Creating a community Storefront Library is an odd line of work—exhausting and exhilarating, a thousand mundane details and then moments that move you to tears, all in a day’s work. I suppose it’s like being a librarian, on a kind of stage.
One thing is for certain, there aren’t many people doing it. So when you find a kindred spirit, you reach out.
We first heard about “Evanston Public Library Friends” in search results from our daily Google Alert that scans the Web looking for “storefront AND library.” The hit described a branch closing and a community group looking to keep services alive. And it said they wanted to do it in a storefront.
Evanston Friends sounded like our kind of people, and we had an idea of what they might be needing.
Apparently, back in November 2010, Library officials in Evanston, Illinois decided to close The South Branch, which had been a presence in the Evanston’s Main/Chicago corridor neighborhood for more than 90 years. In response, a community group called the Evanston Public Library Friends moved decisively to secure a space in a former tuxedo shop just down the block. At a Board meeting in January, they offered the space to the Library Board, to be rented and built-out by the Friends, but staffed, run, and stocked by the Library, thereby creating an interim solution to allow library services to continue. According to the minutes from the meeting, some members of the Library Board were in favor of accepting the Friends’ offer for at least one year as a way to “experiment” and “test a model for future library services.” Other members felt that running the new space as part of a system facing budget challenges had too many unknowns. Ultimately, the Library Board determined they could not incur the staffing costs of operating the new space.
The Evanston Friends, undaunted, forged ahead, deciding that it was in the interest of the community to provide continuity and also create a platform for developing ideas for the long term.
As soon as we caught up with the Evanston story on the Internet, we reached out to Evanston Friends and told them a story of our own:
Back in June 2010, Boston Street Lab received a generous donation of top-quality Borroughs Wilsonstak Library shelving. The shelves were donated by MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, a federally funded research and development center located at an Air Force base in Lexington, MA that “applies advanced technology to problems of national security.” Lincoln Laboratory’s library was undergoing a restructuring, and no longer needed the shelves. (Thanks are due to a group of Boston area professionals, Glenn Myers, Monique Davis, and Michelle Butman, all members of the 2010 class of LeadBoston who connected Boston Street Lab and MIT.)
At the time, we were in a holding pattern in downtown Boston following the closing of our Storefront Library, while leaders of the Friends of the Chinatown Library considered many of the same issues that Evanston was wrestling with: how and whether to continue a community-led space, how and whether to partner with the Library system and city. As time passed, it became clear that Boston Street Lab needed to move on and Chinatown Friends needed more time to find their own way forward. So we shipped the shelves to Milford NH, where they spent the winter in a storage facility rented by Boston Street Lab.
The Boston and Evanston stories finally intersected last week when we spent a day among melting snow banks in New Hampshire, packing the shelves onto a truck bound for Chicago, sending them off to play a new role in Evanston.
Evanston Friends announced yesterday that their volunteer-run, outpost library called the Mighty Twig will open March 26, 2011 with donated books that will circulate on an honor system, sitting on those shelves formerly used in a defense research facility in Massachusetts. Like the Storefront Library in downtown Boston, the Evanston project has become a moving, grass-roots community effort, demonstrating the power of a wish to have a community place like a library in a neighborhood.
What happened in Evanston—the closing of a library branch—is now a common story in this country. What Evanston Friends is doing about it—creating a storefront library from scratch—is uncommon, beautiful, and inspiring.
Evanston: it has been an honor to play a small role in your story. We’re with you on those shelves and in spirit. Onward.