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The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Q&A: Wilburn reflects on three months at EPL, lifetime in libraries

Illustration by Mary Randolph
Yolande Wilburn started her tenure at Evanston Public Library three months ago. Since then, she’s been having conversations about equity, diversity and inclusion, “spaces and places” and pathways to success for Evanstonians.

Evanston Public Library Executive Director Yolande Wilburn began her tenure in November after leading libraries in California, Chicago and Dubai. Three months in, Wilburn sat down with The Daily to talk goals, strategies and giving back to the community.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

The Daily: What does returning to the Chicago area, where you grew up, mean to you?

Wilburn: I believe strongly in giving back to the community where I came from. Growing up as an African American in the Chicago area was not easy. I did not find a lot of role models whom I could look up to as, ‘Hey, I want to be that.’ And when I did decide that I wanted to go to library school and get my master’s in library science, I was very committed to returning back to the Chicago Public (Library) because I grew up in that library. I had opportunities at the library that I could not get anywhere else for achieving the educational outcomes that I wanted for myself, but also for becoming resilient; it gave me the ability to be successful. 

The Daily: You’ve said you didn’t see many librarians of color growing up in Chicago. What do you hope to bring to the library and the community in this role as a person of color?

Wilburn: I went to get my (college) degree because it was this thing that I needed to be promotable. Especially for people who have traditionally been shut out of those opportunities to attend large institutions because of financial and economic hardship, I want to create alternate pathways.

I’ve been talking with various people about grant funding to sustain the programs where we have people of color intern or do a fellowship with us. Even within our facilities department, (we can) give someone who started out here as one of our custodians the opportunity to become the facilities manager.

The Daily: What are some other goals you’re working toward?

Wilburn: I’m working a lot with our racial equity task force right now. They are appointed by our board of trustees to tackle these questions of race and equity at EPL. We’re working on an (equity, diversity and inclusion) action plan, and I’m hoping to get that piece done within the next six months. The larger piece is really working on our library strategic plan. The EDI action plan will help to inform the work that we’re going to do with our strategic plan and the full strategic direction of the library.

The Daily: What else is key to the strategic plan?

Wilburn: We want to make sure our values are reflective of the community’s values. I’m still getting to know people at the city … to really understand the community’s values and ensure they’re reflected in the library. 

We’re also looking at refreshing our spaces and places. This building is 30 years old. It’s probably ready for a refresh. We’re thinking about how we accomplish that with our limited resources, while also doing all these other wonderful things for the community.

The Daily: Have any goals changed since the beginning of your tenure?

Wilburn: Initially, there was talk about putting a branch in the 5th Ward. … But as I’m here in talking with people, I get a sense that it may not be just about the place; it’s more really about providing the services to the groups that have been historically underserved. I attended one of our tea talks at the Robert Crown Branch Library, which was really a wonderful program. Community members came out and talked about how they see the library bringing in African American families and Latinx families so that not just the kids but also the parents are coming in to get those services. 

The Daily: You’ve worked in libraries all over the world. Why is Evanston unique? 

Wilburn: What really stands out to me about Evanston is the commitment of EPL’s team. Everywhere I go, I hear from the community about the phenomenal, outstanding team that we have here. 

The Daily: Why do you love this work?

Wilburn: When I worked at (Chicago Public Library’s) Uptown Branch, I had a little girl who was pulling books off the shelf. I went up to her, and she said she didn’t know how to read. So I pulled out the ABC book, and I opened it up, and we read through the book. About a year later, I ended up back at that branch, and this little girl came up to me and said, “I remember you; you’re the one who taught me to read.” That is why I’m passionate about what I do in public libraries: because I understand the impact that even a small interaction can have on another human being.

Email: [email protected] 

X: @marywrandolph

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