Robert Crown branch library Credit: Richard Cahan

The Evanston Public Library received high marks on a community survey conducted earlier this year designed to gauge how well the system was meeting needs.

Yet, there were concerns about parking and the loss of neighborhood branches, that caught the attention of some library trustees during the July 20 meeting.

Library Strategies, a consulting group, conducted the survey for EPLas part of the library’s strategic planning process.

“EPL Community Survey Report” published the results of an online community survey conducted in May and June of 2022, said Heather Norborg, the library’s Interim Executive Director, in a note introducing the report.

Altogether 1,435 residents participated in the questionnaire designed to capture satisfaction with and perceptions of the library and also pinpoint needs unmet and under met.

The Library Strategies report that went to the Library Board included a number of takeaway comments from the survey, with some of the concerns voiced across more than one question, the consultants said.

Some of the group findings include:

  • Overall, “there is a high level of satisfaction with the Library and the services it offers,” the survey authors noted.
  • “The staff at Evanston Public Library rates very highly with users across the board. They’re doing a great job, especially children’s librarians.
  • “Users have seen and  been grateful for the moves Evanston Public Library is making toward a more equitable and inclusive library community and hope they keep up the good work and continued outreach. More community engagement, outreach and focus on access and inclusion are desired. Equity and diversity are stronger issues for members of  the Black community and people of color, as well as those with less than a college  degree, but is widely supported by all responded.”

There were some concerns sprinkled among the positive comments, too, the consultant reported.

  • “Parking rises to a level of great concern for many of the  respondents, nearly one-quarter. Some of this concern related to having to pay for parking at a free public institution, specifically the Main Library (at 1803 Orrington Ave.). Some  of the concern is a reaction to a lack of parking at Robert  Crown (at Main Street and Dodge Avenue).
  • Some other respondents “appreciate the addition of the Robert Crown branch,” the survey authors noted, “but still express dissatisfaction with the way the branch arrangement happened. Users who previously had a branch nearby (Wards 6 and 7) report often using the library in other communities, like Wilmette or Skokie now. There is an overall desire among the respondents to have Library services nearby and embedded in local neighborhoods, and these desires are different forms, such as more branch libraries, return to a bookmobile, more off-site activities and community reach and partnership.”

More parking, programs and technology

During discussion at the July 20 meeting, Library Board trustee Rachel Hayman said, “I was a little surprised to see one of the  comments that there’s a lack of parking at Robert Crown. I mean,  that’s an issue at the Main Library but is that an issue at Robert Crown?”

The library space is contained in a wing of the Robert Crown Community Center, a $54 million complex that opened in March 2020.

Jill Skwerski, in charge of Engagement Services for the library, confirmed that there are sometimes difficulties with parking at Robert Crown.

“On a given day, there is no shortage of parking, there’s an abundance of free parking,” she told trustees. “However, on days when there are soccer tournaments or hockey tournaments or the Produce Mobile [where volunteers distribute produce  to people in need], parking can be a challenge,“ she said. “Those are very few days.”

The survey also included takeaway comments on unmet or under-met needs:

  • “Books and other traditional library services remain a priority for the majority of respondents. Increased demand for online and streaming services is projected by many into the future.
  • “There is an interest in the Library having new and emerging technologies. Compared to the overall responses, access to up-to-date technology is stronger among Black respondents, other communities of color and respondents with educational attainment of some college or less.
  • “Programs are appreciated by library users. A greater variety of programs and events for all ages, especially reflecting the cultural, racial and ethnic diversity of Evanston is desired. Many would like to see more children’s programming at a time convenient for working adults and adult programming for a younger audience.
  • “Numerous respondents would like the website and catalog to be easier to use and more intuitive.
  • “More active promotion and marketing, both in the library and through a medium like email messages tailored to particular interests were suggested multiple times. The newsletter is perhaps the most useful form of promotion done by the library.
  • “Evanstonians know they have access to many resources and perspectives for a community their size, and would love to have more interaction with Northwestern University, various arts/cultural organizations and other community partners through the Library.
  • “Users miss being able to sit and read. The lack of space generated by additional teen and children’s spaces and the removal of spaces due to COVID-19 have definitely affected the way many use the library.
  • “Respondents are always looking forward to what new, creative idea will come out of the library. They’re aware of changing library use and are interested to see what comes next.”

Moving forward

At the Board’s June 2022 meeting, when Executive Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons announced her retirement, trustees decided to pause the strategic planning process until a new Executive Director is in place.

When the Board does move forward, addressing the needs outlined in the survey will be one of the Library’s big challenges, suggested Library Board President Tracy Fulce.

“We don’t have the resources of some of our sister libraries,” she noted. “We can’t do everything. So how do we identify, prioritize?”

Fulce suggested that some sort of short-form strategic plan to help guide staff’s efforts might be one strategy, “so that everybody’s going in the same direction.”

She also noted the library has made progress in a number of areas covered by the survey, freeing the next Executive Director from having to create everything from scratch.

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.