Evanston’s branch libraries — threatened with closure by the city’s budget crisis — were something of a study in contrasts during brief observational visits today.


Two tots play at an oil-cloth draped table in the North Branch as their caregiver watches and a dragon looks on from atop the book shelves.

The North Branch, at roughly 4,000 square feet, is well over twice as large as the South Branch and shows signs of more recent capital improvements with some new shelving units whose end caps echo the Prairie Style design of the main library downtown.

The South Branch library looks dingy by comparison, with shelving of indeterminant age and sagging leather-look sofas pushed up against the side windows.

A reading table, copier and computer carrels at the South Branch.

Walls at the North Branch appear to have seen fresh blue paint recently, while at the South Branch the beige walls looked like they might not have been painted in a generation.

The South Branch, in space the city rents, was noisy, even with no one talking. Single-pane glass in its front windows let the sound of Chicago Avenue traffic stream in, along with the noise of the two rail lines just to the west.

Readers at the South Branch trade bright light by the windows for noise from the street.

The North Branch, in a building owned by the city, was quiet, with double-pane glass in its front windows that largely hushed the noise of the slower-moving traffic on Central Street.

There were at least three staffers on duty at each of the branches. But the South Branch had more customers during a late-morning visit. An average of about ten patrons were in the building during a 20-minute span. A few stopped in briefly to drop off a book and perhaps pick up another and then headed back out the door.

Others sat around reading newspapers or peering into one of the four computer monitors. The average age of the patrons appeared to be well over 60 years.

Hillary Clinton smiles from a book jacket at the North Branch.

At the North Branch the average patron count during a visit of similar length was about seven — and that included two children too small to be in school on this school day who chattered away. The adults appeared to range from their 30s to retirement age.

Back at the South Branch, someone’s cell phone rang, and once the offender had revealed his or her identity by fumbling for it, another customer, a woman, snipped, “Would it kill you to turn it off when you come to the library?”

And with that, his cell phone already set to vibrate, the reporter left the building.

A poster in a Central Street shop supports continued funding for the branch libraries.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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21 Comments

    1. Why “save” the libraries?
      Why is your campaign so focused on “saving” branch libraries for a select few rather than “expanding” branch libraries so they serve everyone? If they are such a valuable community resource why isn’t there a West or Howard/Oakton branch? If the argument is that they cost little for what they return (or even save money) isn’t expanding the system the obvious choice? If anything west and far south Evanston are more in need of community investment.

      Why not keep the branch library system but relocate them to these neighborhoods? I’m guessing you wouldn’t be for that either.

      As it stands now your campaign is not very inclusive and comes off as a loud group wanting to shuffle their cuts off on to the rest of us. Of course I’m no marketing or public relations expert.

      1. Part of this ongoing
        Part of this ongoing discussion is to expand the library system into West Evanston and there is a lot of effort going into making that happen. And I would like to remind you that the libraries are Public Libraries, not Private Libraries. They are a service many Evanstonians enjoy whether they live in those neighborhoods or not. Some families find the branches more “family friendly” as both adults and small children can look for books on the same floor for instance. Also, the North Branch is within walking distance of 6 schools and South Branch is within walking distance of 3 schools which draw from many parts of Evanston. School librarians and teachers have said that they consider the branches as a resource that the Main isn’t.

        I have heard it argued that closing the branches would be an exclusive move that would effect the less able in our community. Seniors, children, people who don’t drive and the handicapped have a harder time getting to the Main library if they live in other parts of Evanston.

        I think there are ways to fund the branches with further burdening the City budget, and those avenues are being explored now. People who are interested in keeping the branches open should be given the opportunity to do and also expand library service to other parts of Evanston. People who want expanded services for their neighborhoods should hold there own rallies and let the city know they want this.

        I’m no marketing or public relations expert either.

        1. Agree
          I think there are ways to fund the branches with further burdening the City budget

          I agree. Probably a Freudian slip on your part though 🙂

    2. Difficult choices
      Part of the issue here, which has been lost in the shuffle, is the fact that the South branch needs thousands of dollars (as high as 180-300K?) in renovations just to be brought into ADA compliance. Obviously the hue and cry of eliminating only one branch cannot be ignored.

      How much tax revenue would be generated if the North branch were sold and made into a bookstore/internet cafe? Property back on the tax rolls AND generating sales tax. And people can still have a place to linger over books. Think of how Borders and B&N are reading rooms now!

      BTW–if the northsiders really need a place to gather, why not utilize the Christian Science Reading Room a mere block from the branch library?

      1. Is this the cause of people thinking they need branches ?
        Perhaps the people who whine about access to libraries are not aware that the CTA bus runs down Central and is clean and fast and they should not be afraid to ride [there is not the riff-raff they probably expect]. The CTA train run can take them to the Main library—the 201 use to do that also until they decided to skip the two senior centers and City Hall !

        I have to wonder how much of the argument for the north branch at least is that they don’t want to be around what they consider the “riff-raff” at the Main library. The branches are probably a haven for those who don’t want to associate with such people or probably people with incomes lower than $80,000. But start a rally to take care of the poor or promote Evanston as an integrated community and they will be first in-line—as long as they don’t actually have to meet any of those people.

  1. Why rally?
    This is silly. There is no need to hold a rally. Anyone who wants to keep the branch libraries open can do so by digging into their wallet and paying to keep them open. The libraries could continue to function as a 501(c)(3) organization supported by private contributions.

  2. Happy Birthday, Dr. King
    Bill’s article describes a nice, recently upgraded branch library on the wealthy north side. South of downtown, the more crowded branch library is noisy and not as well painted.

    The branch library on the west side of Evanston was closed many years ago.

    I find it odd that supporters of the branch library have chosen Martin Luther King Day to rally in favor of perpetuating this situation.

    Perhaps August 27 (Chuckie Dawes’ birthday) would be a more appropriate day for the rally.

    1. MLK Rally
      In fact, I emailed Alderman Jean-Baptiste asking for involvement from him in this regard. So far I have not received a reply, but my letter is below if you are interested in learning more.

      Alderman Jean-Baptiste,

      You raised some important questions in your ward report last night, and I’d like to talk to you more about our ideas for helping to grow the branch library system in Evanston — specifically as it relates to your ward.

      Branches build community and no one believes that more than the group I have been working so tirelessly with these past few weeks. We know the importance a branch library could mean to your ward and are interested in working together with you to explore ideas to make it happen.

      Can you please call me at your earliest convenience, or would it be possible to arrange a time for a brief meeting to discuss the possibilities? As both current branches are organizing rallies for MLK day, I feel it could be very timely to announce hopes in this regard, and I would love to talk to you more about it.

      Thank you for your consideration.

      Lori Keenan

      1. Bookmobile?
        Wouldn’t this be an option that would serve ALL of Evanston–a bookmobile equiped with laptops and wireless internet that could travel into ALL parts of Evanston, North, South, West, where-ever?

        A regularly scheduled weekly route serving ALL neighborhoods. A simple phone call to request a specific book to be available when it comes to your neighborhood stop. A librarian on-board to tell stories or help with research or access websites, etc…

        Don’t get caught up in the tunnel-vision of “equal services” at the expense of increased overhead and costs when we are already spending way beyond our means.

  3. Compare the “Customer Service”
    I was surprised by your comparison. I don’t disagree with the observations you made in the conditions of the buildings, but I guess my opinion was made bias by good “customer service”. In my experience, the friendliness of the South Branch staff and spacious children’s room makes the South Branch a more desirable destination for my family. The South Branch staff greets patrons, offers assistance, and invites patrons to upcoming library events. The staff at the South Branch are truly pleased to see you enter their doors. I have been to the North Branch less than 10 times, but I have never had anyone greet me or my family or offer assistance. If the branch libraries close, I hope that the friendly and hardworking staff of the branch libraries will continue to brighten the day of patrons and children at the Main Branch.

  4. Let Them Go!
    Now is the time to let the libraries go. We need to re-allocate funds and we don’t need to cut more staff or more services in the city to keep branches open. The South Branch is shabby and is largely used by retirees to read the newspaper. It will take additional city funds to maintain it and make it ADA accessible. The North Branch is better maintained but is still a place where most people go to hang out or pick up books that were transferred from the Main library. The building is owned by the city and is therefore an asset that can be sold to generate more revenue.

    Yes, brainstorming ideas to help the library serve the community better is great. If people want to raise private funds to support library outreach services, how about a bookmobile. It would do most of what the branches do, would require fewer staff and would reach further into under-served neighborhoods.

    The branches have outlived their usefulness. No other community of comparable size has branches. Even larger communities with branches are re-thinking the model in these difficult economic times. When will Evanstonians learn to live within their means?!

    1. Budget Problems: everyone wants government funding everything
      A recent book about the problems public univeristies face with budgets and wasted efforts, has a lot to add to the problems government bodies face [and private universities do also].
      ‘Saving Alma Mater’ James Garland points out public universities depend on the support of politicans and political bodies and the internal problems caused by an academic bureaucracy protecting their turf and all the other internal/external pressures, make a lot of non-ecconomic decisions that don’t serve the real need of the university.
      Parents considering sending their children to public [and private I think] universities will find this very interesting—and so would citizens of any city/state.

      How does this apply to the branch libraries ? So many special interests want to keep branches open without any economic, educational or real social analysis—-just they don’t want to come downtown [funny how they use the elderly as an excuse—were they there to campaign against moving the Levi Center to the hinterlands ? CTA not stopping by the retirement home on Noyes or housing at Sherman/Emerson ?].
      Have they considered how many books and journals EPL cannot afford to purchase given budgets and duplicates of other books for branches ? Have they considered how many journals EPL has had to drop because of cost ?
      NU faced reality and cut the paper copies of many journals [just visit the science libraries but even hitting the Main library]. They had to make rational decisions instead of giving into emotiional appeals [though students try]. They can’t go to the government and request more funds [like public universities or all the special interest in the city].
      Do we want to keep branches open for the few that don’t want to walk/drive/bus to EPL-Main and foresake having a quality library with a good collection ?
      Can’t happen ? Times Educational Rankings of universities is generally considered the best ranking. Until recently U.C. Berkeley was ranked #2 university in the world—given the budget problems California faces, Berkeley has now moved down to #39 and there is real concern about professors leaving, scholarships and facilities cuts. Evanston can fall just as fast if we bury our heads in the sand and think we can have everything and just put it off to future generations to deal with or some Deus ex Machina.

  5. Staffing at branches
    There are never more than 2 staffperson scheduled at a branch at a time; sometimes there is just one. Some of the people you see shelving books and helping out behind the desk are volunteers!

    1. I have never seen three
      I have never seen three “librarians” at North Branch at one time and I go there frequently. It feels like Bill Smith was trying to paint a picture of North Branch through both pictures and words that aren’t realistic. Both branches have been ignored for years. Many times private citizens have offered to fundraise and it has been turned down as it conflicted with fundraising efforts at Main. North Branch couldn’t even get an “Open” sign approved under Mr Ney. Recently it has received a face lift when cast-off furniture from Main made its way there. Also, a patron left a $50,000 bequest to the library in his/her will to use for improvements. I wonder what became of that?

  6. No special service district for me!
    I fervently hope that the idea of special service taxing districts for the branches would be put to a referendum vote. I live near the North Branch and would be absolutely opposed to pay additional taxes to support a service I believe is a luxury and not the best way to provide library service to this broad and diverse community.

    and the idea of raising philanthropic dollars is unrealistic and misguided – To support the branches, you’d need an endowment of $6 to 8 million dollars. And is this really where we as a community think we should encourage this large amount of private donations – as opposed to for education, early childhood, mental health care, youth services, homelessness and the many other important challenges and organizations that Evanston has?

    It’s a big picture – and branch advocates often seem to focus on just the branches and not how they fit or don’t fit into the best library service, much less the best community, that we can be.

  7. Evanston branch libraries
    Perhaps, if we were all marketing or public relations experts, we would find the time to inquire about facts and promote our knowledge that discussion around reopening a branch library on the west side has been proposed.

    We would know that Family Focus Evanston, located in the Weissbourd-Holmes Center on Evanston’s west side, maintains a small library that supporters of the current Evanston library system have proposed be included in its’ system to expand library services in our neighborhoods.

    We would know that Evanston citizens have offered to fund the current library system in Evanston and our offers have been turned down.

    We would know that the North Branch library serves Orrington, Lincolnwood, Willard, Kingsley and Haven public school areas which enroll Evanston children from Wards 5, 6 and 7 and is within easy walking distance for most families sending children to these schools… Willard families, possibly, being the exception.

    And finally, we would know that it takes a loud, passionate group of people to make it very clear to a city that continues to approach its’ budget problems by proposing to cut a community service that provides so much for so many, and accounts for one percent of its’ overall expenses.

    1. School Libraries
      Are you telling me that kids from those schools use the North Branch library in lieu of the school libraries? What you are really saying is that there is a lot of redundancy in services in the North Branch area – we are supporting school libraries and a public library branch. I find it hard to believe that there are many materials offered at the North Branch that are unavailable at the school libraries. Doesn’t Haven have a big new media center? We pay the bulk of our property taxes to D65 – now we have to keep paying for branch libraries to serve the local school district. What logic is that?

      It would make far more sense to put mini-branches in the community centers than to maintain the current branches as they exist today. The South branch is too close to the main library and is in need of renovation, the North branch could be sold to an income-generating business, and we need a West-side branch.

      1. School vrs. EPL-Main vrs. Branches
        Some posts imply students use the branch libraries for study.
        Do they mean as a ‘study hall’ or for ‘research’ ?
        If the mean ‘research’ the librarians or branch supporters should document the books they have for Elementary, Middle, High School and other ‘research’ questions. From what I’ve seen both branches have nothing of use for any of these purposes. EPL-Main certainly does have such resources. Do the branches keep track of what kinds of books are checked-out, e.g. ‘recreational’, research/textbooks for various school levels, etc.. That would be very interesting to know.
        I would be amazed if any students who are old enough to use the Loft or other areas at Main, would go to the branches for either study hall or research.
        Those who support the branches should come clean on what they want them for—academic, recreational reading, DVDs, newspapers, ‘getting their kids out of their hair’ [I’d think the children in this group would find Main much more to their liking], computer terminals [far fewer than Main], or whatever.

      2. Teachers and Librarians Signed Petition to Support Libraries
        There are countless petition signatures online at www. branchLove.org from teachers and librarians within D65 and other community schools, and in an email to me, former Kingsley Librarian, and former WestBranch of Evanston librarian, and author, Denia Hester had this to say to me in support of branch libraries:

        “What is difficult to get across is the idea that yes, typical towns of this size don’t generally run branch libraries. But Evanston is not your typical town. It is a town that embraces literacy fiercely, and that is part of what makes it a thoughtful and intelligent community. Also, in hard economic times, the branch libraries are needed more than ever. We never know when that person sitting next to us at a computer is looking for a job or just needs a familiar, welcoming place to gather their thoughts. And certainly the downtown library is not easily accessible for many, especially the young and the elderly.”

        PS- The New Haven Media Center you mention? Successfully funded through a public-private partnership similar to that which could be implemented for the branch libraries. The two women who headed the campaign have volunteered their help.

  8. Keeping the Branch LIbraries Open
    While I appreciate the brief visit by the Evanston Now reporter, it hardly scratches
    the surface of the role these branch libraries play. We are asking for an expansion of the branch library system. There used to be a west branch on Simpson that
    opened in 1975. It has since closed. What we hope for is a year reprieve to re-invent the libraries funding structure. We want to reduce the funds the city has to provide.
    There are far off plans to rebuild the Robert Crown Center, possiby closer to
    Main and Dodge to help create a friendlier environment for the local merchants.
    It could possibly accomodate a branch library.
    At the Dempster/Dodge Plaza there is also a seemingly viable space, available now,
    that could create another anchor ( adding to Dominicks and Dance Center Evanston), and
    a more user friendly spacefor a possible west branch.
    We also recognize that libraries are evolving into community centers that provide
    services and host many functions beside loaning books and DVD’s. We are in a transition
    phase, as we see it. The south branch survived the Great Depression. It is a safe
    haven for children and adults to use library services and find a quiet place. It also
    creates a space for community events such as this one for Cinco de Mayo ;

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vj9ebwyiDtU

    We honor the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. by encouraging not only saving of the
    exisitng two branches, but hopefully to re-introduce something that has been absent
    for far too long, a west side branch.

    Please join us Monday Jan 18 South Branch 11 am -12 pm
    North Branch 12:30pm-1:30pm

    for more info go to http://www.BranchLove.org

    Thanks,

    Larry Lundy
    Evanstonian

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