Evanston has spent more per capita than most Big Ten towns on its public library.

That’s one conclusion of a comparison by Evanston Now of data from the latest available national survey of public libraries by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. 

Evanston has spent more per capita than most Big Ten towns on its public library.

That’s one conclusion of a comparison by Evanston Now of data from the latest available national survey of public libraries by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. 

Evanston Now chose to compare Big Ten college towns because they — unlike most communities — also are home to major university research libraries that serve the library needs of a substantial segment of their populations.

The latest available data, from 2008, shows that Evanston spent more per capita on library operating expenses than any Big Ten towns except Ann Arbor, Mich., and Urbana, Ill., and spent more that year on library capital expenses than all the towns except Ann Arbor.

With the latest budget adjustments in Evanston, the library this year is spending about $58.50 per capita — which would have put it in the middle of the pack in 2008. How the other communities have responded to tight economic times since 2008 isn’t known.

Evanston’s library staff was third largest per capita among the 11 Big Ten towns in 2008. But the number of library visits per resident per year in Evanston lagged — ranking 8th among the 11 communities.

Evanston since has cut its library staff to a number that would have ranked fourth in the 2008 per capita rankings.

Evanston had the second largest collection size among public libraries in Big Ten towns in 2008, but it lagged substantially in library circulation, coming in eighth.

Evanston had the highest ratio of library branches or other outlets to population of any of the Big Ten towns, with a branch for every 25,000 residents. Branches in this calculation include main libraries and bookmobiles as outlets in addition to buildings formally labeled branch libraries.

Only six of the Big Ten towns had branch libraries, and Evanston was the smallest town in the group to have any branches. Only three of the 11 communities operate bookmobiles.

Evanston was a laggard among the Big Ten town libraries when it came to providing public terminals for Internet access, ranking ninth among the 11 towns. 

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

Join the Conversation


  1. University library


    These statistics are interesting and nicely presented.  Thanks for putting them together.

    But where’s the data to support your premise that the Northwestern University Library "serve[s] the library needs of a substantial segment" of the Evanston population?  As far as I know, library privileges at Northwestern for outsiders are very limited.  Plus, university libraries don’t offer the kinds of services that public libraries offer, e.g., childeren’s departments, extensive fiction collections, special services for school children and seniors, etc. etc.

    Also, if you think that you should compare Evanston with other college towns, it seems more appropriate to compare us to other towns with private universities, not large public universities, and also to take into account the size and type of town.  Big Ten towns vary a lot in size and character (Evanston, Columbus, and West Lafayette, for instance are very different in size, location, character, etc.)  Also, I would think public access to the libraries at public universities is better since they’re public institutions.

    Having said all that, it doesn’t seem that Evanston is that much of an outlier in operating expenses.  A few towns have really low expenses, which raise some questions about the accuracy of the data for those towns.  Among the remaining towns, there are a couple that spend more, a couple that spend about the same, and a few that spend less.

    1. Library access

      Hi JL,

      Thanks for you comments.

      Evanston has roughly 75,000 residents. Northwestern has about 14,000 students on its Evanston campus. And aside from a small percentage of commuter students who live outside of Evanston, they all count as Evanston residents. So, say that’s 12,000 people.

      Then add the roughly half of the university’s 5,500 Evanston campus employees who live in Evanston. Call it 2,500.

      Then add the substantial number of NU alums who live in Evanston and have library privileges. I don’t have a number for that, although I suppose we could get an answer from the alumni association.

      So we probably have in the range of 15,000 to 20,000 people in town with access to the university library. That’s 20 to 27 percent of the total population — which I believe counts as a "substantial segment."

      Certainly, if there was a desire to further broaden access, that could be an agenda item for discussion between our new mayor and new university president.

      I chose to compare NU with other Big Ten schools because its an easily definable data set that was limited enough in size to make comparisons fairly easy. Pairing NU with other similarly selective private schools located in towns of similar size with library districts that only served the town seemed like too much trouble and subject to too much quibbling. But the data is all available if you’d like to run your own comparison.

      Having lived in two of the other Big Ten towns and visited additional ones, I don’t think Evanston is all that radically different from them in its essential character.

      — Bill

    2. Private university library access

      JL, most private universities don’t provide public access to the universities libraries.  NU at least does provide access.  U.Chicago does not allow any public access. 

      It appears that neither NYU or Columbia allows public assess to NY residents.

      I don’t know if all public university libraries allow public access.  It may be that some that are famous research schools may not—-I looked at the UIUC access once and could not see that they did but am told they do but I don’t know if there are limits.

      NU gives a pretty good deal to Evanston.


      As one illustration:
      Who can use Harvard’s libraries?
      First and foremost, Harvard’s 70-plus libraries serve the University’s current faculty, students, staff, and researchers who hold valid Harvard IDs. Policies on admittance and borrowing, hours, and services vary throughout the University. For information on a specific Harvard library, visit http://lib.harvard.edu/libraries/.
      Are the Harvard libraries open to the public?
      While some Harvard library buildings are open to the public, most require a valid Harvard ID for admittance. Borrowing privileges, which vary, are generally limited to current members of the Harvard community. For specific information, visit http://lib.harvard.edu/libraries/. 
  2. Evanston Resident’s NU Library Access

    Actually access to residents is available.   I don’t know if they really expected residents would make use of it or it was set-up for ‘town/gown’ peace.
    Evanston Residents
    Persons over the age of 18, who are permanent residents of Evanston, may apply for a Borrower’s Card, valid for three months, if they:
    1.Present a photo ID;
    2.Present proof of a current Evanston address, such as a utility bill;
    3.Pay a $50.00 fee per three months of privileges; and
    4.Provide a valid e-mail address.
  3. Public access to NU Library

    I am the director of the NU libraries.  We’re open to the public for walk-in access at no charge (see those hours at http://www.library.northwestern.edu/circulation/privileges/building_access.html).  When in the building, this includes access to our archives and electronic resources.  Borrowing privileges do cost $50/month; many private universities do not offer such access at all, or charge fees that exceed $500/year.  We try very hard to be accessible to the community while still meeting our first priority, which is the teaching and research needs of NU students and faculty.  Our collections therefore are primarily academic in scope.  The wonderful Evanston Public Library of course provides services we do not, for example, services for children.  We are happy to collaborate with EPL and have done a variety of joint exhibits and programs.  I myself am an Evanston resident and have a card for the public library.

    For more information about local access to and borrowing from NU Libraries, please call our Library Privileges Office at 847-491-7617.

    1. correction to borrowing charge

      A typo in my earlier message, I meant to say that borrowing privileges are $50 for three months.

Leave a comment
The goal of our comment policy is to make the comments section a vibrant yet civil space. Treat each other with respect — even the people you disagree with. Whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims.

Your email address will not be published.