Evanston’s Library Board voted unanimously Wednesday night to permanently close branch libraries on Central Street and Chicago Avenue, saying budget and equity concerns drove the move.
More than 60 people — sharply split between advocates of maintaining and closing the branches — sought to address the board at its online meeting that drew an audience of at least 175 residents.
In explaining their vote some board members referenced a “three cities” chart produced for the board’s racial equity discussions that shows sharp variations in income trends among different census tracts in the city.
Both of the branches to be closed are located in tracts identified as areas seeing among the greatest income growth, while the downtown library and the new Robert Crown branch, which will both remain open, are located in areas which have seen less income growth or modest declines.
Board members also expressed concerns about how they might better serve the one tract in the city with the sharpest decline in incomes — tract 8102 in the southeast corner of the city.
Aldermen representing the wards that will lose branches, Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, and Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, both spoke in favor of keeping the branches in their wards open.
Revelle said the North Branch is in a recently-renovated city-owned building that the library occupies rent free and she suggested that community volunteers could help reduce the cost of staffing the branch.
Wynne said she’s always been a strong supporter of the library and its branches.
Under state law the Library Board is largely independent of the City Council and can set its own spending priorities, although, if the library exceeds a referendum-set tax levy cap, the Council can decline to approve the tax levy required to support the additional spending.
Branch supporters said they provided a convenient way for neighborhood residents to access library services. Advocates of closing the branches said that convenience wasn’t available to many residents of the city.
Long-time board member Margaret Lurie said that while she felt the pain of residents objecting to the closures, many nearby communities, including Skokie, Wilmette and Winnetka, have libraries that operate only one facility and “people are perfectly happy with that, they never say ‘open a branch.’”
Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons said budget concerns and social distancing requirements created by the COVID-19 pandemic also were factors in the decision to close the library’s two smallest branches.
She also said that during the period of the pandemic when all the library buildings were closed, but the library was offering a book pickup option at the main library downtown, residents of the wards with the small branches were among the most likely to pick up books downtown.