For many folks, this past summer was the hot vax summer. For me, it has been the summer of the Niles Maine District Library. Way back in June, I got wind of a nefarious situation unfolding in Niles, Illinois. The Library Board elections were held in the spring and three new board members were elected: Olivia Hanusiak, Suzanne Schoenfeldt, and Joe Makula. These three members along with Board President Carolyn Drblik teamed up to systematically destroy the Niles-Maine District Library from the inside.
How, you ask? The three ran together on a campaign that promised a citizen’s collection development committee, which threatens censorship of library materials. During their campaign, they all worked with a man named Steven Yasell. They decided to employ this unqualified man without a background check (he did his own) to have unrestricted access to the Niles Maine District Library’s computer data as an “IT Auditor.” His pay was $100 per hour with no salary cap. If you work in a library like I do, your jaw has dropped by now. They were also interested in trying to cut preschool, school, and senior community home outreach services. Fortunately, since such specific outreach is not a line item on the library’s budget, that was not within the Board’s power to cut.
Back in June I spoke with a former employee of the Niles Maine District Library. This person was not a recent disgruntled departure but a retired librarian concerned about their former colleagues. I learned that Joe Makula held the opinion that foreign language materials were a waste of taxpayer dollars. I found that odd since one of the new board members he ran alongside spoke some Polish in her library board campaign video. The former employee told me that the Niles-Maine District has a community of Gujarati speakers. Those books are hard to come by in Illinois and so library staff members with family in India would sometimes buy books on their vacations for the library. Threatening to discard books just because they’re in Gujarati? This is a real life example of the intersection of intellectual freedom and social justice.
It goes on. The Board berated a community teenager who told them their pronouns before speaking during the public comment portion of the Board meeting. Then the Board also forced the Niles Maine District Library Director to resign. Everyone I spoke to from Niles spoke about their Director, Susan Lempke, with love and admiration. I got the impression that her resignation was crossing a line with library staff. You can only push a group of passionate library people so far. Right around the same time, the library staff unionized and joined AFSCME Council 31. The pandemic has pushed other northern Illinois suburban public libraries to organize, so this is not irregular for the region at this time. Other organizations in Niles jumped to back the library, including major players like the school district, state legislators, and the Niles city council.
After a lively July filled with plenty of grassroots political activism and pro-library rallies, I got the chance to speak with the founder of the Niles Coalition in August. David Sutherland is the founder of the Niles Coalition as well as an involved member of the Niles community. The Niles Coalition is a broader social justice organization that includes the #SaveNilesLibrary campaign. Not everyone who supports the Niles Maine District Library holds the same ideals as the Niles Coalition, but they are the library’s biggest community advocate right now. As someone who doesn’t work at a library, Sutherland is impressed by the attitude of resistance that librarians have and how good we are at keeping good records of everything. They are doing the work. At the August Library Board meeting, Olivia Hanusiak resigned. This means that the anti-library side of the board no longer has the majority vote.
I only wish I had reached out to library staff members sooner because by the end of the summer, they were told not to speak to the press of any kind about their situation. I know that they are working incredibly hard under the conditions. Niles Maine has always been active & respected in the Illinois library scene, so it is hard to watch this play out. If you’re reading this and you work at Niles-Maine, you are doing a great job. And I’m not just saying that, I see you on the programming listservs.
The Niles Coalition is not a one-man operation though; I spoke with another member who is a professional librarian elsewhere but lives in Niles. She echoed many of the thoughts I heard from the other librarian I spoke to in June. Is Niles a place I can continue to live in? Did llibrary supporters get lazy in the spring 2021 local elections? Do we need a guide to saving libraries? Now that is an ALA program if I ever heard one. Submissions for ALA Annual 2022 are due by October 1st!
The citizen’s collection development committee is what prompted me, an intellectual freedom blogger, to write about the Niles Maine District Library situation. That being said, it fits in nicely with my previous blogs regarding the Douglas County Library Board and the Lafayette County Library Board. All three of these libraries exemplify a growing trend in intellectual freedom challenges to libraries beyond banned books. While we have seen an uptick in formal challenges to library displays, exhibits, artwork, programs, events, reading lists, social media, and even databases, these Board examples seem different.
Challenges to the library institution itself are not victimless and any political attack on library staff ends up being an attack on the community. It cost the taxpayers of Douglas County, Nevada $25,000 (The county paid half and the library paid half but it is all tax dollars collected from the same tax base). It cost the taxpayers of Lafayette a Louisiana State Library Grant. It is likely costing the taxpayers of the Niles-Maine District a lot too, though that is an ongoing situation without a final number attached. Libraries are for everyone and like one of my Niles friends said, it is due to the work of librarians over decades. No core value of our profession is more important than the others, they all work in tandem so that libraries work. We have to keep doing the work.
Holly Eberle is the Teen Programming and Outreach Librarian at the Algonquin Area Public Library District in Illinois. She received her MLIS from the University of Illinois in December 2015. In addition to intellectual freedom, she is also passionate about the opioid epidemic and getting Narcan inside every public library.
Public libraries have monopolies where a single library or library system serves an entire region. A natural tendency may emerge to take users for granted as a captive audience. As a result, users may be subject to complacency, insensitivity, entrenchment and favoritism.
To counter these poor outcomes, public libraries must seek approval from their communities. They must prioritize transparency in all their operations.
Active citizen participation has not been mapped out or envisioned by the larger library profession as of yet. It needs to become a core principle and may entail oversight boards, new avenues of communication between library professionals and “expert” users, and democratic decision-making processes.
The call for a citizen collection development committee at the Niles, Illinois public library is an example of this new kind of community control.
Librarians need to transition into trained and experienced advisors and managers ultimately acquiescing to community decision-makers. A public library needs to be much more actively receptive to local preferences as it is the only library game in town.