; but also allows us to fill gaps and do things around time that we haven’t done since we closed the bookmobile 11 years ago.

“So I think what we’re looking at is a readjustment … so that we meet those needs of people who really desperately need investment from the city and from an educational institution like the library,” he said.

Alderman Ann Rainey, the longtime alderman of the Ward, spoke in support of exploring the bookmobile idea.

The bookmobile would be different than the one that served the area years ago, she suggested.

“There are bookmobiles that will satisfy every single need that a library provides these days,” she said, “and I’m not so sure we need a structure. “

“You know, it’s like a cop on every corner,” she said. “I’m not sure we need a library in every corner – or a library in every ward.  I think we need services in every word, and we have a lot of services in various wards. But I feel, as I said to Karen [Ms. Danczak Lyons], a fully loaded bookmobile, and then maybe one that’ll is not quite so fully loaded that alternates, I just think we ought to look at it.”

Karen Courtright, another speaker, thanked Ms. Danczak Lyons, Mr. Schapiro and board members for their decision.

“Over the years I have been witness to people crying about losing the branch on Central Street,” she said, “and

the fact that you could clearly see that we have limited resources and the need to be equitably applied to the community” [was appreciated], she said, “and I appreciated the way you put it in terms of making up for lack of availability of resources in a number of areas.”

“The Library is only one entity,” she noted. “You have a limited scope of services. I hope that other organizations in town, other committees, the City Council; everybody will take this appropriate view of how to use our limited resources.”

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.