Evanston branch library users are raising concerns whether the North Branch at 2026 Central St., and Chicago Avenue/Main at 900 Chicago Ave.,  (pictured) will reopen.
Evanston branch library users are raising concerns whether the North Branch at 2026 Central St., and Chicago Avenue/Main at 900 Chicago Ave., (pictured) will reopen.

Patrons of Evanston Public Library’s branches are urging officials to reopen them once conditions allow their use again, citing their importance to the residents of those communities as well as their role in the economic vitality of those areas.

But others are arguing it may be time for the Library to move forward on its racial equity goals and shift limited resources to those areas that have historically been underserved.

More than 50 speakers signed up to speak at the July 15 Library Board meeting, as Library trustees began to discuss returning services to the libraries.

Board members were already holding conversations before the pandemic, discussing the  possibility of a realignment of services that could lead to the closing of the North Branch at 2026 Central St. and Chicago Avenue/Main Street Branch (CAMS) at 900 Chicago Ave.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, officials have not set a date to reopen the branches, citing the greater difficulty to maintain social distancing in the smaller spaces.

But the lack of a plan for the facilities has raised concerns from some groups that they may not reopen when conditions do allow. 

Addressing the Board at the July 15 meeting, Lori Keenan, co-president of Evanston Public Library Friends, a citizens group that has played an important role in raising funds for the Library in the past, urged board members to maintain and expand services at CAMs and the North Branch, and to establish services and a possible additional branch if that is the wish of the Library’s Racial Equity Task Force.

“I implore you to work to open up the branch libraries for a number of reasons,” said Ms. Keenan at the meeting, which was aired remotely because of social distancing constraints. 

“Equity comes in all shapes and sizes; you achieve equity by growing the pie. You don’t engender support for fundraising and friend-raising by closing libraries; you engender support by asking for help to grow your areas of service.”

Jim Hughes, another member of the Evanston Public Library Friends, read a letter from the Central Street Neighbors Association, responding to the possibility of the North Branch’s not reopening.

“As the Coronavirus recedes and advances,” the group said in its statement, “it does not seem a good time to sideline assets strongly aligned to education. The North Branch plays a key role early in school-age reading development. Losing access indefinitely seems like a step backward. We’re also deeply concerned about businesses that make up the heart of our neighborhood. Many are small and are struggling to stay viable, including our restaurants and specialty retail stores. They’re all working hard on plans to reopen safely. Not reopening the North Branch sends a terrible signal and would further endanger small business survival.”

Similar concerns were voiced for CAMs, located in the heart of the Chicago-Main Street neighborhood, in a letter from the Southeast Evanston Association President Jean Prindiville.

“CAMS serves a population that includes children and young adults with disabilities who attend Park School, adults who live independently or semi-independently in the neighborhood apartment buildings, residents of Albany Care, seniors citizens and many young children whose families resides in the numerous new apartments buildings in the area,” Ms. Prindiville observed.

“We worry that this community will not be well served by the Robert Crown location. Instead of having a library or location within walking distance for these groups who don’t drive, they will be given an alternative that cannot be easily accessed through public transportation.

“According to various sources, for every dollar that is invested in a library, approximately five dollars is returned to the community,” she wrote. “Library users also utilized stores, restaurants and coffee shops, generating support for local businesses and tax dollars for the city.”

Some other speakers at the meeting, though, said the time had come for the Library to move in the direction of its racial equity goals and  bring services to the underserved areas.

“I know it’s time now that we make sure all of our actions reflect our intentions,” one of the speakers, Margaret Newman, said. “I know that resources are limited and you’re going to have to make some hard decisions. And I live near Main and Chicago and I’ve heard that it’s possible that that branch may not be reopening, and I’m 100% in support of that.

“We know that if we’re going to equitably allocate resources that we’re not always going to get what we’ve had. We can’t be hoarding resources in various parts of the community and expect to feel good about how we’re allocating our limited resources.”

Another speaker, Linnea Latimer, a lifelong resident of the Fifth Ward and a member of the Library’s Racial Equity Task Force, told board members, “This is your chance to right some wrongs. “This is your opportunity to be an ally to the most underserved community in Evanston," she said.

"We lack so many things there. We don't even have a Starbucks. There's no place for us to gather. We don't have a grocery store. Aren’t our kids deserving of more than hand-me-downs?”

In discussion, while not arriving at any decisions, several board members indicated they were moving to a new model, citing limited resources and the advantage Library services would bring to other areas.

Library Board President Shawn Iles said, “For me, I think it’s incumbent on any organization that manages public funds, especially now in our current climate, to look at how they allocate their resources, determine whether it's fair, the way that they allocate their resources, and to change that allocation if not.

“And I think it’s painful. I don't do it lightly,” he said about the decision he and others faced. “I used to live by the North Branch. My kids and I went to the North Branch. I now live by the South Branch. Some of them learned to read there.  I understand that they (the branches) mean a lot to the communities where they're located.

“But for me, equity means that the people that have had those resources for decades, need to relinquish them so that the communities that are underserved and have not had any of those resources get a chance to do that, and I think that's where our focus should be.”

This story was updated and corrected on July 19. The entire text of Dr. Prindiville's letter is in the sidebar.