Community discusses EPL’s use of racist imagery and books


Daily file photo by Joanne Haner

Evanston Public Library. EPL addressed concerns about racist imagery and content during its Board of Trustees meeting Wednesday.

Max Lubbers, City Editor

Evanston Public Library employees and board members discussed the use of racist imagery in one of its displays, as well as how to address racist books in the library’s collection, during an EPL Board of Trustees meeting Wednesday. 

EPL issued a statement earlier this month apologizing for the use of “thin blue line” imagery in a display advertising an upcoming program on police reform. But residents at the meeting said the apology wasn’t enough. 

Library patron Deshana Newman, who is Black, said EPL paints itself as a library for all citizens, but in fact is not a safe public institution for Black residents. Newman said EPL’s public commitment to racial equity last year was only rhetoric. Rather than improving its relationship with Black residents, she said the library has caused further harm. 

“If Black lives mattered (to EPL), a staff member would not allow a book display that causes harm to Black community members to be created and exhibited,” Newman said. “Black residents deserve protection from white supremacy in public spaces … Black residents deserve action and not meaningless website statements and social media posts.”

EPL disabled comments on its Instagram and Twitter apology posts, although residents were able to comment on Facebook. Heather Norborg, EPL’s adult learning and literacy manager, said comments were disabled because library staff did not have the capacity to monitor the comments for racist content.  

To address the imagery used, EPL’s Executive Director Karen Danczak Lyons said the library is putting together procedures to review signage and displays. 

Danczak Lyons also brought up concerns raised by a parent on EPL’s Collection Advisory Committee regarding a book her child had checked out. The book, PopularMMOs Presents A Hole New World, depicts two contrasting characters: “Jen” and “Evil Jen.” Their appearances are the same, except that Evil Jen has big lips, according to PopularMMO’s Wikia. The book’s author, a popular video game YouTuber who is not Black, has said the n-word.

Betsy Bird, EPL’s collection development manager, said the library purchased one copy of the book in 2019, which she guessed happened because a patron requested it. She said EPL alerted the publisher and will now update its collection development policy, which has not been changed in years. 

The board also discussed what should happen with the book itself. One option is to include an information sheet to guide parents in discussing the content with their children, which Bird said was a solution that could be implemented more broadly. This could become a teaching moment for kids, she said.

But Board Trustee Russ Shurbet questioned the implications of that statement.

“As you make your decision, (you should) go and talk to people of color in our community and ask them how they feel about allowing their dehumanization to become a teaching point for the White people in this community,” Shurbet said. 

Board Trustee Margaret Lurie also said this practice could turn into censorship, and wondered whether it would be possible to insert these information sheets into every book with problematic content. 

But Board Trustee Esther Wallen said the plan is not to censor — it’s to evaluate the collection. She also emphasized the need to incorporate the community’s input into the selection of EPL’s books.

“We need to take this opportunity to review some of the books that we’ve known growing up, and determine whether or not we need to have a greater conversation as to not to reinjure populations in this community,” Wallen said.

Bird said the library is currently auditing all children’s books purchased in the past year. But  Shurbet proposed a complete audit of the children’s section.

He said many residents are frustrated and feel the library’s apologies are disingenuous because the library takes a reactive approach. In order to truly address the community’s concerns, he said the library must be proactive.

To resident Eric Tanyavutti, words are not action. He said the library needs to be held accountable and remember its responsibilities to Evanston.

“We feel (EPL’s) inherent values and missions on a daily basis through every decision that gets approved, every display that gets erected and every book that gets put into its collection,” he said. “Right now, whoever’s running EPL sorely failed, and it’s failed its most vulnerable residents time and time again.”

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