Take a walk along the second floor of Evanston’s main public library and you’re likely to come across some small exhibits, usually books artfully arranged around a table, drawing attention to a subject.

One such exhibit accomplished just that earlier this month, but not for reasons Library officials would have preferred.

Evanston Public Library members made changes to an exhibit on police reform after a complaint was received about a thin blue line image used as part of the display. (RoundTable photo)

A display of materials on police reform went up on the second floor Oct. 1 with a sign using an image of a “Thin Blue Line” flag as the background to the words “Policing in America,” said Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons, providing a chronology of events for Library Board trustees at their Oct. 20 meeting.

“This display was ahead of the upcoming “Police Reform: Progress & Pitfalls,” but the sign did not provide this context,” wrote Danczak Lyons.

Officials last week were still dealing with some of the fallout from the sign, which led them to issue a public apology Oct. 7 and draw up new procedures governing displays in the future.

Community members level criticism 

Several speakers at the Oct. 20 meeting criticized officials’ handling of the incident.

Deshawn Newman, a teacher and Library patron, contrasted the action with the Library’s support of Black Lives Matter on its website and in social media.

“The building is not a safe space because of the systemic behaviors of EPL library staff, and an egregious example is of the book display which allowed the blue line flag to be posted in a public place,” maintained Newman. 

The flag is “a symbol of white supremacy and was prominently displayed at the U.S. Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021,” she said.

The flag, which at one time was regarded as an image in support of the difficult job faced by police, has in recent years been associated with white nationalist and alt-right groups.

Another speaker, Eric Tanyavutti, an Evanston resident and avid Library user, told Library officials their apology did not go far enough.

“I’m still finding it lacking in one key regard, which is responsibility and accountability,” he said.

“For example, what exactly is the process by which a display like this gets approved? Who approves the books that go on any given display?” he asked.

He conceded that he and other Library users cannot really know the inner workings that led to the Library’s decision.

“But I can assure you, we feel its inherent values and missions on a daily basis through every decision that gets approved, every display that gets directed, and every book that gets put into this collection,” he said. “And right now, as of today, I can say on that account, whoever is running EPL has certainly failed its most vulnerable residents, and I ask them to be held accountable.” 

Staff expressed contriteness at the meeting and went into detail about what led to the incident, and what steps they are taking to prevent such occurrences in the future.

Danczak Lyons gave this chronology:  

  • On Oct. 1. when the exhibit, with the image of a Thin Blue Line flag as background to the display was put up, there was no context to connect it to the upcoming “Police Reform: Progress & Pitfalls.”
  • Two days later, on Oct. 3, another staff member told the person responsible for the related event that the image was offensive, and the staff person who created the sign was told that it should be changed, she reported.
  • By Monday morning, Oct. 4, a new sign had been put up, Danczak Lyons wrote, with a black and white American flag as the background.
  • A complaint received through a telephone call late on Oct. 6 was the first notice officials received about the original sign, she said.

“At this point, department management became aware of the issue and learned that the sign had been changed and was given a description of the original sign,” Danczak Lyons reported in her chronology. “That Wednesday evening, the Library’s collection advisory committee discussed the Thin Blue Line flag image and why it is offensive.

  • By mid-day on Thursday, Oct. 7, the Library’s Equity, Diversity and Initiative Committee and management discussed the incident and drafted a public apology, she said. The statement issued that same day read:

The Evanston Public Library (EPL) apologizes to the entire Evanston community for our use of racist imagery in a display designed to promote our upcoming program, “Police Reform: Progress and Pitfalls, A Mini-Course Offered by the NU Emeriti Organization” on November 2. We acknowledge the harm this image has caused in our community, particularly for those who identify as Black, Indigenous, or POC. The library is committed to identifying, understanding, and rectifying our injustices past and current, as well as developing anti-racist policies and procedures that promote equity. We hereby commit to develop a system for a more sensitive review of signage, programs, collections, policies and procedures drafts for potentially offensive imagery before inclusion in displays. 

Adding further detail at the Oct. 20 meeting, Danczak Lyons told the Library trustees, “It is one of our practices to support programs and discussions by creating book displays, and we have been advertising in our newsletter, and in our website and upcoming programming produced through our partnership with Northwestern University around police reform in creating the book display on the second floor.”

Procedures to be put in place

Since the incident, she said staff has instituted “additional ways in which signage is created and it is reviewed, to make sure that we don’t make this mistake again.”

“It should not have happened,” she stressed. “It’s a mistake and supervisors are putting together procedures, and making sure that there is not a single staff member selecting images,” ensuring that “we are sensitive and aware and don’t make this mistake again.”

Heather Norborg, the Library’s adult learning and literacy manager, her voice broken at times, offered her personal apology to community and board members, expressing regret the incident hurt the progress the Library has been trying to make toward becoming a more trusted space.  

“We do have a process for determining the subject of displays, and the materials that are displayed in those displays. But we did not previously have a process for creating the signage that goes along with that,” she said, “and we are working to rectify that.”

Rachel Hayman, Vice President of the Library Board, was one of the few trustees to offer a reaction after the staff report.

She said her concern was about the use of the term “racist image,” in the Library’s apology and wondering whether further explanation would have offered “a teachable moment.”

“Because, yes, the Thin Blue Line flag is definitely a racist image,” she said. “But there are people who would argue that it isn’t, you know, even in Evanston.

“Even in Evanston,” she repeated.

“I’m not defending it in any way shape or form,” she stressed. “I’m just saying that I wish that we have been more explicit. And I actually think that this is also an opportunity for future programming about imagery in all sorts of ways. 

“I do want to commend you,” she said, directing her comments to staff. “I think that that you acted very swiftly.”

As for the recommendations, she said, “Of course we should have a policy; of course something shouldn’t be presented to the public without more eyes looking at it, because people do make terrible mistakes, and this is one. But I would like to commend the staff for the actions that … we are committed to take at this point.”

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.

One reply on “After Thin Blue Line experience, Evanston Public Library officials will require more staff OK for exhibit signage”

  1. I think those directly responsible for the errant sign should be tarred and feathered, the rest of the staff flogged, the library burned to the ground, and the ground sown with salt. The idea of an error in judgment, swiftly corrected and immediately apologized for, occurring in as special a place as Evanston! Only these measures will show true accountability and prevent any further such outrages.

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