Lesley Williams, with supporters, before her termination hearing on June 2 Credit: Michael Deheeger

Evanston library’s “Cranky Librarian” problem blew up in a major way during the last week. As the library’s board initiated abrupt termination proceedings for Lesley Williams (aka “Cranky”), e-mails surfaced revealing that board members and the library’s director had been conspiring to get rid of her for several years.

According to the e-mails, they’ve been wanting to push her out ever since 2014, when she invited pro-Palestinian author Ali Abunimah to speak at the library. The Abunimah event turned into a public relations disaster when library director Karen Danczak Lyons canceled it and Abunimah charged censorship. Under public pressure, Danczak Lyons allowed it to be reinstated, but the damage was done.

Williams, as you may remember, is a 21-year employee, EPL’s popular head of adult services, and an outspoken proponent of equitable distribution of library resources. She’s also the only full-time black librarian on the EPL staff.

The reason for her apparently imminent termination? A post to her personal Facebook page implying that EPL might be doing more talking about equity than practicing it. According to a notice of the termination hearing sent to Williams and signed by Danczak Lyons, this was a violation of rules laid out in Evanston’s personnel manual. Specifically: “Postings or user profiles on personal social media accounts must not serve to defame or damage the reputation of fellow City employees or City departments.”

The post consisted of photos of a library flyer that touted “Free & Equal Access for All,” along with this comment by Williams: “Some organizations are true leaders in practicing equity and inclusion. And some prefer to post signs on their bulletin boards.” According to the notice, Williams “tagged the Evanston Public Library in this post,” causing it to turn up on the EPL Facebook page.

At the time, Williams had just returned to work after a 15-day disciplinary suspension. Library officials refuse to comment on “personnel matters,” but Williams described the reasons for that suspension as two instances of communication with coworkers, one interaction with a library speaker, and one with a patron—all of which she said she refuted.

Williams’s many friends and supporters crowded into a city hall corridor outside the hearing room to protest the earlier disciplinary hearing; they continued to demonstrate on her behalf. When the library board responded to the furor with an open letter backing Danczak Lyons, Williams issued her own statement, questioning why it was happening:

“[W]hy this level of intense and vindictive action now?” Williams wrote. “Why this apparent shoring up of charges, based on manipulation of the facts? Other staff members are not treated this way.”

Some of nearly 4,000 e-mails the library recently released in response to a FOIA request point to an answer.  The e-mails had been available on the city website, but were taken down last week (and subsequently reposted), reportedly because they contained confidential information—like a 2015 board evaluation of Danczak Lyons that included a comment criticizing her for failing to follow through on a plan to “let Lesley Williams go.”

A more recent e-mail, sent to Danczak Lyons three months ago by the board’s vice president, put it this way: “LW is clearly the thorn in our sides, but at this point, unless she really oversteps her role, we are stuck, agreed?” Danczak Lyons’s reply: “Agreed.”

John Wilson, editor of Illinois Academe (a publication of the American Association of University Professors), has posted a discussion of constitutional issues raised by this mess on the AAUP’s Academe Blog; he argues that Evanston’s rule on employees’ use of social media “could not pass constitutional muster,” and calls for changes at the top in EPL’s administration and board (members are mayoral appointees).

Meanwhile, Williams was supposed to receive a decision on her threatened termination “within two working days” of the hearing. That deadline came and went at 5 PM Tuesday. On Wednesday morning she was still waiting to hear her fate.