Wednesday night’s Evanston Public Library Board of Trustees meeting called to discuss the ins and outs of the 2012 library budget was less numbers talk and more a discussion of board members’ values and priorities concerning the future of the local library system.
Later this month, the board will hold a second meeting to hammer out specifics and likely pass next year’s budget, but during Wednesday’s session, the five board members in attendance expressed their opinions regarding what they perceive to be the four most pressing and influential topics affecting the 2012 budget: the Main Branch, the North Branch, community engagement and services, and a possible change in the library’s tax levy resulting from .
A central theme that emerged from these discussions was an overarching call to reshape how Evanston residents view the library system, whether that means making the Main Branch more welcoming or improving community outreach to underserved communities.
When board treasurer Diane Allen voiced disappointment in not being able to readily find new bestsellers at the Main Branch, other board members argued that carrying and displaying the latest hot titles should not be the central goal of a public library system.
Recently-appointed board member Benjamin Schapiro said that a library should act as a “third space” between home and work (or school), full of activity rooms, places to surf the web and quiet nooks to sit and read. The aim, he said, should be to attract diverse populations, get them into the building and make the library an important place for them, so that they build a lifelong association.
Board member Susan Stone said she agreed.
“I don’t have a lot of angst for someone who can’t find a bestseller here,” Stone said. “But I do care about people who don’t see libraries as a destination, and a place of calm, and a place of escape, and a place of wonderment, and a place of value for information… I think we need to get new readers. And as far as community engagement, that is where I would put my buck. Before I would paint a wall or buy more bestsellers, I would go into underserved populations in Evanston.”
However, when it came to discussing neighborhood branch libraries, the board was less fixed on the library as a “third space” and more concerned with how library services could best be cost-effectively disseminated throughout Evanston’s neighborhoods.
When determining the best way to perform community engagement and outreach in Evanston’s various neighborhoods, Schapiro said the board should not continue to think within the rigid dichotomy of either having a branch or not having one in a given location, and should instead assess a wide range of options, from book mobiles to partnership with schools.
Evanston resident John Hughes said he disagrees with this outlook of neighborhood services and believes that brick and mortar libraries are essential to quality community outreach.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Hughes presented the board with the results from two studies, The Library Quarterly published “A Neighborhood Analysis of Public Library Use in New York City” and the Library & Information Science Research published “Use and Non-use of Public Libraries in the Information Age”, both of which concluded that smaller circulation areas, and hence a household’s proximity to a library, has a direct effect on per capita circulation. Other data analysis performed by Hughes shows that the Main Branch has not absorbed the South Branch’s circulation numbers , and that the Main Branch’s circulation has actually dropped in the past year.
It is unclear whether the studies Hughes presented accounted for alternative library outreach methods, and his data analysis did not account for circulation lost to the Evanston Public Library Friends’ new library outpost, .
Stone said the “jury is still out” on whether the North Branch would remain open next year, noting that the board had to order the library system’s priorities, balancing community needs with financial restrictions.
Those financial restrictions are less rigid than ever, though, because the board now has the ability to determine how much funding the library gets in the coming year by levying a tax as a percentage of the money the city receives from property taxes.
But board members are hesitant to increase this percentage, as it would either raise city property taxes, burdening residents, or force the City of Evanston to decrease its share of property taxes, lowering funding for other parts of government.
“We have an obligation to the community to be very responsible with their money and deliver the best bang for their buck that they can get,” Allen said. “And so, as we go through this process, we need to look at that levy and say, is every penny in this budget helping as many people in Evanston as it can help.”
Wednesday’s meeting packet contained a document showing a potential balanced budget, created under the assumption that library hours and services would remain at current levels in the coming year, with increases for new operating and capital reserve funds necessary for the library to operate under its new funding model, and additional funds set aside to seek out a new library director.
The $4.29 million in property taxes required to balance the budget is up over $262,000 from last year’s pro-rated equivalent tax levy, though it is unclear either how much this would require the board to alter the library’s levy percentage or how much more taxpayers would have to pay. Paul Gottschalk, administrative service manager for the Evanston Public Library, said that a 10 percent increase could raise property taxes around $12 annually on a $300,000 home.
At the upcoming Aug. 31 library board meeting, the board will get a chance to take a closer look at the budget numbers, determine how funding gets allocated, make necessary cuts and decide whether or not to raise the levy percentage. At that time, they will have the advantage of full access to Merriam Pollock’s finalized strategic plan, the result of over half a year of research, surveys and focus groups soliciting the opinions of Evanstonians to help better shape the future of the Evanston Public Library system.
with the City of Evanston and the subsequent relationship determined by that document were not discussed at Wednesday’s meeting
The Evanston library board will reconvene Aug. 31 at 6 p.m. at the Main Branch.