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Cries of censorship as Evanston librarian risks firing

Cries of censorship as Evanston librarian risks firing

Community rallies and invokes shared struggles

Yellow roses in the hands of over 50 supporters lined the halls of Evanston Public Library (EPL) on June 2 in support of librarian Lesley Williams, who faced a disciplinary hearing that could result in her termination.

In the hearing, Williams was charged with attacking the library in a Facebook post—and her supporters see a case of the censorship too well known by outspoken Black Americans and advocates for Palestine like Williams. Indeed, the hearing comes on the heels of years of difficulty at EPL both for Williams and, as their advocates describe, justice movements like inclusion of Evanston’s minority communities and Palestine solidarity.  

Williams had just returned from a 15-day suspension for undisclosed disciplinary matters when she made a Facebook post expressing that signs about equity of access displayed by EPL were inadequate or insincere. The post violated city policy according to Williams’ hearing notice, but as emails obtained by activists via the Freedom of Information Act the day before the hearing revealed, Williams was called “clearly the thorn in our sides” by Library Board member Margaret Lurie in March of this year, hence the protesters’ thorned roses. Writing to Director Karen Danczak-Lyons about a non-profit director’s statement criticizing Danczak-Lyons’ record on racial equity, including earlier incidents involving Williams, Lurie suggested Williams as the source for the critic’s information and seemed to bemoan the lack of pretext to discipline or dismiss her.

The library officials’ emails and the comments of supporters outside the director’s office agree on one point: this hearing is just the latest set-piece in a larger drama for both parties. The FOIA’d documents show consternation on the part the director, board, supporters and donors over their issues with Williams, including a comment on Ms. Danczak-Lyons’ performance review noting board member disappointment in her “reluctance” to terminate Williams despite having apparently committed to doing so. Outside the hearing, however, Williams’ friends and supporters spoke emphatically about her character and their appreciation for her work at the library. Raising issues about racial and socioeconomic equity in the City of Evanston and the library itself, they agreed Williams has been an exemplary partner and worker who shares their vision for the library and community.

Williams herself said that the agitation around the hearing “is not really just about me, this is about what kind of Evanston we want to live in,” pointing to fights for diversity and racial equity she said her supporters participate in both in and beyond the library, from advocating the city government to develop a board to fight racial and residential disparities, to participating in a solidarity camp in the South Hebron Hills last month during her suspension. But Williams does not deny the political stakes of the outcome of her own individual case, calling it a matter of “equity, freedom of speech, and intellectual freedom” and later pointing out the American Library Association has awarded her a grant for library professionals “denied employment rights because of defense of intellectual freedom” after her suspension.

Outside the library director officers, members of church and interfaith, neighborhood advocacy, housing equity and diversity organizations addressed the demonstrators, giving testimony about their experiences with Williams. As many lambasted a status quo that would sanction her while while not satisfying community criticisms, the group provided moral support to Williams, who was buoyed by members of her congregations Tzedek Chicago and Evanston’s Second Baptist Church. Speakers representing groups of African-American, immigrant and Spanish-speaking, and LGBTQ patrons, as well as less wealthy neighborhoods of Evanston where the city does not operate a library branch all praised Williams’ allyship and librarianship in working for better access and representation in the library and its services

Jason Hays, an Evanston firefighter, was one of many who suggested that these efforts on Williams part were what attracted managerial attention, as she wouldn’t “go along to get along.” Comparing the “thorn’s” role as an “irritant” to a grain of sand forming a pearl, he warned against concerns of image and attitude getting in the way of William’s good faith work, saying, “if it’s retaliatory because the administration is embarrassed, well, this is far more embarrassing, because she’s not trying to do anything but make this place better.”

Attitude and image though, are admittedly the management’s case: according to their notice, Williams would be fired based on City policy prohibiting posts that “damage the reputation” of City institutions or personnel. It goes on to describe “unhealthy” environments, and personal “offense” caused by “demeaning” attitude. Williams was able to say at the time of her suspension proceedings (of which not all details are yet public) that “none of the charges against me involve criminal behavior, sexual improprieties, or financial improprieties.”

Why would attitude and PR issues lead to an otherwise successful and qualified professional losing their job in the absence of any wrongdoing? Williams and her advocates explain this by looking how the library officials see its mission in their role as donors and career administrators. “They think they’re the experts,” Williams told PiA, and suggesting that their efforts have fallen short is a threat to them maintaining this role. Consequently, they explain criticism as rooted in, at best, miscommunication of their expertise. In both the charges against Williams and the released emails, they emphasize emotional pain at being misunderstood. And in a statementdefending Danczak-Lyons and themselves, the trustees even publicly extended the charge of misapprehension and underappreciation of their leadership from Williams herself to her supporters and their critics in the community, saying that “social media attacks on EPL undermine our strategic plan; demoralize our wonderful and hard-working staff; and threaten to burn the bridges EPL has sought to build throughout our city.”

“The Palestine Exception”

This policing of the speech of successful, principled professionals according to a donor-attuned PR sensitivity is hardly unknown to Palestine advocates. Both Williams and Evanston Neighbors for Peace member Dale Lehman connected her experience to that of Steven Salaita, whose scrapped appointment at the University of Illinois under the pretext of civility and instructional fitness based on social media postings during the 2014 Gaza War saw him hounded by Zionists but also sparked a nationwide concerns about academic freedom in an age characterized by corporatized educational structures with outsize donor influence.

Williams is no stranger to what she herself invoked as “the classic Palestine exception to free speech,” and like many sees the spark of her difficulties with the library administration in saga of the cancellation and uncancellation of a book talk by Palestinian writer and activist Ali Abunimah. It seems when Danczak-Lyons approved the event it had gone without saying to her that Abunimah’s viewpoints were only to be aired packaged as part of a “conversation” featuring Israeli authors and conceptually nestled in the American-brokered peace process. When Williams had already arranged it standing alone, the director tasked her with letting Abunimah know the event was not to go forward except on these terms which were new and plainly unacceptable to the him.

Since these communications where she neglected to spin Danczak-Lyons’ instructions to cancel Abunimah’s talk into something more polite, Williams says she has felt a target on her back. As the administration framed it, Williams was responsible for the public backlash and criticism of the cancellation, and in the emails board members fume about her arranging it in the first place. Of course, when the library held the rescheduled event, it was not only well attended, requiring an overflow broadcast room, but Danczak-Lyons and company were publicly effusive toward Abunimah, as Lehman, who helped plan the event, tells Palestine in America.

This penalization and cannibalization of vital, and often even acclaimed, critical programming at public institutions under donor pressure has kin even closer to home than the Salaita affair (which Lehman argued to PiA has had a destructive effect on the UofI’s own Native Studies department where Salaita was to teach.) In conversation with PiA, Williams pointed out a case in the late 80s and early 90s where the Zionist Anti-Defamation League pressured the Chicago Public Library to revise a respected bibliography on the study of Palestine to fit their strictures. CPL not only caved, the librarian who authored it was punitively reassigned from the main branch to Woodlawn and faced ADL opposition and harassment in his work in the ALA for years afterward.

Danczak-Lyons came on board at the Chicago Public Library just at the tail end of this saga, and Williams believes the CPL legacy influences both the characteristically Chicago politics go-along-to-get-along attitude and the trends toward corporatization at EPL. At the same time as they claim success in inclusion, Williams worries the library’s vendor dependent acquisitions model adopted under Danczak-Lyons will lead to less intellectually and culturally diverse holdings. All the developments are disheartening for Williams who says she got into library work because of a passion for intellectual freedom, and sees the library as the “the people’s educational institution.” But true to that spirit, she will not let any result of the disciplinary process keep her away from intellectual participation and civic advocacy in and around the library. “I’m still a community member, and I’ll still have a library card.”

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