"Cranky Librarian" Lesley Williams Credit: Brian Benson

It’s probably best to get this out of the way right up front: the Internet handle for Lesley Williams, Evanston Public Library’s beleaguered director of adult services, is “Cranky Librarian.”

It’s a joke, but also a clue: this bookworm is no milquetoast.

Williams has worked at the library for 21 years. An innovative programmer (with a master’s degree in library science) and outspoken activist, she lives in Evanston and is firmly connected to the community there. She’s also the only full-time black librarian employed by this first-rate suburban system, in a city that is 20 percent black.

On April 18, when word got out that Williams had suddenly been put on administrative leave and notified that she’d be the subject of a disciplinary hearing, members of the community responded with disbelief.  Two days later, dozens of them crowded into an Evanston Civic Center hallway to show their support while the hearing transpired behind closed doors. According to Williams, the charges against her were “gross incompetence, insubordination, conduct unbecoming, exceeding her authority, and not contributing to a healthy work environment.”

During the next week, as the city deliberated, the library board of trustees issued a statement in support of its director, Karen Danczak Lyons. The board announced that it had renewed Danczak Lyons’s annual employment contract, and complained that “unsubstantiated social media” protests (on Williams’s behalf) “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.”

“Further,” the board’s statement charged, “these recent attacks convey the innuendo that no other EPL employee promotes social harmony, equity, and racial justice. That is flatly wrong and it is offensive.”

Williams responded with her own statement. Because the situation is a personnel matter, neither she nor the city is discussing details, but, she wrote, she wanted her supporters to know that “None of the charges against me involve criminal behavior, sexual improprieties, or financial improprieties.”

Here’s what she did reveal: the charges involve four interactions: one with a speaker at a library event, one with a patron, and two with coworkers. Williams wrote that she has refuted all of them, and believes they “are completely without merit.”

The incidents go back as far as last fall, and she wasn’t disciplined for any of them at the time, Williams noted.  So, she asked, in her written statement: “[W]hy this level of intense and vindictive action now? Why this apparent shoring up of charges, based on manipulations of the facts? Other staff members are not treated this way.”

On Thursday, she was given a 15-day unpaid suspension.

In an interview prior to the suspension, Willliams said that the situation seems “vindictive.” She traces the roots of it back to 2014, when she had invited Palestinian activist and author Ali Abunimah to speak at the library and Danczak Lyons (who was hired five years ago) asked her to disinvite him because the event wasn’t offering a speaker with a balancing point of view. When Abunimah claimed censorship, generating publicity, the library rescheduled the talk. In the aftermath, Williams said, Danczak Lyons blamed her, erroneously, for not “communicating her wishes correctly to the speaker.”

In 2015, Williams received a shorter suspension, apparently connected to her expression of interest on behalf of the Evanston Library in a genealogy collection the Winnetka Library was handing off.

According to Williams, “very authoritarian” leadership at the library is a concern, but a larger issue is how committed the city and the library are to “full equity for lower income and African-American residents.”  The location of branches is part of that issue, along with the fact that “the library staff is the least diverse of any of the city’s departments.”

She thinks this would be a good time for the library to do an equity audit, to see if  “our locations, collection policy, and personnel policies are effectively serving all the residents of Evanston.”

Here’s the full text of Williams’s statement:

In light of the EPL board’s response supporting my director, and insinuating that my ethics and behavior are open to question, I would like to make a clarifying statement. It’s reasonable that those who do not know me would feel uneasy supporting me without knowing what the charges are.

On the advice of my lawyer, I can NOT release the discipline documents, largely because there is no way to do so without revealing the identities of the individuals concerned. Here’s what I can say:

None of the charges against me involve criminal behavior, sexual improprieties, or financial improprieties.

There are 4 charges: one involves my handling of a library speaker, one involves my interaction with a patron, and 2 involve communications with co-workers. I have refuted all 4 charges and believe they are completely without merit, but I can’t discuss them in more detail without violating the privacy of the other individuals involved.

The real question is why these allegations are being made now, especially since one of the incidents occurred in September, and the others over the past several months. I was not disciplined for any of them at the time; my director asked me to write an explanation for 2 of the incidents, which I did; afterwards she did not ask to meet with me or express any further concern about them. She never even communicated with me about 2 of the charges.

A fair-minded person would have to ask, why this level of intense and vindictive action now? Why this apparent shoring up of charges, based on manipulations of the facts?

Other staff members are not treated this way. I leave it up to your readers to ask why.