Evanston Public Library Has a Lean Budget But Expansive Outreach and Long-Term Plans

by Shawn Iles and Karen Danczak Lyons (as previously published in the Evanston Roundtable)

The work of the Evanston Public Library is far-reaching, multi-dimensional and personal and is best developed through direct input from those we serve. We are dedicated to meeting the diverse needs and expectations of our residents both within the walls of our libraries and in locations around the community where our residents gather – from schools and parks to community centers.

Our services are available 24/7 through the online resources on our website at epl.org.  We believe everyone deserves the opportunity to improve themselves through the various forms of literacy.

Through an equity lens, we are committed to serving the un- and under-served residents in Evanston, especially in the Fifth, Eighth and Ninth wards.  As we pilot new service models at new locations, we will be realigning our resources. This may mean adjusting service hours at our libraries and redeploying staff to address service equity. With an operating budget significantly leaner than comparable area libraries, EPL meticulously budgets and works diligently to be good stewards of taxpayers’ dollars.

As we continue to explore the definition of equity in Evanston, it is our goal to co-create our library services with the residents we seek to serve. By listening, building relationships and engaging in honest, respectful dialogue, we hear from both new voices and long-time patrons. We take feedback seriously and encourage you to connect with us through any means: whether that’s talking directly to library employees, filling out a “comment” form on our website or calling on the phone. We are absolutely committed to experimenting and finding new ways to provide library service throughout Evanston.

There are many ways we work to encourage dialogue. Trustees attend community meetings and reserve time before board meetings to meet with the community.  Our Executive Director and engagement staff visit businesses, library partners and residents throughout the City seeking input and convening community conversations. Residents are invited to complete surveys.

The EPL was founded in 1873. Over the passing years, our City has changed and so has the business of the Library as we continuously evolve to meet new needs. When we opened the doors of the new Main Library 25 years ago, we looked for books and other materials through a card catalogue. Online databases, streaming video, E-books, computers with internet access, free Wi-Fi within the library, and circulating Wi-Fi hotspots to take home – none of these services was available in the past.

Today we bridge the digital divide and provide a safety net for our most at-risk residents, including those who suffer with memory loss, and individuals struggling with homelessness or mental illness. We have a full-time social worker, one of very few libraries providing this service. We provide spaces and programs for our teens to explore the boundaries of their curiosity and talents. We support new parents and help grow the next generation of readers. All of these services and too many to catalogue here are available to everyone each day.

As community needs and issues evolve, we continue to develop and sustain an engaged relationship with the Evanston community so that we can evolve organically along with you. We have not always gotten this right. We are trying new approaches including learning together about Asset Based Community Development: creating new library services by recognizing the existing strengths inherent in our community and letting those strengths guide us towards how we can do better for all of Evanston. We have convened a joint Board/Staff/Resident Racial Equity Task Force to review our library through an equity lens.

We are committed to doing a better job of engaging with you – finding out what you want to share; learning about your aspirations; listening to your observations and uncovering your unmet needs.

These efforts are intended to bring our work into alignment with your vision of library service and constantly affirm that we are working alongside you and contributing to your vision for a more equitable Evanston.

One hallmark of a good library is that the work it does reflects the needs and aspirations of the community. We will keep holding up that mirror. We count on you to let us know what you see there.

Mr. Iles is President of the Evanston Public Library Board of Trustees and Ms. Danczak Lyons is the Executive Director of the Evanston Public Library.

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