Library officials are discussing several large plans for the coming months. (Photo by Bob Seidenberg) Credit: Bob Seidenberg

In coming months, Evanston Public Library trustees have a number of important projects to consider, including a $345,000 digitalization of the library’s historic newspaper collection, a $493,850 replacement of the main library’s ventilation fans, a location for a projected 10,000-square foot west side library, as well as whether to bring in a consultant for a feasibility study for a new bookmobile.

At their April 20 meeting, trustees had reached discussion on the book and tech mobile project when Trustee Shawn Iles raised a concern, sending the conversation in another direction.

“There are some really big-ticket items, all of which are fantastic,” he said going down the list.

“There’s the digitization project, there’s the work on the building. We have the branch that we’re talking about 10,000 square feet. We’re talking about a bookmobile. And yet, our budget is half of what Skokie’s budget is per capita. They don’t have any branches. They have one bookmobile,” he said.

“So I’m worried about how we can accomplish the things we’re talking about within our budget constraints, how we can staff a branch in the Fifth Ward and the bookmobile … so not just the expensive things, but how we would expand staff going forward,” he said. “I don’t know how we can accomplish these things with our budget constraints, so I’m just trying to wrap my head around that.”

Ventilation fan costs

Trustee Benjamin Schapiro said he shared some of Iles’ concerns “and one piece I would like to add is the impact that inflation is going to have on some of our standard purchases.”

The ventilation-fan upgrade, at least, he said, is covered under the library’s capital improvement project program.

The main library has two big fans that circulate air throughout the building. One of these is not operational. Should the other go, officials would probably have to shut down the main library, Schapiro said, because they would not be able to keep the air quality at the point it should be.

He said the replacement is funded through the library’s debt-funding program, “and doesn’t come directly out of the budget. … We spread that out over 30 years, and, as one piece of debt is retired, we use that bonding authority then to take on new work. So we’re not every year just increasing our bonding debt.

“So the budget hit there isn’t so significant, and where there is one, it’s spread out over a number of years,” he concluded.

He said he agreed, though, that he did have concerns about some other areas.

After keeping the budget flat the past few years, he said, “we’re in a place where we need to play catch up with the increased contract obligations we have to staff that we didn’t fund last year, or this year, and we’re going to have to do that next year.

“And we’re going to have to allocate for inflation,” he said. “So this is a good time for folks to start thinking about, ‘How do we not stand still?’ – because standing still is in effect going backwards in any economy – but, ‘How do we then manage going forward?’”

All at once

Board President Tracy Fulce acknowledged that it is “a little concerning to me that these wonderful projects are coming to our attention all at the same time.”

She emphasized the need for more strategic planning.

“Just like our neighbors do with their own home budgets, we might be able to make these things work,” she said, “but kind of making the decisions from the value of what those things would be for the community, but also their cost, I think is an important decision we need to make.”

In that vein, Trustee Adam Goodman looked to staff members for further analysis on the projects, “so that we can understand both the capital implications, as well as the ongoing operating requirements,” he said.

“You know maybe it’s a high, middle and low estimate,” said Goodman, who works as Director of the Center for Leadership at Northwestern University, “but at least we have some way of contextualizing this in a unified manner.”

Fifth Ward library site among decisions

Library Executive Director Karen Danczak Lyons told trustees that the time when the projects can be brought to them for decisions depends in part on “a matter of maturation.”

For instance, on a branch library for the west side, she said, it was only in recent weeks that District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton gave his decision that a branch library as part of the construction of a new Fifth Ward school is no longer an option.

“There’s simply not enough room in the [school’s] footprint to accommodate a 10,000-square-foot Evanston Public Library,” she told the trustees. The Family Focus building, 2010 Dewey Ave., is still very much in play, she indicated, and the agency’s Executive Director is scheduled to give the Library Board a report at an upcoming meeting.

“So there [are] a lot of moving pieces,” Danczak Lyons said about the different projects, “but in my mind, the beginning of that movement, the next step in the development, will only occur with the board’s direction.”

Iles asked Danczak Lyons for a sense of the popularity of the branch library and bookmobile conversations the library held with community members last year.

“When we look at the participation of the 11 community-listening sessions and the share-back, by far the Fifth Ward had the highest level of representation,” she reported.

As for the book- and tech-mobile, “the desire to have a bookmobile was consistent,” she said.

Iles emphasized that he was not trying to tie the two projects together.

“I’m just trying to get a sense of what we’re capable of,” he said.

Trustee Fulce also expressed that point of view. Coming to a decision is “difficult to do when you’re just thinking about the individual project in isolation and not thinking about it in context of the budget, not thinking about it in the context of staffing, not thinking about it in the context of maintenance and upkeep.”

In that spirit, trustees held off acting on a bookmobile decision, voting unanimously to push discussion of the issue until next month.

When they convene for that meeting, the trustees will have an additional challenge. Just two days after the April 20 meeting, Lyons announced that she will retire in June after nearly a decade in the post.

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.

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  1. What’s wrong with the library at Robert Crown that it is insufficient to service the west side?