The Evanston Public Library has been a staple of the community for many years. Over time, it has operated in many different parts of town, in many different forms, but always with the same aim: to act as a community and learning center for all Evanston residents.
While the main library and its sole branch today contain an impressive collection of books, there are also many other services for residents offered by the library system.
In 1907, with a $50,000 grant, the first branch of the EPL system was built on the corner of Orrington Avenue and Church Street. And 116 years later, after many changes to the system, the library has become much more than just a building with a collection of books.
Library branch changes
In 2020, two branches that were a part of the EPL system closed down. The North Branch was at 2026 Central St. and the Chicago Avenue/Main Street Branch was at that corner in southeast Evanston.
Both branches were closed in an effort by the library system to reallocate funding and resources to the Robert Crown Branch (at 1801 Main St.) and the Main Library (still in the longtime Church/Orrington location).
Before the Chicago Avenue branch became an official branch of the library, the space had been occupied by The Mighty Twig, a lending library set up by volunteers – they labeled it “not quite a branch” – after the South Branch Library closed in 2011.
EPL took over the space in 2013, when it officially became the Chicago Avenue/Main Street Branch.
The Robert Crown Branch came out of the $53 million project to build a new Robert Crown Community Center. The new center, which opened in Februrary 2020, has become a gathering place for many community members who use the soccer fields, ice rinks and library.
“Equity is a really important thing. What’s really important to the library is that we make sure that we are providing the resources that we have, which are limited, to our citizens who need them the most,” said Rachel Hayman, vice president of the EPL board of trustees.
She also said that, with the addition of the Robert Crown Branch in 2020, library board members realized that their resources were not evenly spread around Evanston.
“The population that was using [the North Branch] probably didn’t have barriers to access the Main Branch or Robert Crown,” Hayman said. “And then when we looked at the Chicago and Main branch, after Robert Crown was built, it’s exactly one mile from the Main Branch and one mile from Robert Crown. So, it’s as if we had all of these resources really serving Central Evanston and not the entire city. That’s been a real focus: ‘How do we get access to our resources to everybody who can use them?’”
Even though the pandemic originally hampered use of the Robert Crown Branch, in recent months more residents have been making good use of its resources, Hayman said.
“I know that library card applications have gone way, way up in that area of the city, which is great,” she said. “Also, a lot of the Spanish-speaking staff is employed at Robert Crown. So certainly, people from the Spanish-speaking community are aware and use that branch.”
Fifth Ward site under discussion
Recent talks have focused on plans to open a new branch in Evanston’s west central Fifth Ward. This branch would be near Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center, 1655 Foster St., and the new school set to be built on Foster Field. However, plans for any library are still very much up in the air.
“The current board of trustees has been very supportive of the idea of locating a library branch in the Fifth Ward,” Hayman said. “Many details need to be ironed out before this can happen, not the least of which would be how to fund an additional branch.”
In addition to multiple location changes over the past couple of years, EPL has morphed into something much more than just a home for thousands of books.
“I would honestly characterize Evanston Public Library as a social service agency as much as a place where you go to borrow books, which is what it was in my childhood, certainly,” Hayman said. “We have so many social services. I don’t know exactly when the tide turned, but certainly in the last five years we have just been providing more and more services to the community.”
Diverse offerings for community
Jenette Sturges, marketing and communications manager at the library, highlighted the variety of services and programs.
“One of the biggest things that people think about when they think about the library, in addition to books and DVDs and things like that, is all the programming that we offer throughout the year,” said Sturges. “So our librarians put on all kinds of different programs here from author talks and book clubs to programs that are actually much more wide-ranging. For example, [recently] we had a program on affordable housing opportunities here in Evanston.”
The library also offers cultural events, celebrating holidays from all over the world and encouraging cultural awareness with events such as cooking lessons of different cuisines.
The library has hosted a social service worker in the past and also offers the services of specialized librarians: a health and wellness librarian, a senior services librarian and a librarian specializing in law.
“We have a legal librarian and she has her Juris Doctor meaning she [graduated from] law school. Instead of practicing law, she works here at the library to connect people to different legal resources,” Sturges said. “So if you need representation for something but can’t afford a lawyer, she can very often connect you to lawyers who can help you pro bono. We have lots of programs that she designed that can kind of give people broad overviews of legal issues.”
The Teen Loft, located on the third floor of the Main Library, is a space designated just for teens. Students can go there to relax, play video games and learn STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) skills.
“It’s a place where teens can go and be themselves,” Hayman said.
One of the goals of all these programs is to inspire a love for reading in Evanston’s youth. Reading often contributes to academic success, and it can build empathy too, Sturges said.
“When young kids read books about stories that are drastically different from their own, it widens their perspectives and their views and helps them understand the perspectives that other people are coming from,” she said. “There’s also something that’s really important when you read books that reflect your own experiences.”
The library is using software to identify books that are written by a diverse range of authors and present a variety of experiences.
“It used to be much more common that all of the main characters that you read about might look the same or sound the same,” Sturges said. “We’re constantly trying to improve the diversity of our collection to make sure it is more reflective of our community and the wide range of experiences that everybody has.”
Funding, community awareness are challenges
Like any organization, for all the benefits the library gives to the community, there are also some issues that it has to deal with on a daily basis. One challenge Hayman noted is the sparse budget of the Evanston Public Library system.
Funding is a challenge she said, “Compared to our neighbors, we are definitely underfunded. Per capita, we receive about half of what Skokie receives and about a third of what Northbrook Library receives from tax money. So, I think we do a lot with a lean budget,” said Hayman.
That funding is projected to increase in 2023, with an $8.9 million budget for the library, funded by a 3.9% increase in the library tax levy.
Another struggle is trying to make all the library services known to the community, especially to populations that might not learn about the services through traditional methods, like going to the website.
“My concern is that the community doesn’t really know everything the library does,” said Hayman. “If you think about populations in our city that could really use and value the library, sometimes websites, electronic newsletters, having an app on your phone, sometimes those are not the best ways of communicating with people who really need the help that we can provide. So that’s a big challenge for the library.”
Part of Sturges’ job is addressing this challenge, and coming up with new, inventive ways to spread awareness about all the library has to offer.
In addition to sending out weekly newsletters for kids and adults outlining all upcoming library events, Sturges uses social media to engage the community. EPL is active on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and is hoping to expand to TikTok soon, to interact with a younger audience. She also uses more traditional methods, like in-person community outreach, to spread awareness.
“We also rely on our librarians to go out into the community to lots of different events around town to introduce people to all of the programs and resources that we have here,” said Sturges.
Rebounding from COVID
Looking ahead, the library is focusing on bringing back some programs that had to be suspended during the pandemic, such as indoor story time.
“Prior to the pandemic, all of our story times for kids were very, very popular. And of course, having a bunch of kids in a small room together was not a good idea for a while there. So a lot of what you’ll see right now is programs like that, that were very popular before the pandemic,” said Sturges.
Additionally, the library is bringing some new programs into the mix, including lots of events related to climate action.
“We offer really actionable things that people can do because so much of climate change feels so overwhelming and terrifying to people. It’s such a big problem and many people feel like they can’t make an impact,” said Sturges. “We’re concentrating more on programs that give people a sense of control and a feeling that they have contributed to improving the environment locally and on a global scale.”
Another important item in the library’s near future is the search for a library director. Heather Norberg is currently interim library director, but the search for a permanent director continues.
The library has surveyed staff, volunteers, residents and patrons and will hire an executive search firm to run a nationwide search, Hayman said. A nationwide search, however, does not exclude an internal hire.
Ethan Ravi was a RoundTable intern in summer 2022. He is a student at Evanston Township High School, studying in the chem-phys program.
The photo of the Robert Crown branch is telling—there is no one there. That has been my experience in the times I’ve visited, comparing to the always vibrant usage at the South, Chicago-Main and North Branches the Library Board closed in the name of “equity,” a misplaced effort to take resolution away from where they were being used, by a diverse population particularly at the South/Twig/CAMU,
What a carefully researched, informative and well written article, Ethan. The issues you outlined will be a helpful guide when considering candidates for Evanston Public Library’s next executive director. Thank you.
If we are to consider the EPL as a social service center for our community then we should bring back an on location social worker to deal with mental health needs in the community.
Thanks for the update EPL and the Robert Crown branch and all of the programming are wonderful! I am glad the available resources are where they are needed but would advocate for the return of a north branch if possible. That closure leaves a big chunk of Evanston well out of walking distance and with lack of Sunday bus transit that leaves kids and those unable to drive more cut off from the library.