Who sits on the board of your local library can mean the difference between a thriving library ecosystem or a community resource being pulled apart brick by brick. The latter is what’s happening at Niles Public Library in Niles, Illinois, a community roughly 30 minutes from the heart of Chicago.
Niles is a diverse suburb, where roughly 72% of the community is white, with about 20% Asian, 9% Latinx, 3% Black, and about 4.5% of more than one race. Over 55% of those over the age of 5 speak a language other than English in the household, with Indo-European and Asian among the most common and ranking higher than other communities in Cook County.
The Niles-Maine Public Library is a well-regarded and award-winning community library, consistently rated among the best in the country. In 2020, it won a prestigious John Cotton Dana award from the American Library Association in public relations and communications. The campaign, which won the award, Best. Deal. Ever!, launched in September 2018 and ran through December 2019, setting a goal to increase new library card signups. The library worked with local businesses to offer exclusive deals for card holders, and over the course of the 16 month project, new card signups increased by 12.5%.
The award brought with it a $10,000 grant and nationwide recognition.
But the election in April 2021 changed everything. Over the course of the next few months and the installation of a new Board of Directors, the library’s funding has been deeply slashed, hours reduced to below-state-standard levels, the library director quit, and essential services to the community shuttered.
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Now the community, including those still employed by the library, are rallying to Save Niles Library.
The April 2021 election in Niles-Maine Township had low turnout, as is too often the case with hyper-local elections. Turnout for the election was 8.4%, and numerous roles on the ballot were uncontested.
On the ballot were three spots for the library board.
Carolyn Drblik, who served on the Board for eight years and as treasurer for her first two, had spent the bulk of her time convinced of mismanagement of library funds during her tenure. She was convinced of issues with the library’s use of the budget, and insisted on seeing every expense. This ate up significant staff time, taking away from vital daily work within the library to prove funds were being spent appropriately.
“At the very first Board meeting eight years ago when she was first seated, she had clearly been courted by a Board member who is a huge believer in the free market. They came in having pre-decided which person was going to take which office, and Carolyn was immediately elected to Treasurer. She was in way over her head, and much of what she saw confused her — the business manager spent hours and hours explaining things to no avail,” explained former Library Executive Director Susan Dove Lempke, who resigned from her position at the June 2021 Board meeting. “Even up to last year she would ask about a particular bill from our computer consortium (CCS) and not remember what it was for. When you don’t understand, and you don’t retain information well, it is easy to become suspicious. […] To be clear, she has had access to every bill since she started.”
During this period of time, the Library Board had a voting block, allowing them to pass measures without much challenge. In most Illinois libraries as well as most libraries throughout the U.S., the public library isn’t overseen by the city administration. Instead, an elected slate of Board members make decisions about the library, including budgetary and directorial recommendations. This setup allows for more independence and oversight of the specific needs of the library — in theory.
In some cases, as with Niles Public Library, the Board, with the right makeup of members, can make politically-minded decisions without putting the community’s needs first.
Drblik’s insistence on financial mismanagement led to her and another member of the voting block completing a staffing and operations survey in 2015. They hired consultants used by the village, who returned results suggesting Niles staffing levels were ranked in the middle among seven comparable libraries. Staff levels were not too high or too low.
The following election, both the Board president and secretary were not reelected. Another member who comprised the Board’s voting block stepped down, and Drblik was left on her own to continue seeking what she was convinced was financial chaos at the library.
“I think Morgan [Dubiel, former Board President] was genuinely shocked — he was sure that the taxpayers would be so happy with them for cutting the levy and thereby cutting taxes, and it turned out that the taxpayers valued what the library provided and voted them out. Then Danette Matayas resigned, leaving Carolyn on her own representing the tax hawk position,” said Dove Lempke.
Drblik continued insisting the library was misbehaving.
“She was suspicious of all aspects of how the library is run, not just financially. She believed, for instance, that when we prepared the budget we should be able to say exactly what programs we were going to have and exactly what the costs would be down to allocating staff time to each program. She thought that we should know what books we were going to buy and budget for them. She was sure that we weren’t handling any of our processes correctly — for instance, they decided that we should stop using book carts to sort materials and just push the return bins themselves to the departments for the librarians to do the shelving. There was no level of access that we could give Carolyn that she wouldn’t want more,” Dove Lempke added.
Back to 2021.
Three new Board members — Joe Makula, Susan Schoenfeldt, and Olivia Hanusiak — were elected, allowing for a return to a conservative, tax-conscious voting block. All three were candidates Drblik sought, and now she had enough support to be elected Board president. It’s rumored they spent up to $15,000 on this small local election. Makula himself is a Trump donor, and the group, Dove Lempke believes, is working to install themselves on taxing bodies across the state and country in order to gut public institutions from the inside.
Immediately upon the board being installed, they hired a technology consultant to investigate the library’s processes and procedures. This consultant, a wedding videographer with no auditing credentials, is simply a friend of Drblik and the rest of her new Board block and campaigned for their election.
He was hired at $100 an hour with no experience and no cap.
“The proposal is completely open-ended in terms of what he is reviewing and how long it will take,” explained Dove Lempke. “Carolyn accused the staff and the Board of handling bidding processes badly for her entire time on the Board, and now has hired someone without any kind of bidding process whatsoever. I believe she wants two things from it — full access to everyone’s emails and files, and full access to every door in the building. (Trustees are not allowed access to things like personnel files).”
There have been nine board meetings in six weeks. New board members were sworn in Wednesday, May 19, and immediately called for a special meeting Monday, May 24.
At the May 24 meeting, Makula, Drblik, Hanusiak, and Schoenfeldt proposed draconian cuts to the library budget, including significant staff, materials, and service reductions. They put a freeze on spending, hiring, and capital projects, as well as voting to hire a technology consultant (see above), hiring a new attorney (who’d been part of a well-regarded practice but filed to become independent days before being hired at a rate of $350 an hour), changing board meeting procedures, and changing the staff’s insurance rates.
The Board would now have final approval on all hiring across the library.
Makula delivered the new proposals for cuts using the annual budget document developed by Dove Lempke, crossing out the following for removal:
- children’s librarians visiting the schools, preschools, and daycare centers
- children’s librarians working with teachers by pulling classroom materials for their students
- outreach assistants delivering materials to the homebound
- outreach assistants delivering old copies of books to supplement the libraries of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, as well as delivering newer materials to individuals living there
- the overnight cleaning crew, saying that the librarians can do the cleaning between customers at the desk (Makula reportedly said “they only get about [three] questions a day anyway”)
- the annual staff day and all other forms of continuing education, as well as paid dues to the professional organizations that sponsor continuing education opportunities
- the Veterans History Breakfast, an annual event thanking our local vets who participated in recording their memories as part of the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project (Makula said they can pay for their own breakfast).
Other slashes included $150,000 from Adult Services, the salaries of the Public Services Department (the lowest paid employees in the library), and library operation hours. The library would not return to prepandemic operations of 70 hours a week as other local libraries; instead, it would remain at 54 hours a week because, according to Makula, “People use Amazon now — they aren’t coming back.”
The Board suggested volunteers could handle a number of those outreach activities, and they purposefully slashed the funding for books in non-English languages. During the debates prior to election, the topic of inclusivity at the library set off a range of responses, including Makula making it clear he believes in assimilation.
“We should concentrate on people learning English because that’s the language here,” Makula said. “Instead of stocking up on books in seven different languages, if we got people to assimilate and learn English better, I think we would do more good than increasing our inventory of foreign language books.”
Following the contentious budget meetings, a four-hour closed door executive board meeting on June 18 forced the resignation of Dove Lempke from her position. She had been on staff at Niles Public Library for 23 years and was beloved by the community and staff.
“The community began to respond very quickly,” said Dove Lempke, pointing to both the SaveNilesLibrary.org website and action items, as well as the Niles Coalition site. “For instance, they got a spot in the Fourth of July parade, and my husband and I walked with them. We got lots of cheers, and lots of questions on the parade route. None of the four bad trustees marched with the library.”
Nearly 100 staff members at Niles-Maine Public Library have also formed a union with AFSCME.
“The staff at the Niles-Maine District Library has spent decades working with different Board leadership to maintain a valuable community space and resource. But within just a few weeks, this new Board majority has made it obvious that they do not understand the functions of a public library and have no interest in learning them,” teen services librarian Rachel Colias said. “Once we realized we weren’t being offered a seat at the table, we pulled up our own with AFSCME. The people who work here have invested too much in this library to be so easily dismissed, and we hope to work as a union to protect our ability to serve anyone who relies on us.”
Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky and other community leaders signed a letter to the Board in support of the library, with support for staff and opposition for the proposed austerity budget.
“We are proud that the Niles-Maine District Library provides valuable services to our community, and we are dedicated to ensuring that those vital services continue,” reads the letter. “Unfortunately, the newly elected Library Board’s recent actions appear to place those services in jeopardy.”
In Illinois, there’s not a mechanism for communities to uninstall local officials.
Unfortunately, Niles-Maine Public Library isn’t the only public library seeing this kind of destruction from the inside. Not all of the tactics are identical, but following a disappointing election for members impassioned by a particular flavor of political fervor, they’re running for small boards and destroying beloved public institutions from the inside in the name of white supremacy.
Farmington Community Library in Farmington Hills, Michigan, is facing similar politically-motivated challenges. A petition circulating in support of the staff and services of the library, noting: “[P]ast Mayor of Farmington Hills, Ken Massey, unethically appointed Bill Largent to the Library Board whom he was openly critical of. His approach to the job was intimidating, demeaning and disrespectful to all the board members. One by one, all but one of the Library Board resigned, citing that the board had become “toxic” and there was a “significant impact” on staff morale.”
It notes, “Mr. Largent has been unable or unwilling to account for the usage or reallocation of public funds and has demonstrated multiple times that he is unaware of the difference between the financial operations and responsibilities of a library versus a for-profit business.”
Truthout.org notes other libraries facing pushback, and Bader’s reporting ties it to right-wing backlash against racial equality and gender inclusivity. Though those have been popular areas of challenge for libraries, particularly in the last decade, this movement toward austerity is much larger and threatens not to just destroy programming and materials libraries offer, but public libraries as institutions themselves.
Prior to and during the pandemic, libraries found themselves reducing staff, hours, and materials budgets. Many have yet to come back, and in the case of Niles Public Library with a $450,000 proposed cut to staff, in addition to increased insurance costs and a new Board review of hirings, chances are they won’t come back — or they’ll come back in the form of under-qualified but politically-connected candidates who will indeed find what’s “wrong” in the library and help the Board push through their destruction agendas.
The Board system is also a vulnerability: candidates putting in enough money can develop a voting block, create their plan, and oversee their own interests being implemented at the cost of a powerful and empowering community institution. It’s at the library where anyone, regardless of class, race, language, age, gender, sexuality, or ability can enter without paying a fee and utilize a professionally-curated selection of resources tailored to that specific community’s needs.
When the Board is stacked four to three, no matter how hard those doing their jobs in service to their community work, they’re unable to make who they’re actually serving their priority.
“Putting attention on the Board and their actions is really important, so that’s why I am keeping up the blog posts — they would much prefer to do their dirty work in the dark,” explains Dove Lempke, who has been openly sharing what’s happening at Niles Public Library since her resignation. She hopes locals will attend the upcoming library Board meeting July 20 and speak on behalf of their community’s need.
Pressure from the community matters, especially without a procedure for removing elected officials.
“[The July 20 meeting] is the one time when [Drblik] can’t cut comments short at the 30 minute mark — it has to go as long as there are people who want to speak, and I very much hope they hear from a lot of people. Really the only hope short of a meteor falling from the sky on a certain Board President is for one of the four to step down if the pressure gets to be too much.”
A rally in support of Niles Public Library is scheduled for 5 p.m. at NICO Park in Niles. More details about upcoming Board meetings, actions, and decisions, as well as calls to action can be found at Save Niles Library.
The impact of the decisions made by library boards is significant, and as seen with this particular election, low turnout and investment can have swift and immediate repercussions. If a well-decorated suburban library can see this, then what are smaller libraries, more rural libraries, and libraries without strong staff and community engagement experiencing across the country that we’ve yet to hear about?
Your library — your community — could be the next victim of politically-focused destruction from a small minority with repercussions that last for an unknown period of time with untold consequences.