Public Safety and Equity are the Lenses Driving Library Decisions

By Karen Danczak Lyons

Seismic changes across the country have altered how the Evanston Public Library is making operations decisions. Importantly, our commitment to the current movement calling for systemic societal change accelerated three years ago when we commissioned an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Assessment and got to work on its recommendations.

But nature has thrown the globe a curveball, creating unprecedented dual waves that absolutely intertwine. The Library is committed to meeting the diverse expectations and needs of Evanston residents, and today that means every decision is viewed through dual lenses of public safety and equity.

Our latest equity work includes the activation of a Racial Equity Task Force (RETF). We recently issued a Commitment to Racial Equity statement powered by our acknowledgement and regret that already-marginalized community members have felt excluded from and unwelcome in our spaces. Today, all of our staff undergo regular training in social justice issues to gain greater understanding of systemic racism and then are challenged to work to dismantle it wherever found in our own system.

Outcomes from the RETF have earned the Library a Reaching Across Illinois Library System (RAILS) My Library Is… Grant. This grant helps libraries build visibility and express their value to communities they serve. For us, that means creating an innovative video series that will welcome underrepresented members of our community, bring greater awareness of all library resources to them, and promote deeper conversations to strengthen our ties.

In recent weeks, the dual lens has impacted many decisions, and will continue to guide us. After reviewing the professional and scholarly literature regarding library fines and fees, the Library eliminated existing fines on overdue library materials. Library governing authorities such as the American Library Association find it effective in building a positive relationship with the community while discontinuing financial penalties that might discourage library use.

Prior to the reopening of the Main Library and the Robert Crown Branch Library, we prioritized services to those who depend on us for access to technology. This was the first service offered inside the Library after the Illinois shutdown. We reopened the Main Library on July 13 for access to computers, printing and the internet.  As public safety measures, up to 10 patrons at a time may use this service for a single, first-come-first-serve, time-limited window. Masks, physical distancing, and temperature-taking are required to enter, and masks are provided to those without them. Computer stations, tables and chairs are disinfected between each use. Similar safety features will continue as we resume more services, with capacity limitations directly related to building size and vigilance in the handling of shared spaces and materials.

The Loft is our center of outreach to teens seeking enrichment, connection, safety, and acceptance. This summer, we intentionally focused outreach to underserved youth. We have collaborated with other youth-centered organizations across Evanston, reaching out to particular families, doing wellness calls, and making sure they are aware of the resources available to them. Among other steps, we distributed craft kits to participants in the arts and crafts classes, forged a partnership with Northwestern’s TIILT Lab to offer virtual Minecraft clubs, and offered a virtual cycling club for underserved youth.

Moving forward, as the city – hopefully – finds its way back to regular, if not “normal,” operations, we will continue to use public safety and equity as our guides…even as we face an uncertain budget. Our branch system will likely not look the same. Not only has our community changed, but the context for our branches has changed. The approach to branches in Evanston continues to shift as the Library expands outreach to residents in a broad variety of community collaborations including those with schools, community centers and non-profit organizations. The North Branch has seen uninterrupted operation since 1952. A branch on the southeast side has existed in some form since 1917. The West Side branch in the Fifth Ward existed for only five years from 1975 to 1981. The new Robert Crown Branch Library brings our presence further southwest than ever before in a community center setting that attracts a broad swath of residents, coming for a variety of reasons.

The Library is always evaluating its physical footprint across Evanston. What that looks like this year or in generations to come is shaped by budgets, needs and the diverse expectations of this city we serve. The Library will always be committed to meeting the diverse expectations and needs of Evanston residents. As this public health crisis continues, we will continue to make every decision through the dual lenses of public safety and equity.

Karen Danczak-Lyons has been the Executive Director of the Evanston Public Library since 2012. The Library was founded in 1873 and serves a highly diverse and evolving community. More than 1,600 people use its resources and services every day.


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