Forging New Bonds at the Memory Cafe

For older people on the memory loss spectrum, life can be difficult. It’s easier to feel left out from the community and cut off from resources and support structures. But the Library is working to change that.

The Memory Cafe, launched at the Library in 2018, is a program developed to support and connect those experiencing memory loss and their care partners across Evanston and beyond. It takes place regularly on Thursdays at 11 a.m. with a rotating set of themes or activities with each meeting. Participants have presented personal belongings for show and tell, enjoyed music from decades past, shared memories through art projects, and much more. 

It’s a program that has been successful at plenty of other libraries across the country, according to Jill Skwerski, the Library’s Engagement Services Manager. She said that she wanted to bring that support to seniors dealing with dementia and memory loss in Evanston. 

“We have whole departments devoted to youth services and teen services and adult services, but no specific support for senior citizens,” Skwerski said. “I just saw that gap.”

Along with the Memory Cafe, the Library also has a special selection of materials, the Dementia Resource Center, specifically focused on educating patrons about memory loss. Resource kits are also available to help promote mental stimulation with everything from puzzles to musical instruments and coloring books. 

Pim Halka, who worked as a community engagement library assistant with Skwerski, worked to coordinate Memory Cafe meetings, develop programming, and bring in presenters to facilitate meetings. Halka said that memory loss can have a huge impact on a person’s well-being and sense of belonging in the community. The Cafe functions as a way to get that sense of belonging back.

“It’s an isolating and scary thing to live with,” Halka said. “It’s very necessary for people to be able to collaborate and come together and meet other people going through similar experiences.”

But the Memory Cafe is much more than just a support system for those on the memory loss spectrum. The program builds on the model developed at other libraries and strives to be an inclusive space for everyone affected by memory loss in a senior’s life, Skwerski said.

“We wanted a space where caregivers and those who have the disease could come and be in community,” Skwerski said. “It really was intentionally focused on not only the person with the disease but also the caregiver.”

Over the years, the leadership and management of the Memory Cafe have changed hands. Bridget Petrites and Paula Shapiro are currently spearheading the program. Shapiro has also taken on a leadership role in the local Dementia-Friendly Evanston Initiative group which exists to create a more dementia friendly community. Both love working with seniors, and they’re inspired by the way the participants are able to bond with one another and share their experiences living with memory loss.

“You can see that for them it’s a way to unburden themselves, and to share, and feel like this is a space where (they) can go and do that,” Petrites said.

The past year and a half have shaken things up, of course. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Memory Cafe was forced to adapt to social distancing guidelines along with the rest of the world—but operating in the digital environment had surprising advantages. The group went from monthly in-person meetings to weekly Zoom meetings that were more frequent and accessible for some members of the community, and guest presenters had more availability to attend gatherings virtually. 

When and if things return completely to normal and in-person gatherings begin again, Memory Cafe meetings may remain available through virtual platforms. After all, Shapiro said, the option of remote attendance makes the program much more accessible for some.

“Seniors have been socially isolated before COVID happened and they’ll be isolated after, and I think that it’s nice that they have an option if they are home-bound to connect with other people,” she said.

Of course, technology can still be a barrier for many in Evanston who have limited access to computers, phones, or Wi-Fi. But the Library is working to bridge the digital divide by providing tech resources, assistance, and internet access to Evanstonians in need across the city. Finding ways to promote connections and resource availability in the local community is one of the Library’s top priorities.

In the future, Petrites and Shapiro are looking to continue the work they’ve been doing and keep connecting to people through the Memory Cafe. They encourage those with loved ones experiencing dementia or memory loss to introduce them to the group, maybe even take them to a meeting or help them set up their Zoom connection. Shapiro said that anyone can be a part of this community if they’re interested in supporting it, and anyone can gain something from the experience, too.

“It really has become sort of a safe space for all of us,” Shapiro said. “I’ve learned so much from them and their stories.”

The next Memory Cafe meetings will take place virtually over Zoom on August 5, August 12, August 19, and August 26. Register at

Library Tech Assistants Offer a Helping Hand

The tech desk, part of the Innovation and Digital Learning department, has always been on the front lines of the Evanston Public Library’s service to the community. Located on the Main Library’s third floor, its team is tasked with assisting patrons in using the computers, printers, and other technological services available to them.

But beyond this role, the tech desk staff  also help patrons tackle more general problems, connect to vital services, or even just talk things out when needed. Last year, the pandemic interrupted this important function of the team’s work, but now that things are back in person and health guidelines are gradually loosening, the tech desk is back and more needed than ever.

Chi Williams, Technology Assistant

There’s not really a strict definition of the tech desk’s work. Chi Williams, a member of the team, said she and her coworkers play many different roles at their job depending on what patrons require.

“We kind of go between helping people with actual technological issues—with computers and printing and stuff like that—and listening to people talking,” Williams said. “Just being there to experience what they’re talking about in their lives. Because the library is a safe place for so many of these people, they’re able to unwind in a way that they might not otherwise.”


A Story from the Desk

A lot more goes on at the Library’s tech desk than you’d think—staffers help all kinds of people with all kinds of concerns on a daily basis. Here are a few of their stories: 

Morgan Patten: There was this woman who asked me to proofread her resume and cover letter. And I thought, I have to help her with this. I can’t let her send this, it could be so much better. You could tell she had a lot of skills, she just didn’t know how to write this kind of document that does kind of require some specific knowledge. 

And that’s part of what they’re gauging in a job interview for some positions: that you have the knowledge to write documents like that. Which makes it really limiting for people who might have really good skills or are really teachable, but they have never learned those skills before

So I just sat with her and we rehashed the whole thing. We redid her resume and helped her write her cover letter. It ended up being a really good experience, and you could just tell she was really, really grateful. She didn’t come back for help after that, so I hope she got the job.


The past year has been very difficult. Besides isolating individual members of the community, the pandemic also exacerbated the digital divide in Evanston. The barriers experienced by many to the vital digital services and resources so many of us take for granted are a huge problem, according to Heather Lindahl, another member of the team. Those without the internet, computers, phones, or other devices can be cut off from the rest of society. That’s why many of those affected by the digital divide use the free assistance that the tech desk provides. But sometimes it only feels like a temporary solution. 

“Their experience of a technical problem is really just the tip of the iceberg of a much larger problem,” Lindahl said. 

More and more, though, the Library is stepping into a bigger role in helping to bridge the digital divide. In providing Wi-Fi hotspots, job search take home kits, laptops, and more to those who need them, the tech desk is reaching out more than ever before to help strengthen the Evanston community and continue to connect the lives of those within it.

EPL Executive Director Karen Danczak Lyons said that it’s vital that we secure broadband connection, an essential resource these days, for all who require it and she says she’s been advocating for just that with partners like the City of Evanston and the school districts.

“With 43 million in new funds coming from the federal government, I’m hopeful we can pilot at least broadband improvements in specific areas of the City where they are needed,” Lyons said. “Broadband should be like any other utility. We expect our gas, electricity, and water to be there for us. The same is true of broadband. Especially in the pandemic, we’ve seen what happens when people are left disconnected.”


A Story from the Desk

Chi Williams: I had one patron whose sister passed over the course of the pandemic. They don’t know whether it was COVID or whether it was something else, but either way she’s passed now, and he’s been trying to figure out her funeral arrangements and have her will certified and all of these different specific things.  And he tells me about it in bits and pieces every time that he comes in, because each time I’m helping him do the thing that he needs that day—whether it’s printing something out, signing it, scanning it and sending it back to his lawyer, or just him writing a eulogy for his sister and I get to read it. And I see what a beautiful person she was and how much he cherished her. I still have a copy of her eulogy. The fact that he told me to keep a copy and the fact that he cares enough to keep telling me about the situation…it’s nice to be a part of his life, even if it is in this one way. 


Heather Lindahl, Technology Assistant

Heather Lindahl, who works with Williams, said that there’s much more to the job than meets the eye, and the interpersonal aspect—connecting with patrons and lending an ear when needed—is a big part of the role.

“At the tech desk, we’re kind of like bartenders a little bit,” Lindahl said. “There’s no alcohol, but people will come and socialize with us.” 

And because of that special, front-line connection, Lindahl often sees the community at its most vulnerable moments. She has several stories of times when she’s helped people in difficult situations or people struggling with tough mental or physical health conditions. Now, the tech desk is well-equipped with juice, snacks, and other resources to help ease these situations if they arise.

The tech desk is a very important mediator between the Library and the patrons it supports. However, it’s been difficult to maintain that relationship over the past year of the pandemic. When the Library wasn’t open, tech workers lost the benefit of face-to-face contact due to social distancing measures. They were able to provide the assistance patrons needed, but only remotely. All that changed when the Library opened up in the summer of 2020, returning as a space where Evanstonians could receive in-person support, even though conditions were still abnormal.

After this change occurred, it mattered a lot to patrons simply that the Library was open for them at all after a difficult year of closed doors everywhere. For the most part, people are just happy to have someone there to help them.

Kenneth McCane, a regular visitor who is very familiar with the staff at the tech desk, said that the service he receives at the Library is really something special. 

“Everyone has been very cordial,” McCane said. “And through the pandemic, so many people, including me, were isolated at home all the time. To be able to leave home and come here for business or whatever and have polite people have a kind word to say…you just don’t get that everywhere.”

Especially during this past year, McCane said, the assistance the tech desk staffers have provided and their presence in the building has been a benefit to many. It’s their reliability, stability, and quality that keeps him coming back.

A Story from the Desk

Heather Lindahl: I had a patron who didn’t know how to get any of the stimulus checks. He said he hadn’t gotten any and he was sick, immunocompromised, very low energy, just struggling with the system. So I found a person to help him—at Truman college there’s a free program through Ladder Up. There was exactly one appointment available, and I booked it for him. 

He went and he got all this stimulus money and every single time he comes (now)—this was like a month ago—he’s like, ‘My life is so much better now, thank you so much.’ I appreciate his gratitude, but I know that he’s the only person I was able to do that for, because they only had one appointment. And so many people just don’t have the capacity to jump through all the hoops.

I see a lot of how the systems that we interface with technologically, the places where they intersect create real barriers for people. It’s an interesting vantage point that I have. I think the people who are experiencing these problems often blame themselves, they blame themselves for not being tech savvy enough, and the places that are causing the problems don’t understand how their systems interact with other systems. And so they’re oblivious that these problems are occurring.


The role of the tech desk may grow in the future. Morgan Patten, who recently joined the desk’s team, said that expanding the team’s educational initiatives and promoting digital literacy among adults could be a promising path forward for the Library.

“There is so much more that we offer at this desk, besides just getting someone on a computer,” Patten said. “And there’s definitely so much potential and room to grow for this department.”

Patten said that the desk is also experimenting with ways to create programs that engage and assist underserved patrons, including those experiencing homelessness. Helping people in tough situations connect to resources or employment opportunities is an especially impactful function of the desk, according to Patten.

Lindahl said that the tech desk’s work is vitally important. Beyond providing day-to-day assistance, bridging the digital divide can have a transformative effect on the lives of so many. 

“Life changing things happen for people when they can get online and get their stuff done and access employment, or social security benefits, or their stimulus checks, or their unemployment checks,” Lindahl said. “There are just so many doors to unlock that you need technology to unlock.”


EPL Releases 2020 Annual Report / EPL informe anual 2020

Evanston Public Library has released its 2020 Annual Report, “The World Changed: Evanston Public Library Reimagined.” The report, describing a pandemic year like no other we’ve seen, is available now online in both English and Spanish. (Comunicado de prensa en español a continuación.)

The annual report reflects the tumult of 2020: the pandemic response, the call to racial justice, and the actions taken to further equitable access to resources for all Evanstonians with a focus on those who are most vulnerable and marginalized. We made a public commitment to racial equity and agreed to be unapologetically equitable in who, where, and how we serve.

Despite the setbacks of the coronavirus year, EPL has been steadfastly advancing forward. We opened the brand new and beautiful Robert Crown Branch Library on Evanston’s west side in February 2020. We eliminated overdue fines, launched a brand new podcast, made Job Search Tech kits available to help bridge the digital divide for the unemployed, started lending laptops and Chromebooks, and more.

2020 was a year of transformation:

  • Use of our 24/7 digital library soared.
  • We rapidly shifted all programming to a virtual, online format.
  • Early literacy programs and technology tutorials offered via YouTube met needs of those sheltering in place.
  • WiFi Hotspots allowed individuals and local organizations to stay connected through the internet at a critical time.
  • Curbside pickup services provided convenient access to materials while our doors were closed.
  • Implementation of wide-ranging new safety measures allowed us to safely reopen in July 2020.

Difficult decisions, like the ones to close the North Branch and Chicago Avenue/Main Street Branch libraries were met with a full range of  responses from the community from support to disappointment. The report reflects this change as well.

Karen Danczak Lyons, Executive Director of Evanston Public Library said, “In 2020, our commitment to serve your needs equitably did not waiver, though how, where and when we served you changed. We pivoted, expanded the ways we connected with you and supported your needs with empathy and skill. I am proud of every member of the EPL family and the care we showed for you and for each other. I look forward to continuing to work with you as we explore your needs and the ways we can best serve you.”

2020 was a year that changed everything for all of us—and the Library changed with it.


La Biblioteca Pública de Evanston ha publicado su Informe Anual 2020, “El mundo cambió: la biblioteca pública de Evanston reinventado (Reimagined)”. El informe, que describe un año de pandemia como ningún otro que hayamos visto, está disponible ahora en línea en inglés y español.

El informe anual refleja el tumulto de 2020: la respuesta a la pandemia, el llamado a la justicia racial y las acciones tomadas para promover el acceso equitativo a los recursos para todos los habitantes de Evanston, con un enfoque en los más vulnerables y marginados. Hicimos un compromiso público con la equidad racial y acordamos ser absolutamente equitativos a quién, dónde y cómo servimos.

A pesar de los reveses del año del coronavirus, EPL ha avanzado con firmeza. Abrimos la nueva y hermosa biblioteca sucursal de Robert Crown en el lado oeste de Evanston en febrero de 2020. Eliminamos las multas vencidas, lanzamos un nuevo podcast, pusimos a disposición kits de tecnología para la búsqueda de empleo para ayudar a cerrar la brecha digital para los desempleados, comenzamos a prestar computadoras portátiles y Chromebooks y más.

2020 fue un año de transformación:

  • El uso de nuestra biblioteca digital 24 horas al día, 7 días a la semana se disparó.
  • Rápidamente cambiamos toda la programación a un formato virtual en línea.
  • Los programas de alfabetización temprana y los tutoriales de tecnología ofrecidos a través de YouTube satisfacían las necesidades de quienes se refugiaban en casa.
  • Los puntos de acceso WiFi permitieron a las personas y las organizaciones locales permanecer conectados a través de Internet en un momento crítico.
  • Los servicios de recogida en la acera proporcionaron un acceso conveniente a los materiales mientras nuestras puertas estaban cerradas.
  • La implementación de nuevas medidas de seguridad de amplio alcance nos permitió reabrir de manera segura en julio de 2020.

Las decisiones difíciles, como las de cerrar las bibliotecas de North Branch y Chicago Avenue / Main Street Branch, se encontraron con una amplia gama de respuestas de la comunidad, desde el apoyo hasta la decepción. El informe también refleja este cambio.

Karen Danczak Lyons, Directora Ejecutiva de la Biblioteca Pública de Evanston, dijo: “En 2020, nuestro compromiso de atender sus necesidades de manera equitativa no renunció, aunque cambió cómo, dónde y cuándo lo atendemos. Dimos un giro, ampliamos las formas en las que nos conectamos con usted y apoyamos sus necesidades con empatía y habilidad. Estoy orgullosa de cada miembro de la familia EPL y del cuidado que mostramos por usted y por los demás. Espero seguir trabajando con usted mientras exploramos sus necesidades y las formas en que podemos brindarle un mejor servicio “.

2020 fue un año que cambió todo para todos nosotros, y la Biblioteca cambió con él.

Cardboard Carnival Builds Kids Up for Success

by Joshua Perry, Northwestern-Medill class of 2023

A lot of kids are sick of logging onto Zoom by now—thanks to almost a year of online classes, the thought of staring at a computer screen has never been less appealing.

But in recent weeks, students have been getting up in the morning, getting back in front of their computers, and turning their cameras back on with excitement. And on Saturdays, no less.

These kids are participating in the Cardboard Carnival, a free four-part series of citywide challenges for District 65 students and Evanston residents in grades 4-8. The Cardboard Carnival helps kids learn about the engineering design process, strengthen their interest in STEM, and build valuable problem-solving skills—plus, have a blast while they’re at it.

The first event in the series, taking place last fall, was the 8-bit Challenge, a virtual project which introduced kids to fundamental coding concepts to create an original arcade game. The second challenge, Cardboard Carnival, encourages kids to get creative through the design and construction of a 3-D, cardboard marble adventure complete with tracks, funnels, loops, and even a programmable motorized element. The more elements they include, the more tokens they can enter for a chance to win cool prizes.

Both programs are funded by the Illinois State Library Project Next Generation Grant and made possible by a large coalition of partners, including EvanSTEM, the Evanston Public Library, Family Focus, MetaMedia, Digital Divas, Y.O.U. and the City of Evanston.

The challenges culminate with a virtual community showcase where the finished work of participating students is presented to friends and family. Kirby Callam, director of EvanSTEM, said that the goal is first and foremost to inspire and empower kids by encouraging their growth.

“This type of experience builds self-worth, identity and confidence, which are the building blocks towards capable and confident young adults,” Callam said. “Ultimately, we are hoping to stoke their hunger as they veer towards high school to take advantage of the tremendous STEM courses, clubs, and resources therein.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard. Making the necessary adjustments to virtual school and losing face-to-face contact with peers have been particularly difficult challenges for kids, and it can be harder to participate and stay engaged when learning through a computer screen.

Cardboard Carnival had to make a strong pivot once the pandemic hit, and some of the challenges were altered significantly to adapt to the new normal. But the organizers of the program are more than satisfied with how things turned out. EPL Teen Librarian Tyler Works said there are even some benefits to conducting the program in a virtual space.

“I think it opens up interesting opportunities for us as well, to facilitate and accommodate more kids in our learning activities than we would have been able to do in person,” Works said.

Participation for the first two challenges exceeded expectations, according to the Library Innovation and Digital Learning Manager Renee Neumeier. The goal for the Cardboard Carnival was to reach 90 kids in Evanston, and over 150 ended up picking up a starter kit, she said. They had to reorder supplies multiple times.

The 8-bit Challenge, which wrapped up in December, was also a rousing success, according to Neumeier. It demonstrated that the virtual citywide challenges could be fun and educational for kids even in a remote environment.

“I think for me it was probably one of my proudest moments as a manager working with community partners across Evanston,” she said. “The community showcase and the response we’ve gotten in a virtual setting—it’s everything that we wanted.”

After the fully-virtual 8-bit Challenge, the Cardboard Carnival represented a chance for students to get creative with their hands by designing a custom-built cardboard construction and gaining experience in engineering and design principles, guided by an older mentor.

Yousuf, a sixth grader and a Cardboard Carnival participant, has had an interest in STEM for a long time. He’s learning a lot in the program, he said, like how to not over-tinker with his constructions and really think through the design process.

Yousuf said the process of building his marble adventure has been long and complicated, with many adjustments and improvements along the way. That’s his favorite part about working on his project: the feeling of making progress through trial and error.

“When you get it wrong and you fix it, I like that, because then it teaches you to be patient, and that you have to learn that you can’t do anything right away, and it will take some time,” he said.

There’s a variety of video tutorials uploaded by program facilitators on YouTube to help teach kids about important concepts. But the mentorship element has been their central source of support. Mentors help them troubleshoot issues in the construction and walk them through rough patches and unfamiliar areas, like the coding process.

Samantha Webster, a PhD student at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, assisted a student like Yousuf as a mentor, and she loved it. She said she didn’t have the chance to work on projects like the 8-bit Challenge or Cardboard Carnival when she was young, so bringing these opportunities to kids today is a fulfilling experience for her.

“If there was a community space that had these types of events, I would have had a lot of fun playing with all the things that they had,” Webster said. “And I still do. Like, I get to do the science experiments with the kids, and that’s always fun.”

There’s a strong focus in the program on reaching out to those underrepresented in STEM, like girls and BIPOC kids. Special mentor sessions take place specifically for participants in these groups, led by experienced mentors who share their identities.

Neumeier said that these extra support measures are part of an intentional effort to include and foster the growth of kids who might not typically be encouraged to pursue a future in STEM.

“We want youth to see themselves reflected in this as much as possible,” Neumeier said.

Cardboard Carnival does more than just prime kids for a future in STEM, though. Works said the program draws upon foundational critical thinking, designing, and problem solving skills that are valuable in virtually any field.

The expectation isn’t that every participant will be committed to a particular career or field by the end of the challenge, Works said. Instead, the program focuses on strengthening aptitudes that are universally valued and helping kids reach their fullest potential regardless of what path they choose in life.

“Even if kids aren’t going to be necessarily pursuing a career in STEM, this process, these skills, will be applicable to just about anything they do in their life,” Works said.

The program shies away from rigidly structured approaches with detailed steps and strict rules for constructions. The point is to facilitate more open-ended exploration that lets kids learn through experience and discovery.

This teaching style illustrates for many kids how inventive the world of STEM can be. Yousuf said the challenges engage his creative side and let him be original and fun with his designs.

“Like, they don’t have limits—they don’t put limits on how much cardboard you can use and all that,” Yousuf said. “The limits are, like, the sky.”

Cardboard Carnival participants will send in videos of their finished courses in action by March 8. Then, the program will conclude on March 13 with another community showcase to celebrate the creativity and hard work kids put into the final products.

Works said he is constantly surprised by the themes and inspirations that end up shaping the kids’ finished work. The best part of the whole process, he said, is watching their ideas develop, grow, and transform into something really incredible.

“It’s always fascinating, what they come up with,” Works said. “It always kind of blows my mind—it’s things I never anticipated.”


Technology Opens Windows to Your Library and the Pandemic World

by Joshua Perry, Medill 2023, EPL Summer Volunteer

Luke Thompson is used to working the technology desk at the Evanston Public Library (EPL). He described it as being a bartender, a social worker, and a therapist all at once. But now, working through the COVID-19 pandemic, he has at various times felt like just a face on a screen.

“It’s difficult to establish relationships with people, I suppose, because you’re not seeing them daily,” Thompson said.

What Thompson misses most is the social aspect of his work, what he considered one of the biggest responsibilities of the job, enjoying the company of visitors. The regulars are often seniors who he’s formed a connection with.

“It’s that they’re just completely lonely. Before, they would just hang out at the library all day,” he said. “So they’ll have long conversations with me. And that’s often the only conversation they’ll have that day.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything about our community, including how the Library operates within it. While the Library has reopened again, visits are time limited, and staff and patrons need to maintain their distance. Many seniors avoid going out all together. Most of us have never been so far apart. But the Library is more than just a physical space—it’s a community within itself, a community dedicated to keeping Evanstonians connected and strong. And with the help of virtual programming, technology, and committed staff, its work has continued.

Social distancing has forced us all to get used to a digital day-to-day life, and the transition has been anything but easy. It’s Sergio Gonzalez’s job to help fix that.

Sergio Gonzalez

As a Tech Trainer at the Library, his personally-tailored lessons, available in English or Spanish, can cover anything from connecting to the internet to constructing a website. These sessions can no longer happen physically. However, with the help of video conference tools like Zoom, Gonzalez’s work, more important now than ever, has carried on. Many people he’s worked with were uneasy in a virtual environment at first, but Gonzalez said they just needed time to adjust.

“They’re getting more comfortable, because they know we can help them,” Gonzalez said. “It doesn’t matter that they are not here.” 

Having to adapt to a world that functions virtually is a challenge everyone has to face in the pandemic’s new normal, but Gonzalez said the Library can be a valuable learning space for those who lack digital literacy.

“This is the most important thing we need to share with them,” he said. “They’re going to make mistakes with us, but they’re going to be ready in the moment they really need it.”

“It’s good because we are changing the way people think about the library…It’s not about books, it’s not about eBooks–it’s about the service that we provide, our professional service,” Gonzalez said.

The Library’s duties range far beyond providing basic information. One of its most important tasks in this time has been connecting Evanstonians to essential services and benefits. 

In mid-August, the Illinois Housing Development Authority opened the online application for a new $5,000 Emergency Rental Assistance program for those impacted by the pandemic. However, according to Miguel Ruiz, Supervising Librarian of the newly-opened Robert Crown Library Branch, the digital literacy barrier posed a problem for many vulnerable households, especially families who spoke English as a second language or not at all.

Miguel Ruiz

That’s why EPL took action to ensure that this crucial support reached those who needed it most, Ruiz said. In partnership with the nonprofit Evanston Latinos, the tech-savvy and bilingual Robert Crown Branch Library staff provided in-person assistance for Evanstonians in the application process.

“That was a big deal, because it was a short notice announcement from the IHDA,” Ruiz said. “And so we had to think fast and figure out how to support our families.”

The Robert Crown Library Branch has also been hosting education sessions for community cohorts on topics like health, finance, technology use, and more. Ruiz said he’s been seeing a lot of positive feedback from members of the public, like the senior citizens who routinely visit for tech support, access to a computer or even just a place to be a part of the community—safely.

“They really appreciate having us there while we’re open for our limited hours, especially because we’re taking really seriously these precautions—social distance, always wearing masks, you know. They feel comfortable in our space.”

Ruiz said that there has been a bit of a silver lining in the current state of affairs: a newfound focus on fostering a virtual environment and exploring the potential of online interaction. However, this focus has also brought to light signs of a digital divide that prevents some community members from keeping up.

“I think (the pandemic) has allowed us to think differently about the services we provide,” Ruiz said. “But I think it is a challenge, especially when you’re talking about how you provide services in a virtual space when in fact, some families don’t have access to the internet at home, or don’t have access to a computer, or have language barriers.”

Librarian Heather Norborg said that the digital divide in Evanston is very real.

“That’s an issue that the library has been working on, aware of, and trying to address for many years,” she said. “But with this pandemic, and the fact that everyone is isolated, and only able to interact in online spaces and virtually, it’s shown us even more where the gaps are and how some people are being left behind.”

The Library has been working to combat these technological barriers in the community, lending Wi-Fi hotspots and some chromebooks to Evanston Public Library card holders to connect more households across town to the internet. The chromebook lending is about to increase with new initiatives, including a laptop vending machine at the Robert Crown Library Branch, to make them more widely available this fall.

Connecting people has also been an important duty for the Library. When the risks of COVID-19 broke up meetings of the Foster Senior Club, a group of primarily Black seniors in Evanston, the Library dispatched tech workers to host their weekly meetings on Zoom, provided equipment to those who needed it, and helped move that valued community space to a virtual environment. 

“It’s a group that we were visiting with previously in person,” Norborg said. “I think that the way that we helped solve their tech issues was very helpful to them…Being able to maintain social connections—that’s so important for everyone’s wellbeing.”

Another project in development, targeted specifically for those the pandemic has put out of work, is job searching kits. Part of a partnership between the Library and National Able Network, an employment assistance nonprofit, Norborg said this program will provide the tools a job seeker needs to access the internet at home and utilize test prep or job readiness resources in their search.

“We have more than 200 active partnerships with organizations, other city agencies, nonprofits, schools, etc.,” Norborg said. “I think that this crisis has just shown how vital those connections are, and the importance of keeping them active.”

Thompson’s work has continued virtually as well. He assists George Lowman and Carolyn Young, volunteers who teach curious community members at the Library’s Thursday Tech Tutorials through the organization Wise Up: Aging with Attitude. The two-hour Zoom sessions focus on a range of areas in the digital world, such as navigating different smartphone operating systems, or learning how to run a Mac, or using iPhone cameras to their fullest potential. The sessions have been going on weekly during the summer, but will run twice a week in the fall.

Additionally, Thompson’s duties providing one-on-one tech support for the community have continued—now via phone support.

He’s seen a huge amount of positive feedback from those he’s helped, but he thinks there are more people out there who could benefit from the Library’s resources. There’s so much to the role of the Library’s staff that goes unnoticed or underutilized, he said.

“The Library’s offering all these great services around a facility with computers and other technology and…I think people just don’t know about it,” he said.

Adds Executive Director Karen Danczak Lyons, “There’s so much more available at the Library than just books. If you want to check it out, all you have to do is ask.”

For more information about all the resources and services available at Evanston Public Library, please visit or call us at 847-448-8630. 


How To Listen to a Podcast

Podcast IconHow To Listen to a Podcast

With the launching of the Evanston Public Library’s podcast, The Check Out, it’s time for a review of how to use this wonderful entertainment and communication tool, the podcast. Think of it as the key to an incredible new treasury of ideas, advice, and entertainment, like a radio station where you get to choose what to hear and when to hear it. It’s as easy as A,B,C.

A. Click on a podcasting site on your computer, smart phone, or tablet by way of the app called Podcasts. It looks like an upside-down exclamation mark with two circles around it.

B. Search for a specific podcast or browse in categories that interest you. You can click on the link for each podcast you want. You can listen right away on your computer (Windows, Mac and Linux support podcasting) or download the podcast to your portable tablet or phone.

C. You can subscribe to get a podcast on a regular basis. For example, as a subscriber, you will receive The Check Out regularly, every two weeks during its season.

Listen to your choice of podcasts whenever and wherever you’d like: at home, in the car, in the gym, walking down the street. How to choose what to listen to? It’s up to you. Ask us for recommendations!

The Check Out is a podcast of Evanston Public Library that introduces listeners to Evanston residents or people working in Evanston who are actively engaged in making the community better, and other noteworthy pursuits. The first season of The Check Out launched in January 2020. Podcast

“The Check Out” Podcast Features People of Evanston

EPL launches podcast: The Check OutEvanston Public Library launched The Check Out on January 14, 2020, a podcast that introduces listeners to Evanston residents or people working in Evanston who are actively engaged in making the community better, and other noteworthy pursuits. The podcast, hosted by EPL Community Engagement Coordinator Jill Schacter, features interviews with Evanstonians involved in fields such as the arts, history, nonprofits and community development.

“Other libraries’ podcasts are often about books,” The Check Out host Jill Schacter said. “Evanstonians love Evanston so much that it just made sense to make our podcast more community-focused. We want The Check Out to give people in the community a voice. Along the way, listeners might just learn something about the role the library plays in the community, too.”

The Check Out season 1 guests include:

  • Patricia Efiom, Chief Equity Officer
  • Mary Collins, Community Development specialist and former ETHS Community Service Coordinator
  • Dino Robinson, Shorefront founder
  • Lisa Degliantoni, Evanston Made founder
  • Karli Butler, 4th generation Evanstonian and motivational speaker
  • Betsy Bird, Renowned children’s book author and EPL Collections Manager
  • Kim Erwin, Co-Director of the Institute for Healthcare Delivery Design at UIC

Episodes will be released every two weeks and are available at:, and on iTunes and Spotify. Check out the first episode — out now!

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  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.

Meet Elacsha Madison: Teen Engagement Coordinator

Elacsha Madison, Teen Engagement CoordinatorWhat’s something about yourself that most people don’t know?

I come from a large family— I am one of eight children. I grew up on the south side of Chicago. My parents worked extremely hard for everything that we had and they taught us the value of a dollar. I learned how to budget money at an early age.

Where’s the most interesting place you’ve ever lived? 

I lived in countries in both Africa and Asia for long periods of time. In both places I learned to truly value life and the people you surround yourself with. I learned to love living on less (i.e., materialistic items) and rely more on just spending time talking to people and telling stories, doing activities together. I lived in rural areas and we had so little, yet I felt so rich, and I was the happiest I had ever been in my life.

I have been on every continent except for Antarctica, which I am planning on visiting. I even went white water rafting in Zimbabwe!

What’s your favorite music?

I love R & B, Pop, and Rap from the 90’s! I also love musicals. I’ve seen The Lion King three times (in London, Chicago and New York), Aladdin twice (in Australia and Chicago), and Hamilton twice (both in Chicago, but the first time opening night)!

Why did you choose to work with teen-agers?

I have been working with teens since I was a teen. I became a director of a girls grant-making program called Sisters Empowering Sisters when I was 18. After getting my Masters in Management, I went back to school and took all of the premed prerequisites so I could attend medical school and be a deaf-friendly OB-GYN.  But I fell in love with the youth I was working with at Mercy [Hospital or what?], and I just couldn’t leave them.

What are some of the things you’ve learned so far from the teens you’ve worked with?

You learn to have the patience of a saint! You learn to be incredibly forgiving and apologetic to your parents at the same time for everything your teenage self may have put them through. You learn so much about yourself as a person.

A lot to building relationships with teens is just being consistent and letting them know that you are there, showing up. Every day is a fresh start regardless of what happened yesterday.

I allow them to talk about everything as long as they’re being respectful. I am always honest with them. Always. Also I have learned to have a great poker face— teens say the wildest things sometimes and they need to know that there is no judgment here and they are welcomed. I know they know that I genuinely care about them and this makes a big difference in the aura/vibes of the Loft.

What’s your idea of a relaxing day? 

When you work with teens, there is no such thing as a relaxing day!





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