Matt Fruth

Library Board Trustee Candidate

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*EDITOR’S NOTE: Candidates submitted their own biographies

Growing up in Oak Park I valued the public library as both a resource and a refuge. It was a place I could go after school to work on homework, rush to on a Sunday afternoon to look at that reference book I needed to complete a last-minute school project, and where I could browse for a new book to read. After graduating from Dominican University I choose to stay in Oak Park. My wife and I decided to start our family and raise our two daughters in Oak Park. We love this village and look forward to continuing to help make it a more inclusive and equitable place to live.

When I first thought about running for this position several years ago I was inspired by a legacy of public service on both sides of my family. I think that one of the best uses of my abilities is to pay back this community from which I have benefited with my time, effort, and passion by serving on the library board. I know that the public library is a critical institution in every community that will continue to provide crucial resources and services to those who walk through the doors regardless of their income, education, race, gender, or housing status.

During my time on the board, the Oak Park Public Library has lead the way in expanding and innovating services on many fronts. The library has expanded our digital resources beyond article databases into e-books and streaming platforms. We have removed barriers to access by eliminating late fees and most room rental fees. We have made investments in engaging with our patrons where they are, whether that is physically through our book bike or emotionally through our social services. We have most recently invested in focused and deliberate anti-racism work to ensure that we, from the board to the circulation staff, can provide service equitably so that everyone who engages with us physically or virtually can find what they need.

This last year has been challenging for government agencies across the board. It has also allowed us to reexamine how we provide services and support to our communities as well as the runway to try new and exciting methods. I hope that as we begin to move out of this pandemic that we will not give up on the new ideas to fall back to using old modes of operation. I will continue to push staff to look for innovative ideas from both outside and within the organization. While we should listen to those in the community who speak up with their concerns about the library; we also need to act in the best interests of those who often feel intimidated about raising their voices. I look forward to serving everyone who looks to the library for assistance.


How do you plan to facilitate the re-openings of the Dole and Maze branches?

The board is currently working with the executive director and staff leadership to find the safest process for re-opening the branches for some level of service. As both are relatively smaller spaces we are taking into consideration the capacity limit guidance from the state of Illinois. Maintaining social distancing while also having a functional staffing level will prove key to our ability to open the branches. We may first open to limited service capabilities such as printing, copying, and material hold pick-ups. The board has decided to empower the staff to make the determinations of what level of service operations is the safest for the library to offer the community given a variety of conditions that staff is monitoring regularly. 

As a trustee, how do you intend to minimize the tax levy increases for residents after almost a year of limited library services and branch shutdowns?

This past year has been extremely challenging for public libraries to continue to provide services to communities across the country. Our staff has risen to the occasion by expanding our digital collections as well as re-organizing some of the physical spaces within the main branch of the library. While the library has been operating differently the staff has been working just as hard as ever to fulfill the vision and mission of the Oak Park Public Library. The increased accessibility to digital collections as well as adding other virtual services has added expenses to our operations. The cleaning and other safety procedures have also added new expenses, some of which have been paid for through county and state assistance. 

The budget we passed for 2021 includes a levy reduction of approximately 8.4%. The board will continue to evaluate spending through the year and discuss with staff what our service model will look like as we discuss the 2022 budget recognizing that with approximately 75% of our budget expenses related to staffing that any significant spending cuts will most likely result in reduced hours and services.

Explain your position on the library’s evolution from paid security to a social service model.

It is the goal of the board and staff for everyone who walks through our doors to feel both welcome and safe. A person cannot be expected to feel empowered by what they can find in the library if they feel that it is a hostile environment, this goes for both our visitors and our staff. While we had contracted with a paid security company one of the first representatives of the library that the public interacted with was a person in a police-like uniform. The impact of this was that some people felt unwelcome by a police presence and others felt the need for their presence meant the building was unsafe. 

In an effort to change those perceptions as well as provide a safe facility the library brought our safety team to in-house staff. This benefited us in many ways. Our safety staff is much more familiar with our community and our staff. The safety staff is much more capable of responding to the variety of interactions that occur within the library. We also have oversight of their training program and I feel that we have better accountability with the safety team being library employees.

Our efforts to provide enhanced social services to our patrons have not only shown benefits to the community but have been recognized by the library community at large with many other public libraries pursuing similar enhanced social service teams.  

Why is it the library’s role to focus on equity and social justice issues?

Public libraries exist in a unique place among the most trusted institutions by the public and situated with a staff trained and resourced to provide a wide range of resources to their communities. More often than not public libraries have strived to maintain neutrality on political and social issues, but a change of thinking has been growing that we can no longer afford to merely collect social capital and goodwill, we must use our position and credibility to encourage growth in our communities. 

In our efforts to help people reach their aspirations we have the resources to provide them with information directly, assistance in finding an outside resource, or just facilitating them with a space to exist peacefully all without judgment. We don’t check for residency at the door, we don’t test for worthiness to access our materials, and we don’t expect that you buy anything from us in order to stay. 

When knowledge in all its forms, access to information, and now being able to discern the validity of online information is key to addressing many of our current social issues the public library and its trained staff are critical resources in our work to address inequity. For me it is not a matter of why should do this work, but how we should do this work.

What experience and qualifications do you possess to help the library overcome those obstacles and limitations?

As a lifelong resident of Oak Park I have seen the cycles of discussions of the different problems over the years. We have held workshops and forums, categorized the problems and responses, and then presented them in a report binder rarely to be acted upon. I think we don’t because it is so much easier to share what we think is wrong than to create a solution plan that we will actually enact with our time and money. I think that we are at a time when enough people in the community are ready to do the actual work of improving things, but that will come at the discomfort of others. 

We have to be ready to be uncomfortable. I have to be ready to be uncomfortable. We need to be ready to admit that we made mistakes and commit ourselves to do better.
There have been several issues over the years where I changed my mind after constructive discussion and reflecting on my preconceptions. Once I was able to acknowledge where I was coming from in my thinking I was able to evaluate and discuss with others whether my framework of thought held up to the issue at hand. I hope that my experience in critical self-reflection and my growing awareness of different lived experiences in Oak Park will allow me to be a leader in this work. 

How do you aim to balance the will of board members with that of library employees and that of the public, regarding resources, pandemic precautions and the financial toll of COVID-19?

We will need to continue our work of ensuring that we maximize every bit of value from the tax dollars we collect. We will continue to engage the community to listen to their community aspirations and desires for what kind of services and support they want to see the library deliver to them. While we continue to be cognizant of the financial pressures that exist in our community we are aware that in other times of economic downturns public libraries have often seen increased requests for an array of resources and services. All of this work by the board will rely on communication from the staff in what is happening in the community as well as bringing in ideas shared from other public libraries across the country.

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