Evanston’s Library Board voted Wednesday night to have library staff pursue an agreement under which a private group would pay for a new, temporary south branch library.
Board members Susan Stone and Dona Gerson disagreed about how to respond to the branch proposal.
The private group, the Evanston Public Library Friends, has raised funds from the public for the past year in competition with the library’s own fundraising efforts. It claims to be an advocate for the library system as a whole, but so far has devoted its financial resources almost exclusively to branch libraries.
The Friends group says it raised $160,000 to fund branch library operations last year.
The library board’s own “Fund for Excellence” campaign brought in $77,000 in private donations in 2010, about the same as the year before.
The private group is now offering to find and fund an interim branch site near the current south branch at 949 Chicago Ave.
The library has lost its lease on the current site, and the board voted last month to close the branch by the end of February as it tries to develop long range plans for the overall future of library services in the city and prepares to levy its own tax on city residents.
The library’s community room looked packed with spectators for the session, but many were journalism students taking notes for a class.
Library board members appeared deeply split about how to respond to the private group’s offer.
Some objected to the requirement that a new branch be near the old site.
Susan Stone suggested the board should instead focus on establishing a branch on the city’s west side, which has lacked branch library service for all but a few years of the past century.
But Dona Gerson said that while she agreed there’s a need for services throughout the city, “We’ve had the offer of a gift, and I don’t think our role is to tell them to do something else that they’ve not suggested.”
Lynette Murphy said acting on the private group’s proposal would be too hasty, with the board now trying to develop a strategic plan for the next decade.
“We know we want to have the best services, whether at the main library or branches,” Murphy said, “but we don’t yet know what those services will look like in five to ten years. Until we get to that point, any decision that looks permanent would be a mistake.”
The sharpest criticism of the private group’s proposal came from Diane Allen, who was unable to attend the meeting, but asked the board’s president, Chris Stewart, to read a written statement she’d prepared.
Stewart quoted Allen as saying the Friends group “is not committed to the community at large, but only to their preconceived ideas of what and where” library services should be.
She said the Friends attitude was “a disservice to the community and showed contempt for the library board’s members.”
Despite the divisions on the board, the seven members present ultimately voted to pursue the offer made by the private group.