sleek and modern, the two-story, tan brick oak lawn public library stands at the corner of 95th street and cook avenue in downtown oak lawn. inside and out, it seems the epitome of what every american library should be: a handsome and comfortable, efficiently run, resource-rich institution valued not just by locals but by serious readers and students from near and far.
in short, it's not a place you'd expect to make headlines. not unless you're familiar with the heated censorship battles of the last several years, battles that have generated reams of less-than-flattering publicity for an institution that, by all accounts, deserves far better.
at the height of its notoriety two years ago, after the library board voted to ban children from the adult section of the library-a decision later reversed-this quiet little corner in oak lawn even became the focus of national press attention.
into this spotlight has stepped dr. james casey, lured to oak lawn as library director after two national search campaigns. he brings to the job eight years' experience as director of the pickaway county district public library in circleville, ohio, as well as a stint as head librarian of the ohio historical society and head reference librarian at western reserve historical society in cleveland.
sharing the spotlight, at the center of most of the controversy, has been nancy czerwiec, a former school teacher and anti-abortion activist who was elected to the library board of trustees two years ago, and who has led most of the censorship campaigns over the last 12 years.
in 1980, long before becoming a trustee, czerwiec orchestrated an unsuccessful attempt to remove a sex education book called "show me" from the shelves of the oak lawn library. later, the board heard similar appeals to ban playboy magazine.
two years ago, czerwiec led a briefly successful campaign to deny access of children 12 and under to the library's adult section if that was their parents' desire. the board voted to pass the proposal but subsequently overturned the ruling with the help of board members who were absent when czerwiec helped win its approval.
last summer, the board was confronted with another imbroglio, this one centering on a proposal to ban a book of sexual limericks. critics claimed it defamed members of the catholic clergy.
the continual wrangling and board conflicts led to the resignation of library director joy kennedy in may of last year, after only 18 months on the job. a six-month national search for a new director resulted in the job being offered to three candidates, all of whom had responded to advertisements posted by the board in professional library journals. all three eventually turned down the directorship, one giving salary as a reason for the rejection, but the other two citing the high pressures and emotional feelings stemming from the censorship battles.
in january of this year, when the subject was the hiring of casey, it was czerwiec who again touched off controversy.
casting the lone board vote against casey's hiring, she told fellow board members she wanted more time to consider the appointment, arguing that the board was acting too hastily. czerwiec's position suggested that, even as it moved to usher in a new era of stability, the oak lawn library board of trustees had not yet seen the last of the controversy.
to many observers, the most ironic aspect of the ongoing tempest is the fact that it has unleashed a load of negative publicity upon one of the finest libraries in the entire chicago metropolitan area, a library whose collection of 175,000 books ranks it among the 12 largest in suburban chicago.
"i think the censorship issue is harmful to our library and to our entire community," said evelyn goltz, who is in the fifth year of a six-year elected library board term and who acted as board president during most of the recent turmoil. "the threat of it hanging over our heads is also harmful. we shouldn't be known for censorship. we should be known for how good our library really is."
goltz is one of many who can speak at length about the virtues of the library. "this is an institution with a great children's library, and with librarians who go into the schools twice yearly to let students know about upcoming programs," she said. "we have an outstanding reference section, an excellent periodicals section and a big collection of out-of-town newspapers. the library makes voter registration forms available and puts out tax forms during the tax season. we even have a yearly weekend program for fans of mystery novels, where mystery writers come in and talk to our patrons. can you think of any other library that does that?"
board president shirley barrett is another who believes the library has been dealt a black eye by the censorship publicity. "the coverage we get never accentuates the positive," she said. "that's the real rub for the board."
a part-time student in computer science at moraine valley community college in palos hills, barrett said she's continually reminded of the library's stellar reputation among college students.
"one of the things i constantly hear from other students is that, if they have some really, really heavy reference work or other research, they'll go to oak lawn," she said. "and you hear it not just from oak lawn residents but from students from other towns."
the respect for the library among serious readers and students, often lost amid the clamor over censorship, is among the factors that attracted casey to his new post. "i liked the fact that it's a large library, modern, efficient, and up-to-date," he said. "before i applied for the position, friends of mine in chicago let me know it was an outstanding library."
at the same time, though, he was aware of the simmering conflicts that had long divided the board. "the board went out of its way to explain the issues and make me aware of the down side," said casey, who added that he views oak lawn's recent problems as something many libraries endure.
"there's no library i know of that hasn't faced the censorship issue," he said. "whenever you have a public library that is busy and forward-looking and includes board members who are concerned with the issues of the day, you're going to have disagreements. i worked for four years in cleveland (at the western reserve historical society), and i faced the issues there. the issues also came up in my last job in circleville."
there casey was confronted with a situation in which a right-to-life group voiced criticism of the library, claiming that too many of the books and publications in the library's collection favored the pro-choice position.
"the leader of the group arranged to have pro-life books donated to the library," casey recalled. "in turn, the pro-choice people wanted to donate books supporting their position. in a way, the controversy had a positive effect. it stimulated reading and added to the library's collection."
czerwiec is one of the few who seems ready to make the same kind of favorable assessment of the recent controversy in oak lawn. "i know there's been a positive result from the fact we've raised some of these issues," she said. "i think the kind of debate we've stimulated is a very healthy thing."
czerwiec said she intends to continue acting as a voice of people in oak lawn who have raised complaints about the content of the library. she sees a number of recent developments as helping to substantiate the stance she and her supporters have taken.
"there are things taking place in the library world that reaffirm my position," she said. "the first is a library journal article that appeared in april of 1992. it was based on a national survey of 1,200 people, in which both librarians and patrons were interviewed. the results showed a wide dichotomy between what librarians wanted on library shelves and what patrons wanted. for example, 70 percent of the patrons surveyed wanted to ban `playboy' and `penthouse' and books on how to commit suicide."
also supporting her position, she believes, is the number of library books that have been challenged in recent years. "the office of intellectual freedom (an arm of the american library association, based in chicago, which tracks and reports censorship issues across the country at any type of library) has compiled statistics that show the number of challenged books has continued to go up every year," she explained. "in fact, there were 500 challenges to school and public library books just in the one-year period between september of 1990 and august of 1991."
czerwiec also points to statistics that show one-third of the nation's public libraries still have a children's library card that prevents access or gives limited access to the adult section of the libraries. "this shows that my positions are not in the extreme, as they're often portrayed, but are really more in line with mainstream thinking," she said.
but no matter how strongly czerwiec advances her views, she continues to run up against a board that outnumbers her six to one. and most of those board members are just as forceful in their championing of opposing positions.
"i am not on the same side as nancy czerwiec," said goltz. "i have a very strong feeling that once you remove a book from the shelves, you're on your way to empty shelves. we all have books that we object to, but we shouldn't let that get in the way of our responsibility to present a full plate of opinions. and that's particularly true in a public library."
new board president barrett said that, while she likes czerwiec on a personal basis, she isn't nearly as favorably disposed toward her philosophies. "she's a great person to be around," said barrett, "but we do have very different opinions. one thing that i can't understand is that she always speaks as if she knows what's right for all children. yet she's never been married and has no children of her own."
casey says his relationship with czerwiec is a good one, and that he intends to work as closely with her as with any board member. he added: "i do believe in the public library as a free marketplace of ideas. we have to obtain books and materials that the public wants and needs, that are useful to and used by the community.
"the issues that have been raised are intellectual as well as moral, so they generate a lot of heat. but the main focus has to be on serving the community."
and casey argues the library has been doing an excellent job in that regard. he pointed to statistics that show the library's circulation rose 15 percent in the first four months of this year compared to the same period in 1991.
"that's an indication of effectively serving the community," he said. "these censorship issues sometimes obscure the larger issue of just how effective the library has been. they shouldn't be held above the success of the library in attracting users. if the image of the library has been tarnished in any way, it's unfair, because we've been booming and providing more and more services."
casey and his wife, diane, have bought a home in oak lawn, which they share with her sons from a previous marriage. his enthusiasm for the library extends to the village.
"it's wonderful, it's a nice community, a thriving community, and close to all the attractions of chicago," he said. "i like being close to a big city."
now that he's settled in, casey wants to build on the library's successes. he speaks of re-establishing a public relations program at the library and of producing newsletters to regularly inform the public of interesting programs, services and books. he envisions more effective computerization of the library in the long run and, in the shorter term, is working to help find new ways to raise funds for the continued growth of the institution.
but marring that clear, bright vision of the future, there continue to be dark clouds of doubt as to whether the controversy in oak lawn has really blown over.
"i really have no confidence that it's over," said goltz. "we've gone through different censorship controversies over the years, and they continue to come up again and again."
other libraries weather censorship storms and then go on. the crucial difference in oak lawn is that the person raising the issues is not just a concerned parent or crusading activist but a member of the library board.
"the times indicate that where i am on these positions is correct," said nancy czerwiec. "whether the rest of the board will see that, i can't predict. but can one person make a real difference in the whole process? absolutely."
photo caption (color): dr. james casey sees a net gain in library censorship battles. photo (not shown) by walter neal.
photo caption: nancy czerwiec often stands alone on censorship issues. photo (not shown) by nuccio di nuzzo.
copyright � 1992, chicago tribune