Mary Anne Mohanraj

Below are candidate-submitted answers to a biographical survey Wednesday Journal sent out to all candidates running in this year’s elections.

What qualifies you to serve on the library board and what motivated your interest in the position?

I’m an English professor, published author, and mom.  Libraries are key to every part of my personal and professional life, and I want to make sure they are strong and accessible for every aspect of your personal and professional lives too. So far, our libraries have been well-supported and defended. They are fantastic, and I want them to continue to be fantastic, even under national administrations that may be hostile to information, community services, diverse populations and freedom of expression.

The library recently implemented a social worker program that replaced private security guards at the library with in-house social workers. What are your thoughts concerning this change?

I enthusiastically support the decision to implement the social worker program.  At a board meeting I attended, the new social worker spoke about how he’s helping homeless patrons (many of whom are elderly and are struggling with mental health difficulties) better access local services to assist them.  In the absence of a community center, our libraries serve wider needs in the community than simply providing books – the 21st century library has a broader mission, and I believe strongly that we need to extend our reach throughout the community, keeping Oak Park’s strong values of diversity, equity, and access at the forefront of our strategic decision-making.

The library is currently paying down bond debt for construction of the Main Library. Should the library reduce its tax burden on residents once the bond debt is retired and if so how? Should cuts be made to existing library initiatives to further reduce the tax burden? If so, which ones specifically?

Currently, the library tax is about 5% of the total tax burden for residents, and I am delighted that we are retiring debt and have no plans to increase the tax burden currently.  When that process is completed, the library board should work in concert with the other taxing bodies to ensure that the overall tax burden is as affordable as possible, while also maintaining our mission and vision of service to the community.  At this time, I don’t think there’s a strong fiscal need for the library to cut its tax burden further, which would entail, of course, cutting services that the community has come to depend on.  When economic times are difficult (as when the state of Illinois in the midst of budget crisis fails to live up to its promised obligations regarding our schools), library usage goes up sharply – the library becomes one of the best tools our citizens have to search for jobs, study for their classes, and otherwise support a community through tough times. 

The library is considering eliminating late fines for books. Do you support this initiative? If so, why? What else can the library do to increase outreach to patrons?

I remember living in a small apartment, frantically ransacking it, trying to find the book that my toddler had mysteriously caused to disappear, a book that wouldn’t turn up again until we were moving (it had gotten wedged behind a couch cushion).  I am very pleased that we’re eliminating late fines; they are a very small part of the budget, and as the librarians argued when they brought this proposal to the board, late fines pose a barrier to access.  What happens so often is that people may misplace a book, start to accrue late fines, and then just stop coming to the library rather than pay the fines, especially lower-income families for whom even a small fine can be simply unaffordable.  I know with my own students at UIC that when they miss an assignment or two, they often fall into a shame spiral, and where a student from an upper-middle-class background would contact me and come to office hours to try to work something out, lower-income students are much more likely to simply stop coming to class.  Lower-income families are precisely the citizens of Oak Park who need library access the most, and who, I think, we most want to keep as active patrons of the library.  This initiative should help tremendously with that.

What should the library be doing to move beyond its traditional mission of loaning books, DVDs and other materials?

Our libraries are already community hubs, hosting a plethora of programming – environmental, familial, LGBT, senior-focused, etc. and so on, which is terrific.  I’ve been very impressed with Executive Director David Seleb’s approach, and if elected to the board, I would plan to support him and his librarians in their broad-based community programming, especially in the absence of an actual community center.  I would personally like to see more diverse programming (such as the forthcoming Spanish language story hour), more targeted teen programming (aimed at their interests and needs), and active outreach to areas of the community that are not currently well-served geographically by our three library buildings.  Beyond the bookmobile, I’d like the library to explore the possibility of pop-up spaces, using currently empty storefronts to host short-term libraries, hopefully habituating residents to library usage, making them more aware of what the library has to offer them in terms of material, but also meeting rooms, librarian assistance (with, for example, tax forms), and much, much more.

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