Next chapter unwritten for Evanston’s branch libraries

Katie Park

“FOR LEASE,” reads a sign in a window of the South Branch of Evanston Public Library in thick white letters.

This isn’t the only indication the South Branch library faces possible closure. A tin can collecting donations to save Evanston’s libraries sits at the front desk, next to signs announcing the branch’s reduced hours.

Reading a novel on one of the library’s couches, Evanston resident Cindy Bynum said the changes at the branch are frustrating.

“I used to come here every Tuesday, but these sorry dirtbags closed it on Tuesdays,” said Bynum, a regular patron for several years.

The decrease in branch library hours took effect March 1 with the passage of Evanston’s 2010-11 fiscal year budget. City officials had proposed closing the two branch libraries entirely to reduce Evanston’s $9.5 million budget deficit. But after months of debate, the City Council voted 5-4 to fund the branches for six more months to give branch supporters time to find alternative funding.

At the time, city officials said the libraries needed to raise about $168,000 and develop a long-term funding plan before the council reconsiders the branch libraries. More than two months after the budget passed, supporters have raised nearly $90,000.

Across the country, the outlook for public library funding is bleak. At least 24 of the 43 states that provide state funding for public libraries reported decreases in library funding for fiscal year 2009-10, according to the American Library Association’s 2010 State of America’s Libraries report.

Further, 14.5 percent of all libraries decreased their operating hours in the past fiscal year, according to the report.

Meanwhile library usage has increased 23 percent since 2006, a rise that may be due to the economic recession, the report stated.

“It’s a time when Americans are facing job losses, working to gain new skills, seeking digital assistance,” said Larra Clark, project manager for the ALA’s Office of Research and Statistics. “Libraries have become more important as an affordable place to spend time and get access to resources.”

BRANCH LIBRARIES: A HISTORY

The idea of cutting Evanston’s branch libraries to balance the budget is nothing new.For at least the past eight years, the council has considered closing the branch libraries in order to address the city’s budget deficits. Ald. Melissa Wynne (3rd), who has served since 1997, said there had been little support for closing the branches in the past, but new council members elected in 2009 were more receptive to the idea.

“We have new members of the city council, and we’re facing a budget deficit unlike anything Evanston has ever seen,” Wynne said. “There were many things on the table to cut that were once unthinkable.”

In December, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz proposed a draft of the 2010-2011 fiscal year budget that included cutting both branches-a cut that could save the city about $425,000.

“They’re a duplicate of service,” said Ald. Coleen Burrus (9th). “We have a wonderful downtown library that provides all the services, and I don’t think we can afford to have redundant services.”

After more than a month of council discussions­-some running as long as five hours-spirited feedback from residents and even a protest outside the North Branch, the council voted to close the branches on Feb. 1.

The decision lasted only two days. At a meeting on Feb. 3, the council reversed its vote, giving the branches six months to raise funds and develop sustainable funding plans.After Aug. 31, the council is slated to determine if the branches’ plans are sustainable. If not, more than 90 years since the city opened its first branch library, the council may shut down the branches.

THE BRANCHES’ COMMUNITY ROLE

While closing the branch libraries could eliminate more than $200,000 of the city’s expenses this year, branch supporters say it would also be a considerable loss for the Evanston community.

The branches accounted for about 23 percent of the library’s overall visits and about 16 percent of circulation in 2009, according to reports from the library board of trustees.

“They provide a type of library service that the main library can’t provide and doesn’t provide,” Wynne said. “They’re smaller, more accessible. They’re in walking distance for a huge number of people.”

Patrons come to the branches for convenience and for the more familiar relationships the branches provide, North Branch Manager Connie Heneghan said.

“Anytime you have a smaller venue, you know people better,” she said.

Skokie Public Library has no branches after the city voted down the possibility of a branch library in the 1960s, Skokie Library Director Carolyn Anthony said. Instead, the library reaches residents with a bookmobile, a colorful vehicle painted with animals that holds about 5,000 books and DVDs.

The Chicago Public Library has 74 branches and is in the process of building five more, said CPL Director of Marketing and Press Ruth Lednicer. The CPL tries to have a library in every neighborhood, she said.

“People in the community, they really value having a community library,” Lednicer said. “As Mayor Daley once put it, we’re the heartbeat of neighborhood, the community anchor.”

In Oak Park, it is an “established fact” that its two branch libraries will remain open, said Oak Park Library Executive Director Deirdre Brennan.

“We’re in a very different place here,” Brennan said. “The branches are beloved and well-used, and the community has supported putting money in for capital improvements. We understand that the community wants branch libraries, so we make sure that we provide full services.”

But Evanston could face more than community losses if the city cuts the branches. An equivalent of four full-time positions would be eliminated, Heneghan said. However, the library has encouraged employees to apply for open positions at the main library, she said.Barbara Levie, a South Branch assistant, currently works part-time at the main library. If the branch libraries close, Levie will have “half of a half of a job,” she said.

Ald. Jane Grover (7th) said closing the North Branch library could affect the Central Street shopping district, where the library is located.

“It’s a magnet for foot traffic,” Grover said. “The library’s often the first stop. Then, they stop at other stores. They get some coffee or pick up some candy at the sundry store on Central Street.”

Businesses have helped promote the branch library’s cause, most recently with a shopping event called “Retail Therapy” on April 22, said Lynn Bednar, who heads the Central Street Business Association.

Members of the association would like to see the North Branch stay open, Bednar said.

“It’s a very education-oriented community, and we support the things our customers want,” she said.

SIX MONTHS’ REPRIEVE

Faced with raising about $168,000 to keep the branch libraries open for six months, the library has seen considerable support from the community organization Evanston Public Library Friends, formerly known as branchLove. Evanston resident and former Third Ward alderman Emily Guthrie, EPL Friends’ president, said the group raised nearly $90,000 in the past two months.

She said the council has “seriously misjudged” residents’ support for the branch libraries.

“We’ve really been blown away by the comments made, the checks written, the number of people who came to meetings and said, ‘How can I help?'” she said. “It’s been pretty overwhelming.”

EPL Friends already has held a membership drive, a Read-a-thon, a lemonade sale and fundraising workshops. The group plans to launch its first major fundraiser, an online auction with goods and services provided by residents and local businesses, on May 15.

“We were about to start going out and soliciting businesses, but before we even started asking, we got about three pages single-spaced of i
tems people asked if we could include in our auction,” Guthrie said.

Though the libraries need to raise $168,000 by Aug. 31, EPL Friends has set a goal of $200,000 “just to be sure,” Guthrie said. Some of this money may go toward the South Branch’s rent. The South Branch’s lease ends Aug. 9 and the city will not be renewing it, but EPL Friends has announced it is willing to pay the branch’s rent through Sept. 30 to allow the library’s summer programming to finish.

EPL Friends has applied for non-profit status, but waiting for that status has delayed some of the group’s plans, EPL Friends Vice President Lori Keenan said.

“Our hands are a little bit tied because we haven’t officially gotten our not-for-profit status,” Keenan said. “We can’t go after any grant money. For now, we’re doing awareness campaigns, building awareness throughout the community.”

Grover, who voted for the six-month extension for the branches, said EPL Friends has raised a “significant amount of money” so far.

“The EPL Friends group has great momentum,” Grover said, adding she is still not sure whether the group will raise enough by August.

Guthrie said EPL Friends will report to the city on its fundraising efforts in June. She said she hopes the organization will raise at least $120,000 by then. The organization will then look into more sustainable sources of funding.

LOOKING TOWARD THE FUTURE

Even if EPL Friends meets its goal of $200,000, there is no guarantee the branch libraries will remain open. Minutes from the council’s Feb. 20 budget workshop state the branches must develop a system of sustainable funding, or the city will close them.

Ald. Burrus, who voted against the six-month reprieve period, said she can’t imagine how the branches will be able to meet the requirement.

“It’s impossible for this group to come up with enough money to sustain the library long-term,” Burrus said. “They’re talking $400,000 annually, and to raise that kind of money is impossible in this kind of fundraising environment.”

Ald. Donald Wilson (4th) said he thinks sustainable funding is key to keeping the branch libraries open.

“If they have the money to keep them open for another six months, it would be difficult to say no,” Wilson said. “But I would be disappointed if they came in with the money to cover six months but didn’t have a plan for sustainable funding.”

In February, several council members raised the possibility of using the library board’s endowment, about $2.6 million, to fund the branches. Karen Terry, president of the library’s board of trustees, said the board deemed it an “inappropriate use of the endowment” and voted against the option.

The library’s board of trustees has assembled a task force to consider long-term funding options, Terry said. However, she said the fate of the libraries come Sept. 1 remains uncertain.

EPL Friends plans to apply for grants once it receives non-profit status, Guthrie said. She said she is not concerned about not reaching the organization’s goal of $200,000.

“The South Branch has been there close to 90 years, and the city managed to keep it open in the Great Depression,” Guthrie said. “Why would you close them?”[email protected]