Evanston Public Library Board members spoke to the need to include a “community-building” component in their strategic planning process, acknowledging the strong criticism they had received in their decision to close the branch libraries last month.

Board members had been talking earlier this year about a proposal to bring on a consultant for strategic planning purposes, but then put the discussion on hold as COVID-19 was unfolding in March.

Officials had been in talks with Library Strategies, a consulting group of The Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library – to do the study, not to exceed $30,750, initiating it this year and concluding it 2021.

With new social distancing requirements in mind, Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons recommended at the Board’s Sept. 16 meeting that the process be done remotely rather than in person, and sounded out Board members how they felt about the process.

Several made note of the strong criticism community members had leveled at the Aug. 19 Library Board meeting and after at the Board’s unanimous decision to close the North and Chicago Avenue/ Main Street (CAMS) branches.

Board members cited the effect of the pandemic and social distancing constraints as weighing in their decision, as did the need to shift limited resources to better reach underserved communities in the Eighth and Ninth Wards on the south end of the City and the Fifth Ward in the west.

Branch users raised strenuous objections to the move, pointing to the branches importance to their business districts viability, and maintaining the decision was being made in haste, in the middle of a pandemic.

In discussion at the Sept.16 meeting, several Board members raised concern about whether a virtual meeting was the best format to allow community members to express their concerns.

“There is a certain segment of the population that feels blindsided by the closing of the branches,” observed Board President Shawn Iles, “and feels like they did not get to have their say on the direction of the Library, and if we were able to have the perfect scenario scenarios for a strategic planning process, we would be able to draw those voices into the process.”

Board member Benjamin Schapiro also agreed that officials should strive to “bring in some people who feel that we have disrespected them in some way.”

He said holding the process virtual would prevent that. He also noted that “we’re in rather exceptional times,” maintaining that “engaging in strategic planning at a point where everything is such flux might not be the best use of limited resources.” He recommended the Board delay a decision.

“And I think we’d be have a better of what the future holds for us in about 12 months,” he said.

Board member Terry Soto said, “One thing I wanted to advocate for to identify, in particular is people of color who are not library users so that we could really understand their perspectives about why they’re not using (the library), how do they perceive a library – and to tap into the expertise of the library staff, other community members … to really make sure that they’re included.

“And I suspect it may be more difficult to include them, virtually, but I just really want to advocate for making sure that they are included,” she said.

Board member Adam Goodman had members look at the other side of the issue – the merit of moving ahead.

“We’re at a time of sort of unparalleled disruption,” he said, “and this provides us with an opportunity to actually work through that disruption in a thoughtful and intentional way rather than wait for things to settle down and then we get into whatever habits we’re in.”

As for community involvement, “I am mindful of the comments about how do we do the community engagement piece. There is no plan that I can envision,” he said, “that we would come up with as a group that wouldn’t have community engagement as central to the outcome.”

“So I don’t know that we can think about, well, if we engage with the community now and then we’ll never have that opportunity again. I think whatever we develop will have community engagement.”

Listening in to the virtual meeting, Stu Wilson, a principal with Library Strategies, said he was hesitant to push officials either way, but suggested that the strategic planning process, “even in a remote environment, can help with some of the healing process.”

He suggested one alternative might be for the Board to wait until next March, and decide whether that was a good time.

On the other hand, he offered, “If you wait too long for some community input healing to happen, it may not feel very good either.”

Ruth Hays, the Vice President of the Board, said she was undecided on the matter.

“I think re-evaluating in a while would be a good idea, but at the same time I do think steps should be taken in the meantime to hear, and respond to what people are saying, especially about the branches – especially since we’re still not even fully open and people aren’t engaging with the community as fully as they would  if we weren’t in the pandemic.”

“I feel like in a lot of letters that I’ve been reading from community members they feel like things are being done behind closed doors – which we kind of are literally, because we’re all sitting in our living rooms and whatnot,” she said of the virtual atmosphere in which officials have been operating.

Board member Vaishali Patel suggested that the Board should proceed “with at least starting this process and it might maybe move a little bit slower.

“I think that we’re at a point, we’ve been without a real strategic plan for a while … and we’ve done a lot of work over the last few years with equity [in the delivery of services]. And I think that it would be very helpful for the Board and the staff to remember that this is a plan. It’s not like laying out necessarily exact details but it gives us goals. It gives us kind of like the direction that the library should be moving, and my concern was saying like ‘Let’s wait till next year,’

is that I have a feeling it’s going to be several years before things are like normal.”

Board member Margaret Lurie was also in favor of moving forward in some fashion.

“I’m really conscious of the people who said that we did this … a couple of people use that term “in the shadows.”

“You know, it seems to me that this is something we should be doing, because we could do it in  the open, people would see we’re doing it.”

If it can’t be done remotely, then “talk to them on the telephone, meet them in community centers [with] social distancing. I think we can still get started and I think P.R. wise it would be a very important thing to do.”

The Board went in the direction of that point of view, approving  staff’s recommendation of approval of a contract with Library Strategies, with the total cost of  $30,750 to be paid in 2020 and 2021.

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.