Evanston Public Library limited by small budget, lack of resources


Leeks Lim/Daily Senior Staffer

Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington Ave. In recent weeks, residents have called for an equity audit and increased diversity at the library.

Kristina Karisch, Assistant City Editor

After the recent suspension of popular librarian Lesley Williams — for largely unknown reasons — some residents have called for an equity audit and increased diversity at the Evanston Public Library.

The suspension of Williams, EPL’s only black librarian, has sparked heated criticism against the library largely centered on issues of diversity. But library officials have pushed back, defending EPL and placing an emphasis on its commitment to equity.

The Board of Trustees decried the criticisms in a recent statement that pointed to statistics from the American Library Association, which show roughly 5 percent of all credentialed librarians are African American, and about 3 percent are Latinx, illustrating EPL mirrored national averages.

“The unsubstantiated social media attacks on EPL undermine our strategic plan; demoralize our wonderful and hard-working staff; and threaten to burn the bridges EPL has sought to build throughout our city,” the statement read.

But in calling for the audit, residents are seeking to address more than a perceived lack of diversity in EPL’s staff. They said they want to see a comprehensive audit in other aspects of the library as well.

Working with limited resources

Some residents have criticized the library for a lack of resources geared toward minority communities.

On May 4, a group of about 20 residents held a rally to urge the library to conduct an audit. Evanston resident Tania Richard told The Daily last week she attended the rally to advocate for equal access to resources for people of color.

They passed out information sheets that described “an observable history of institutionalized racism” in Evanston and called for “the change needed to stop replicating patterns of loss, lack and inequity.”

Richard said an example of this inequity presents itself in the lack of literature by and about people of color. She spoke about going to the library with her daughters to check out books in the “Anna Hibiscus” series by Atinuke, which tell the story of a girl in an interracial African-Canadian family. Often, Richard said, there are not enough copies of the book to go around.

“I just want to make sure there aren’t limited resources, that the resources are plentiful for people of color in the library,” Richard told The Daily at the rally.

Elizabeth Bird, EPL’s collection development manager, said she makes a concerted effort to buy books from many diverse voices. She said her staff and community members suggest books they’d like to see in the library.

Bird said most of their book suggestions are written by diverse authors, but that the acquisition process is often challenging. There are fewer publishers and professional reviewers and less money to spend, she said.

In addition, Bird said it’s difficult to track how many books are written by diverse authors, because there is no foolproof way to catalogue the authors’ backgrounds. She added that she would be open to an audit and that “it’s never wrong to get as much information as possible.”

“We can’t buy the quantities that the other libraries can,” Bird said. “We do buy them, but they’re often checked out, because they’re so needed and we can’t buy as many copies as other libraries.”

“Bang for your buck”

The library’s budget is primarily based on a property tax levy considerably smaller than that of surrounding communities, which has limited its ability to plan programming, EPL board president Michael Tannen said.

For years, the library had been administered as a department of the city, but in 2012 it disassociated from Evanston and is now controlled by state law, Tannen said.

Following its independence, officials determined a new budget capped by state statute. The budget amounted to $79 of tax spending per resident, according to the 2015 Illinois Public Library Annual Report. In 2017, EPL’s proposed budget amounted to more than $7.2 million, according to city documents.

Neighboring communities are allotted more money per resident, with $198 in Oak Park and $177 in Skokie — a discrepancy Tannen said limits the library’s programming.

“Librarians are resilient, and librarians are resourceful with what they have,” Tannen said. “Considering the depth and breadth of services we offer … you get a lot of bang for your buck.”

Jill Skwerski, EPL’s community engagement librarian, said she and two colleagues work to make sure residents have access to library services, especially in areas where this might be particularly challenging.

Skwerski said she often goes to senior citizen communities to teach computer classes, provides residents with portable WiFi hotspots and rides a “book bike” around town. Her colleague in Youth Services also brings bags of books and other materials to home daycare providers, a group with limited travel abilities.

The three-person team shoulders many responsibilities, Skwerski said, and a larger budget would allow them to hire more personnel and provide additional services.

Tannen echoed this sentiment, acknowledging the “anemic” nature of the library’s budget. He said the library’s mandate requires it to deliver the greatest amount of services to the most residents, but its small budget hinders that effort.

Nevertheless, Tannen and Skwerski stressed the library’s commitment to equity across the board.

“The idea of providing equitable services is something we have always had on our radar,” Skwerski said. “It’s embedded in our mission statement.”

Delivering equity

Rabbi Brant Rosen, an Evanston resident who organized the May 4 rally, said he wants an equity audit to see where the library spends its money.

He said he sees the issue of equity at the library not as an economic problem, but rather about where the library places its resources.

“There are certain measures that can be taken that will not cost a considerable amount of money that would allow the Evanston Public Library to be a more racially equitable public service,” Rosen said.

Tannen said there will be an open board meeting at EPL on May 17 where residents can come and voice their concerns.

He also said the board plans on bringing the city’s equity and empowerment coordinator, Rev. Dr. Patricia Efiom, to speak to staff about issues of equity and access.

“The idea that we as volunteers … aren’t interested in equity and don’t represent the community, it’s upsetting to us,” Tannen said. “We want to do better, but we’re doing the best with what we’ve got. Our staff works their tails off to deliver equity to all corners of Evanston.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @kristinakarisch