Evanston librarian Lesley Williams resigns after months of controversy


Katie Pach/Daily Senior Staffer

Lesley Williams speaks to media earlier this year. Williams resigned from Evanston Public Library this week after several months of controversy.

Kristina Karisch, Reporter

Popular librarian Lesley Williams resigned from the Evanston Public Library on Wednesday following multiple suspensions and disciplinary hearings in recent months.

“After lengthy discussions with the City of Evanston, I have decided to resign from my position as Head of Adult Services at the Evanston Public Library,” Williams said in a statement released Thursday. “The current hostile atmosphere and mistrust would make it impossible for me to continue to be effective.”

Williams had twice been suspended from the library, once in April and once in June — decisions that prompted outcry and protests from Evanston residents. Williams, EPL’s only full-time black librarian, had spoken often about issues of equity at the library and her supporters continued to call for a full-scale equity audit.

Once the disciplinary hearings were announced and the library was unable to comment on personnel matters, however, Williams said she felt as though the focus on her particular situation impeded a broader conversation about equal access and diversity.

As a result, Williams said she and her lawyer met repeatedly with city officials and decided Wednesday that the best course of action would be for her to resign, allowing for a shift in conversation away from her and toward what she said are the relevant issues.

“I hope that by removing my individual status from the debate, Evanston will be able to focus on the injustice of a publicly funded government institution which continues to resist confronting the inequitable service it provides to lower-income, African American and Latinx residents,” Williams said in the statement.

Earlier in June, a Freedom of Information Act request revealed a series of documents and emails that appeared to show that EPL officials wanted to terminate Williams for years. The documents included a 2015 performance evaluation of EPL Director Karen Danczak Lyons praising Danczak Lyons for her work, but expressing concern about Williams and disappointment that she had not yet been fired.

The evaluation was redacted weeks after it was released, as personnel files are not subject to disclosure under public records laws, city clerk Devon Reid told The Daily in early June.

Williams came under fire in 2014 after canceling a planned event with Palestinian-American journalist Ali Abunimah, an action she said Danczak Lyons had instructed her to do. In 2014, Danczak Lyons told The Daily she had not asked for the event to be canceled.

An unidentified board member who completed the 2015 evaluation said the “Williams situation remains festering and unresolved to the disappointment of the Board,” while another remarked on her “continued adversarial and incorrigible attitude.”

“My only concern here is (Danczak Lyons’) reluctance to let Lesley Williams go,” one board member wrote. “We met with her in an (executive) session, at her insistence, and she told us that she was going to do that. This session on (sic) was in September, and (Williams) is still in (sic) the staff.”

Danczak Lyons said Thursday she could not comment on Williams’ resignation since it is an ongoing personnel matter, but praised the library’s staff and their efforts toward serving the community.

“We have wonderful staff at the Evanston Public Library who are working hard each day to serve the needs of the entire community,” Danczak Lyons said. “Our success and our work is not about a single person, it’s about a collective effort.”

Documents link Williams to March police incident at EPL

Documents released following a FOIA request on June 7 and seen by The Daily on Thursday contain a police report from March 13 that describes a situation between Williams and a library patron.

Williams, identified only as the head of adult services because names in the report are redacted, allegedly requested that officers remove a patron from a library session on the Obama Effect and suspend him from library events for 30 days.

The officers asked to see written library policies about the removal of patrons, and Williams told them she “could verbally ask anyone to leave,” according to the report. The officers then asked the patron, identified only as a black man, to leave, but the man refused to do so.

Several other attendees of the session said they wanted the man to be able to participate, the report said.

Two sergeants were notified of the situation and informed Williams that they could not force the man to leave, according to the report. The original officers stayed throughout the session in order to inform the man afterwards of the 30-day suspension, and the man did not become disruptive during the session.

Williams said the findings of the police report were accurate and that she “overreacted” when she asked for the patron to be removed from the event.

She said the man had previously attended another library event where he had been disruptive and was removed by security, and added that she had expected similar behavior at the second event.

“I was pushing very hard for police to actually make him leave, but they eventually convinced me that wasn’t going to be workable,” Williams said. “Police did eventually stay for the duration of the program and make sure he wasn’t being disruptive. … I definitely had reason to suspect he would disrupt a program since he had disrupted a program before.”

After Williams suspended the patron for 30 days, Danczak Lyons inserted a supplement to the police report in which she reversed the suspension. She said the man would continue to have “full library privileges, and can attend any library programs and presentations.”

“(EPL) is a place for everyone to come together and consider and discuss topics that may be difficult or controversial,” Danczak Lyons told The Daily regarding the addendum. “I want the library to be continued to be known as a safe and welcoming place for everyone to come.”

Evanston Police Cmdr. Joseph Dugan said EPD generally “shied away” from anything to do with the EPL situation. Dugan said the police department did not have much involvement except to “disrupt presence” at some EPL meetings.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @kristinakarisch