The Evanston Public Library is currently embroiled in a controversy about the possible dismissal of its only African-American librarian.

Here’s some background information that you may find useful in following the story.

The library board

The library board is a nine-member body. As shown by the chart above, its racial and ethnic composition closely matches that of the population of the City of Evanston.

Board members are appointed by the mayor to serve three year terms. Because of state statutes, they have far more autonomy than any other appointed board in the city. They can hire and fire the library director, set the library’s budget and establish its tax levy.

The only constraint on the board’s taxing authority is that the City Council could vote to reject any levy amount that exceeds a referendum-approved tax cap. But while the board’s levies have exceeded the tax cap, the Council has not yet exercised that authority.

The terms of three board members — Margaret Lurie, Shawn Iles and Vaishali Patel — expire at the end of this month. Mayor Steve Hagerty has said he plans to decide who to appoint, or reappont, in time for the names to be confirmed by the City Council on June 26.

Traditionally, library board members, like members of most other city boards, have been limited to two three-year terms. The library board voted last year to exempt itself from that rule. Of the three board members whose terms are ending, only Margaret Lurie is completing a second full term.

Lesley Williams

Lesley Williams, the library employee whose job is on the line, has worked at the EPL for 21 years. She is currently is head of adult services and served as acting interim director of the library for a time in 2011.

Lesley Williams.

While she has sometimes portrayed herself as a lonely voice for equity and inclusion at the library, the board has argued that its members and the entire library staff are on board with those goals.

A trove of email messages and other documents released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request indicate some board members have considered Williams a divisive figure on the staff for a number of years.

Branch libraries

Whether Evanston should have branch libraries and — if it does have them — how many and where they should be located — has been a controversial issue for years.

Michael Tannen.

The library board’s current president, Michael Tannen, first became involved in library issues as a leader of a community group defending the branches against budget cuts.

The library board has spent money to refurbish the North Branch libary and create a new South Branch. It’s also pledged to issue $2.5 million in bonds toward creation of a new branch library as part of the planned new Robert Crown Center on the city’s west side.

The 2015 non-white population share for Evanston neighborhoods at the census block group level mapped by with library locations added.

While the library offers some programming at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Center and the Gibbs-Morrison Center in the 5th Ward, it hasn’t had a permanent facility in that ward for decades. Nor are there plans for a branch library in the far south end of the city — the other part of town with the highest non-white population.

Some of the individuals and groups backing Williams argue the city needs to add more branches in neighborhoods with a high proportion of minority residents.

An equity audit

Activists backing Williams also demand that the library hire an outside consultant to conduct an equity audit of the organization. The city recently hired an equity and empowerment coordinator to do such work, but one speaker at Friday’s rally for Williams said she couldn’t be independent because she reports to the city manager.

Related story

Facebook post may get librarian fired (6/2/17)

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

Join the Conversation


  1. How Important is the Library?

    Admittedly, this is a point made out of pure ignorance, but, given the increasing worthlessness of physical incarnations of books, movies, and music, I wonder if we need more community centers and homeless shelters than libraries.

    1. Libraries are very important

      A library is a community center–it’s a major source of children’s activities, a place for people to use computers, and a place for numerous events open to the public. And let’s not forget that books actually still do matter.

      1. Futures of Libraries
        Several years ago Stephen Colbert at NU graduation joked(?) that NU had this large library that could hold x million books but in x years would be converted to a Quisnos given the growth of ebooks. Everyone laughed but NU then moved much of the Reference books and regular books off campus [40 miles] for next day delivery when requested—obviously not understanding researcher work, more than one book at a time and not 24 hours later/apart. Also more ebooks/journals instead of physical books—cost probably had much to do with that. Also reducing the size of the Science and Engineering library space [collection?] of books.
        EPL also cut out a lot of Reference works. I don’t know about the volume of non-fiction [pop novels].
        Perhaps EPL and community libraries have/are viewing the library—places to read/study/research, community/social activities or something different.

    2. Physical incarnations of

      Physical incarnations of media will eventually truly become a thing of the past. But, not yet. I’m not sure what areas of research or interest Unpopular works in, but I have found that North Surburban Libraries and Interlibrary Loan are sometimes the only sources from which to get media that I want. That being said, I am not qualified to comment on what type of community center a library should be. I’m just thankful that it is there.

    3. branches

      Other surrounding suburbs do NOT have branches……one main library is sufficient.  Why does Evanston need the expense of many other branches…. including another huge one in a new ice rink facility?  WASTE of money..and staffing..and maintenance, etc……

  2. Numbers

    Thank you for the Board/Population #’s. Do we know how many librarians are on staff?

    1. Librarians

      Hi Scrappy,

      A quick check of the city’s 2017 salaries list indicates there are 18 people with “librarian” in their job title. Other library employees have different titles.

      — Bill

      1. A quick check of ethnicity of
        A quick check of ethnicity of people awarded library science degrees in the USA show that 5% are African-America. 5% of 18 is about 1. Seems like Evanston is pretty much average.

  3. Invigoration needed

    Adding a comment is almost impossible for the average citizen. Anyway, we can only hope that the new mayor and new council will try to invigorate our library system !    

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