Library Board Meeting: Rancorous Start, Calmer Ending

More than 70 people attended the first part of the June 21 Library Board of Trustees meeting, some of them to express support for embattled librarian Lesley Williams, some to accuse the Library of racism and unfairness, some to call for an “equity audit,” and some to support the trustees and the Library.

During the hour-long public comment period, several speakers lambasted the Library and the trustees as racist because Ms. Williams had been suspended. Others praised Ms. Williams’s work at the Library, and others criticized the Library but did not tie their concerns to Ms. Williams’s situation. Some called on one or more Board members to step down.

After public comment, many of the speakers left the meeting, although Board President Michael Tannen invited each one individually to remain for the entire meeting to hear what the Library is already doing for equity, access, and inclusion and its plans to further these efforts.

Public Comment

Elliot Zashin said he supported Ms. Williams and was “unhappy with the Board’s response to the issue.”

Dave Trippel said, “I believe Lesley Williams is being used as a scapegoat … where people want to retain power and put down real good people.”

Koriana Kurimaya read a letter from the Reverend Debra Bullock of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church that stated in part, “The Evanston Public Library and St. Mark’s share a history rooted in racism.”

“I don’t believe that your intent is bad, but that the work you do is bad. How it appears is there is no honor in what you’re doing,” said Jerome Summers.

Bennett Johnson spoke about his continued support of a library in the black community – “not on the periphery of the black community.” He also said, “The system is flawed because you have one black librarian.” He urged people not to “work at personalities; work at the system. To make Lesley Williams a sacrificial lamb is a serious mistake, because she becomes a martyr, and that’s not what works, because at the end of the day, she’s gone and nothing would be solved. … Think in terms of solving problems, not creating problems.”

Alyce Barry, a member of Organization for Positive Action and Leadership, said she would go “off-script” rather than read her prepared remarks.

“White people need to get over the fear of being called racist,” Ms. Barry said. “There is no way for white people in this culture not to be raised without racial bias. It’s in the air we breathe. Racism is built in. I used to think ‘white supremacist’ applied to skinheads. White supremacy is in us. Any white person who has a problem with that is never going to get very far in looking at this stuff around race. … I was raised to be a white supremacist by white supremacist parents. I know that’s the truth. The election of Donald Trump has unmasked a lot of the white supremacy in this culture.”

Although trustees are not supposed to respond during public comment, and audience members are not supposed to speak after the public comment period, the meeting was interrupted a few times. Each time Board Secretary Vaishali Patel, as parliamentarian, reminded everyone of the Board protocols.

In response to an accusation that the Board members had voted themselves as trustees “in perpetuity,” Board President Michael Tannen attempted to clarify the issue. At the previous Board meeting, he said, the trustees adopted a rule in conformance with the State Library law that allows them to be re-appointed for multiple terms – not just two, as had been the practice before the Library became independent.

Board member Ben Schapiro reacted to the vitriol thrown at the Board at the meeting and in emails.

“I have been called a Neo-Nazi,” Mr. Schapiro said. “Look at my name. Do you know what my family suffered in the Holocaust?” At another time he said, “You cannot tell us we are not transparent.”

Speaking in support of the Library and the trustees, Lori Keenan, a member of Evanston Library Friends (ELF), gave a brief history of how much progress the Library had made over seven years. She said members of ELF helped take Library books and services into the community, and had fought to keep open the two branch libraries – which had been in danger of being closed – and to open a new one on the West Side, since the West Side branch was closed several decades ago. A new branch is proposed for the new Robert Crown Center.

“We fought to keep branches open. We made efforts – great efforts – to open libraries on the West Side,” Ms. Keenan said. She said Denia Hester, for many years the librarian at Kingsley School, was the first librarian of the West Side Branch. “She said that, when the West Branch was closed, she felt like a friend had died.”

Ms. Keenan continued, “These people [on the Library Board] are not racists. They are human beings. They are being attacked. And that’s unfair. … I would ask you, when you criticize this Board, to remember that libraries build communities, and there is no one who knows that more than this Board.”

Mary Rosinski, another ELF member, noting that the Board was being attacked for not having a West Branch Library [two speakers criticized the Robert Crown location] said EPL did not get support from the previous Board for a West Branch Library. “When [Library Director] Karen [Danczak Lyons] was wisely appointed, she said not to worry about the branches” [because they would be safe].

One of the first things Ms. Lyons did was help restore a library branch at the Robert Crown Center in south Evanston. After the City closed the South Branch, 949 Chicago Ave., ELF members and other volunteers operated a free library – called The Twig – at 900 Chicago Ave., the present site of the Chicago Avenue/Main Street branch, or CAMS.

The Board had decided a few months ago to honor retired Fifth Ward Alderman Delores Holmes and retired Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl – Ms. Holmes with a room in the new branch named after her and Ms. Tisdahl with a scholarship to library school. Ms. Holmes was unable to attend the meeting, but Ms. Tisdahl was there to accept the honor.

“I am the person who appointed the Board. They are a diverse Library Board. I think you would be surprised if you read their resumes. Of course they will be criticized. However, they are volunteers. I hope you will remember that,” Ms. Tisdahl said to the audience.

Managing Collections

Two reports followed public comment, a staff report on collections development – how and why the Library acquires materials – and the Director’s report on what it is doing and what it plans to do on equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Betsy Bird, Collections Development Manager, and Timothy Longo, Technical Services Manager, discussed the Library’s collections and how they are acquired and how they are “weeded.”

“I am the human face of our collections. I oversee acquisitions,” said Ms. Bird.

Counting digital and print materials, the Library has 478,000 items, including 31,000 e-books, 25,000 DVDs, 10,000 CDs, and 9,400 audio books. There are materials such as DVDs and books available in 35 different languages. The Library also features materials from the Evanston History Center and Shorefront Legacy Center, she said.

About 65% of the annual book budget for the Library is spent on adult books, 33% on juvenile books, and 5% on young adult books, Ms. Bird said. She said patrons can request materials – either to borrow or for the Library to purchase – by filling out a form on the Library’s homepage, Acknowledging that this can be a cumbersome process and that those without Internet access need a different way to request materials, Ms. Bird said anyone who would like to request materials can call the Library, email her “or you can come to the fourth floor and ask me in person.”

“We need to work on a multi-year plan of assessing our collection,” Ms. Bird said, and “we are working on patron-driven acquisitions.” She said the Library is also working to acquire books from local publishers such as Shorefront, Agate Press, and World Press and will do outreach to other specific publishers.

To acquire more culturally relevant materials, she said, the Library should consider renting rather than buying best-sellers and returning them when those books are no longer popular – and use the savings to help diversify the collections.

Ms. Bird also said the Library will assess staff recommendations, displays, and the like for their diversity and cultural relevance.

Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Mr. Tannen said the Board has been struggling with the term “equity audit,” because it implies measurables, and, unlike with a school district, measurables are difficult to apply to a library. He referred to an email in which opposition to an “equity audit” was expressed and said the Board is committed to equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Director Lyons said, similarly, “We are absolutely and continuously committed to meeting the diverse expectations of Evanston residents and bringing new approaches to equity, diversity, and inclusion.”

Ms. Lyons said the Library has already taken steps toward furthering these measures. One tangible step is the new branch library in the new Robert Crown Center.

In the spring, Library staff participated in the Racial Justice Summit sponsored by the YWCA-Evanston/North Shore. Ms. Lyons also said the Library provides free Wi-Fi hotspots to those without an Internet connection at home, adding that 14% of the population of Evanston does not have an Internet connection at home.

The American Library Association (ALA) added a “strategic direction” this year – equity, diversity and inclusion – and has created a task force to address those issues, Ms. Lyons said. The ALA’s guidelines and directions will be the framework for the Evanston Library. The Library has also adopted the ALA’s equity statement, she said.

“This is not a new concept to our profession,” Ms. Lyons said, “and it is not just a black-white issue. We need to talk about how we serve everyone, including refugees and new immigrants.”

The Library’s strategic plan goals for 2016-19 include access, empowerment, learning and literacy, and innovation. Achieving these will involve both internal and external work to determine meaningful measures, identify consultants, review results and data, reflect on what has been done, and hold discussions with the Board and with residents, Ms. Lyons said.

Pat Efiom, the City’s Equity and Empowerment Coordinator, was unable to attend the Library Board meeting because of illness. She told the RoundTable, “I am working very closely with Director Lyons as she works to engage partners and resources to ensure that the Library is inclusive and welcoming to the whole of the community. Director Lyons and I feel that our joint work on equity will net greater results.”

Ms. Lyons said the Library staff will hold meetings in each ward in the fall “to see how we are meeting the needs of Evanston residents. … We will invite you to join us. Some things will be a home run; some will not. … You have an excellent public library staff, and it’s not about one person, and it’s not about me.”

The current Board members are Socorro Clarke, Tori Foreman, Adam Goodman, Mr. Tannen, Shawn Iles, Margaret Lurie, Ms. Patel, and Mr. Schapiro. The terms of Ms. Lurie, Mr. Iles, and Ms. Patel expire next month. At present, there is no indication whether any of them has applied for re-appointment.



Reader Comments

Posted: Wednesday, June 28, 2017
Comment by: Jim Signorelli

This is a hard pill to swallow.I would like to know what evidence exists to prove that racism is at the sole cause of Ms. Williams’ dismissal. The fact that the library has only one African-American on staff only proves racism if there is a bevy of African-American job applicants who have been rejected Does such a record exist? Were any epithets thrown out at Ms. Williams to warrant all the racist rants.

I’ve had encounters with Ms. Williams and on both occasions could hardly believe how anyone as aloof and unfriendly could hold a position in charge of community affairs. I had a similar encounter with a white person at Radio Shack the same day. My first thought was “Maybe it’s me!” But when Ms. Williams was suspended, I felt vindicated. (The RS clerk was gone the following well).

As I read these articles about Ms. Williams I have to check the masthead to make sure this is happening in Evanston, Illinois and not Birmingham, Alabama. If there is a community in Illinois that is more diverse and as liberal-minded as Evanston, please let me know as it might be worth looking into.

I say, give fairness the chance it deserves and racism will naturally fall out of any consideration given to this issue.

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