By Anna Lothson
The Oak Park Public Library Board race isn't highly contested, but come April 9, there will be five library-loving candidates vying for four spots.
They represent different professional backgrounds — three retired, two not — and length of residency, but each of the candidates expressed a common theme about their decision to run: they already think highly of the library.
Unlike some municipal board candidates who run to change course, these five embrace the existing culture and sustain it into the future.
Matthew Fruth, for example, is 33, grew up in Oak Park, and is running for his third term as library trustee. He's not ready to step down yet, he said.
"I've just been really proud of the work begun," he said. "There are a number of projects I'd like to see through and see them advance."
Serving on the board when the new director is appointed is one of his goals. Current staffer Rebecca Teasdale was named interim director after Dee Brennan left to become executive director for the Reading Across Illinois Library System. Continuing to coordinate with Brennan is a goal for Fruth.
The big-ticket item recently getting some buzz in the community is the library lobby overhaul, which he said has been in discussion for roughly the past two and a half years. He hopes to develop a vision for that and implement it.
Fruth, unlike many of his friends, is a hard-copy guy, who wants to ensure vital records and literary works that aren't available electronically are preserved. He also wants to look at electronic media and discover how it can be used to further the mission of the library. But moving forward without losing print materials is important, Fruth said.
"They are mutual enhancements. Some of these books can't be replaced," he said. "There is still a gap in what is available in print and available electronically. … We're not just about the books. We're about the services we provide and the programs we offer."
Bruce Samuels, 69, is another longtime Oak Parker who has been engaged in government from a resident's perspective, including as leader of Citizens for Community Conversation. He's running for a second term on the library board.
Samuels finds this particular board to be refreshing and relaxed. It's not as political as others, he said. He's learned a lot and is ready for more.
"We always have ongoing technology challenges," he said, naming one item of continuing discussion. "We're going to try to do more — more outreach, getting more people into the library.
The library serves as a town center, he said, and is a valuable resource in the community. As the finance officer of the group, he's been dealing with the fiscal side of things and "trying to get more for investments."
"We've saved up our budget," Samuels said, an unexpected chunk from TIF funding helped. "We're not going to spend any more than we have in our budget."
But it's not the financial side that motivated him to seek another term on the board. It's the library's culture.
"Libraries [attract] a special group of people," Samuels said. "It's a valuable institution and a valuable resource."
Current board members Gary Johnson and Mila Tellez aren't seeking re-election, but newcomers Win Fox, Doug Kittredge and Matt Baron are ready to step on board.
Fox, 66, is a retired librarian and library media specialist who has spent 30 years in the field. She moved to Oak Park in 2007 to be closer to family and was struck by the village's welcoming atmosphere. She was encouraged to run because of her library science background, and she agreed.
"I thought, 'I can do this,'" Fox said, "and I'd like to do this."
She has served on other library-related boards and said she can bring a dual-perspective to looking at how a library functions and grows.
"I have a good sense of the issues — one that people don't necessarily have without a background like mine."
She has seen libraries undergo a slew of changes, and she understands there isn't always an easy solution. Fox isn't running to make changes though. She wants to help guide the administration in making strong choices.
"Trying to meet so many kinds of needs is almost impossible," Fox said. "Libraries try to be all things to all people. I see that as a challenge and an opportunity."
Overall, she wants the library to help people connect with technology and have necessary resources available at their fingertips. Access to computers and spaces for study groups and meetings, for example, are key for a library, she said, adding that she is "hooked on technology" and is ready to do the same for others.
"Keeping up with the times is the mission of the library," she said.
Kittredge, like his fellow candidates, is running because he loves the library.
"It's fairly simple," he said. "I've always been a big reader."
Now 57 and retired from a career working with management companies, most recently an Information Technology planning position, Kittredge moved to Oak Park two years ago and settled just two blocks from the library.
He's a frequent patron and seeing the lack of candidates in the last election motivated him to run.
"I saw [in 2011] that there weren't even enough people," he said. "I thought that was a shame with such a great library. I've always wanted to do more with the library and it seemed to be the right thing to do."
Kittredge said a library needs to evaluate its mission as more than just books, which he agrees means evaluating space for meeting areas to exchange ideas and host events.
"A lot of it is hoping to be part of keeping the library evolving — looking at the needs of the community and the role [of the institution] as we've moved into the e-book world," he said.
With budgets getting tighter and purposes of libraries changing frequently, Kittredge said he wants to see people gain access to necessary resources while move the library forward with it goals already set in place. Budget issues, however, remains a key aspect of this, he said.
Kittredge's main reason for running, however, is his love for the Oak Park library. He thinks the staff is great and wants to maintain a system that he believes works.
The fifth candidate on the list is Matt Baron, a 44-year-old local public relations firm owner, who has lived in Oak Park for roughly 18 years. He, too, is running because of his respect for the library.
"It's my admiration for it," he said. "And my desire to contribute for the future."
Instead of being negatively motivated, Barron, a self-proclaimed "library geek," said he's positively encouraged to run because he and his family have benefited heavily from the library.
He has considered running for a few years, and at a recent Oak Park Chamber of Commerce meeting, Samuels encouraged those interested to run, so Baron decided to take him up on the offer. His background is one he thinks will serve the board well.
"The strongest skill I bring is the ability to communicate one way or another," he said. This includes expanding communication of what the library has to offer to others. "It's a real inquisitive approach to not accepting the status quo for its own sake. It's seeing where we can go from good to great."
Baron considers the resources available at both branches of the Oak Park library to be invaluable to a "vibrant" community, and his goal is to help develop the overall mission of the library in serving the needs of residents.
Of course, there's always room to improve, he said, and he wants to be to help. He said his Oak Park roots get deeper each year, and it's time to give back.
"It's continually keeping our head up about what is possible. I feel I could be part of that excellence," he said.
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