Does a Bad Board at a Public Library Really Matter?

As a wise and wonderful former colleague has said, the beautiful building at the corner of Oakton and Waukegan in suburban Niles, and all that it represents, are the work of the people who for 60 years built it, updated and renovated it, lovingly crafted collections and adapted them over time. It is a gift to today’s community from all of their predecessors who paid taxes too, and volunteered their time, and helped plan the library’s future again and again. It is the work of hundreds of dedicated librarians, clerks, shelvers, and all the jobs no one ever thinks about, over decades. It is the place where kids and coaches and their cheering families have come for over 40 years of Battle of the Books tournaments, and where literally hundreds of children have come to hear stories, sing songs, and learn from each other as well as the adults. It is where people have consulted a reference librarian who can combine information from multiple sources to build a full picture, and who have passed that knowledge to new librarians in turn. The library holds our history, our stories, our music, and our voices, and it is the legacy of all of the community who built it over time. The fiscal hawks on the board think they have a right to trash the legacy they have inherited. I hope at least one of them understands that their fiduciary responsibility is not only to today’s taxpayers but also guarding and preserving the library for future residents.

So why does the very local politics of a very diverse, very polarized library district on the border of Chicago matter? 

Public libraries matter. They support their communities in being well-educated, connected with each other, and up-to-date in a fast-changing world of technology and science. They give people opportunities to invent, create, and appreciate the writing, movie-making, and music of others. They preserve memories through things like the Veterans History Project, and they answer difficult questions even today with Google. And they are a great value–libraries have always, back to the Benjamin Franklin days, been about pooling a small amount of money to be able to share with each other.

The threat to the Niles Library is not unique. The Niles-Maine District Library Board is not alone in having members who were boosted by outside fundraisers. There are other anti-tax people out there worming their way onto library and other public boards. And some of them, it is safe to say, are not foolish and reckless like the Drblik-Makula-Hanusiak-Schoenfeldt block. For instance, a savvier, more rational Board President would not attempt to hold nine meetings in six weeks with loaded agendas each time. Smarter, smoother, more strategic anti-tax people will learn from the mistakes this crew has made, and they will be able to slide their damage in without raising a fuss. People who care about their local libraries and other boards need to be paying attention.

Fiscal conservatives vs. tax hawks. It matters because diehard anti-tax people give good old-fashioned fiscal conservatives a bad name. I confess that in my youth services days, I was offended by some of the questions about spending that we got from the fiscal conservatives on the board. My skin was too thin and I took it too personally, and I got a little huffy. Now I have a much greater appreciation for people who are willing to take the time to understand the budget and spending, and who ask thoughtful questions. I said after the board orientation tours that Treasurer Joe Makula took twice that it was clear that he was going to remember it very differently because he wasn’t listening to the answers he got, especially if they didn’t fit with what he already decided in advance. The tax hawks are squeezing the intelligent fiscal conservatives off of boards, and that’s a shame.

Communities matter. Toward the end of the pandemic, I did a community survey so we could hear from them what they anticipated they needed from the library in a post-pandemic world. Results were very positive, both about what they currently use the library for and what they planned to use it for in the future. They did not express the need or desire for the library’s services, programs, collections, and staff to be cut. Boards need to listen to the community first, THEN take action. This board’s budget cuts were delivered within one week of the new board being seated. And now, they most definitely are hearing from the community, and it seems to surprise them.

The lives of individual community members matter. Communities are made up of individuals, and individuals matter. I heard such poignant stories during the pandemic of people feeling the pain of missing the library for so many reasons. Their stories varied, but the underlying theme was that lonely people valued the library even more than others, and they were ecstatic when we reopened in person. Now with the hours being cut and fewer staff available to help them, it’s hard to see how the changes won’t have an impact on individuals.

Who are some of the individuals who will suffer? The children in the preschools and daycares who will no longer get a visit from Ms. April matter, and so do the big kids, the teens, and their teachers. A visit from an energetic school liaison is a breath of fresh air for a classroom of kids, and their enthusiasm about books and learning is contagious. The residents in assisted living or elder care facilities matter, and the connections the outreach staff have made with them are deeply felt on both sides. The residents who try to come use the library because they don’t have a printer or they need a tax form or they need a place to study and find the library closed are important. The people we were under-serving before matter, too. Each of those people who will miss out in the future matters. The world will be different in ways we will never know because of those missed opportunities.

Some of the damage cannot be undone. Library staff members matter. The heartless way that the NMDL staff are being treated by disrespectful board members is horrifying to me. The tax hawks are small in number but noisy, and keep reproaching the board for not having fired anyone during the pandemic. I think they mostly do know perfectly well that the staff were working hard to deliver books and programs and computer help through the pandemic, but they like to talk about staff getting paid for doing nothing. I’ll be honest–they disgust me. They are putting the remaining staff through a horrible time of uncertainty, knowing that if Joe and Carolyn and Suzanne and Olivia get their way, a significant number of them will lose their jobs, or their health insurance, or both. They are hearing that Joe and Carolyn are sure that the staff is doing a terrible job and they know much better how to improve the way the library is run. They look forward to a grim new reality, and as of this writing (one month after my forced resignation) they have no director to encourage, support, and guide them. So of course, some of them will leave, and not come back. Library staff members at every level served during the past year with compassion and steadiness at libraries throughout the country, and certainly at NMDL. They should be getting to greet the returning library users and the newcomers to a fresh new lineup of programs and materials, and instead they are being forced to reduce hours, reduce programs, reduce service.

Board members need to care. It matters because a library or other civic board needs to be made up of people who care about the institution. The situation at NMDL right now is like someone accepting a seat on the board of the Chicago Symphony and deciding that the orchestra doesn’t need cellos or bassoons any more. It’s unethical to accept a seat on the board of an organization you don’t support, and even more unethical to campaign on the improvements you will make when you intend the opposite. Library trustees are supposed to be advocates for the institution they have sworn to protect. The sign of whether these trustees have done their jobs faithfully will be if the numbers of cardholders, check-outs, program attendance, visitor count, computer use, questions answered all rise instead of falling under their care. Sadly, I think the bad trustees hope for the opposite, to justify making additional cuts later.

Things look grim…but they don’t have to. The community, the library world, and now even outsiders have their eyes on the situation at the Niles-Maine District Library. Three excellent trustees are fiercely advocating for their beloved library, and all they need is one more to join them and work toward reassuring the staff, the community, and the rest of the world that the residents of Niles and unincorporated Maine Township care about lifelong learning and appreciate the gift they have inherited at the corner of Oakton and Waukegan.

Next up: What happens next?

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1 Response to Does a Bad Board at a Public Library Really Matter?

  1. Nora says:

    We will miss you!!!

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