Progressive Librarians Guild
radical views on library & info issues

Open Letter to Evanston


Open Letter to Evanston Public Library Board and Director

The 15-day suspension of Adult Services librarian Lesley Williams has come to the attention of Progressive Librarians Guild members, and through this letter we wish to express our concern at what appears to be a pattern of misuse of managerial authority and evidence of institutional racism at the Evanston Public Library. From information available to us, EPL management has questionable regard for library services to Evanston's African-American community and freedom of speech. It also appears to be fostering racial tension in a community where police brutality against people of color is a serious issue.

As experienced librarians, we consider the disciplinary actions taken against Williams, the library's sole African-American librarian, to be contrary to best managerial practices. The use of disciplinary measures to enforce a library manager's own standards of what constitutes legitimate library programming, collection development, services and outreach practices can only create a climate of intimidation within the Evanston Public Library. By all accounts Williams is an excellent librarian, and a steadfast advocate for high quality library services not only to communities of color, but to all library users in Evanston.

The suspension of Williams from her job, and the gag orders placed on library staff in relation to this situation has a chilling effect on professional decision-making processes and flies in the face of librarianship's commitment to intellectual freedom.

Additionally, the library director's use of a police escort to the Evanston Civic Center last week for the disciplinary hearing speaks volumes of the director's insensitivity, if not outright hostility, toward concerns in Evanston regarding police/community relations.

For a white library director to require a police escort shows an unwarranted level of fear toward the African-American community and Williams' supporters. As a public display of alliance between library management and the police department this can only perpetuate, possibly exacerbate, racial tensions. That a police guard should stand between a public library director and members of the community served by the library is clear evidence of dysfunction in the management of Evanston Public Library.

Another indication of a pattern of insensitivity toward community concerns, was the decision two years ago to enhance, with a special line item in the library budget, the children's book collection with resources about the police. Such books are notoriously one-sided, and in the face of national concerns regarding police brutality toward people — and children! — of color, the special attention and funding given this subject matter stands as additional evidence of disregard toward the lived experiences of Evanston's African-American community.

Our concerns are further heightened by reports from the community of: the library director's refusal to sponsor a program on police violence against African Americans; suspension of Williams over publicly stating that the library should consider the acquisition of a genealogy collection of value to the African American community; a widely reported incident involving the cancellation of an EPL program featuring Palestinian-American Ali Abunimah, then its rescheduling following public outcry of censorship; and the library's failure to recruit a more diverse workforce.

The racist overtones of these managerial actions in Evanston lead us to say that the time is long overdue for white librarians to prove that they recognize their privileges as whites, and to work in supportive alliance with communities of color. The library can be — must be — an agent for social justice in today's world. Library professionals whose management practices perpetuate racism do not deserve the positions they occupy.

PLG stands with Evanston community members who question the ability of the current public director to foster excellence in library services for all members of the library's constituency.


Members of the Coordinating Committee
Progressive Librarians Guild