It may seem like old news that the city of Evanston shuttered the South Branch of the Evanston Public Library in 2011, but the saga continues. While the citizen-run Mighty Twig became the Chicago Avenue/Main Street (CAMS) Branch as of January 12, 2013, many residents are frustrated to see the city offer new businesses – such as bars – cash incentives while volunteers continue to scrape together funds to keep our branches open.
As the economy dipped, cities across America closed library branches. Money was tight and tough decisions were made.
I, for one, wasn’t someone who fought against the closing of the South Branch. In my mind, we had an outstanding Main Library, not to mention a North Branch. While I was disappointed to say goodbye to an anchor of the South Evanston community, I resisted fighting for it since we had two other libraries. In my mind, a branch library served as a convenience we could live without.
However, my mind has changed.
As I watched the mighty forces rally behind the Mighty Twig, I was stunned by the dedication of our community coming together for a common purpose.
I've witnessed the Mighty Twig reinvigorate the intersection of Chicago Avenue and Main Street. Thanks to the efforts of hundreds of individuals, lights and life have revitalized a corner of our town. I love seeing the strollers parked outside the space…spying people gathered inside…watching residents young and old balance books while holding the door for each other.
Last week I received a call from a concerned Evanston resident. On Monday, Evanston aldermen were set to consider , a new microbrewery proposed on Howard Street. How, this person wondered, could the city feed tax dollars to open yet another bar when our libraries still struggle to keep their doors open? The North Branch is now closed Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays. What sort of economic impact does this have on the Central Street shops?
Some are furious -- even after the fact -- watching the city put money behind a new business (especially a new bar) when unemployed or underemployed residents struggled to find employment and could not access a public library to help find work. Others feel the city's obligation is encouraging profitable entities to help offset costs of public assets like libraries.
However, all this discussion may be moot: the Evanston Public Libraries are no longer part of the city of Evanston's operating budget. As part of the fiscal year 2012 budgeting process, the city agreed to move the library's operating expenditures into a separate fund (explained on p. 128 of the 2012 budget). As library director Karen Danczak Lyons explained to Patch last year, the library has "always been funded through the property tax, but it’s been part of the general levy, whereas now you’ll be able to see a separate line for the Evanston Public Library on your tax bill."
To me, the questions still remain. What do our libraries mean to the city of Evanston. Are they economic engines or necessary-yet-expensive drags on our budget? Are we "house poor" with our Main Library, just now getting around to paying the piper? Who gains the most -- or stands to lose the most -- when our libraries' doors are closed?