mary anne mohanraj
RESPONSES TO THE OPCTA QUESTIONNAIRE
What motivates you to seek this office? Have you participated in public service in the past? If so, how? If not, why now? What skills, experiences, and perspectives would you bring to the board, and why would those contributions be valuable for the Library?
After the November election results came in, I felt frustrated and even guilty, that I hadn’t done more to support Clinton’s campaign. I felt I had been complacent, and that it was time to stop letting other people carry the burden. I asked my husband if he’d support my running for office; once he said yes, I went to the Democratic Party meeting and asked if they could use me. They said, school board or library board? As an English teacher and an author who has spent much of my life in libraries, library board seemed a good fit.
I know libraries well -- I’ve spent twenty-five years working in publishing (from self-publishing to small presses to large houses like HarperCollins, Random House, and Penguin), and started teaching twenty years ago, during my MFA at Mills College; I went on to do a Ph.D. at the University of Utah. My other community service has primarily been in the arts; I’ve founded and run three literary magazines, and founded and run two literary organizations, one of which, the SLF (www.speclit.org) is a 501(c)3 non-profit, for which I’ve overseen fundraising and the budget for almost twenty years.
Would you describe yourself as an agent of social change? Why or why not?
I’ve always used the arts as a platform for social change, from my earliest days as a writer. Literature can move us in ways that are otherwise impossible; human stories let us see the complicated, nuanced lives that people live, especially marginalized lives from people whose stories were, for so long, rarely told. My academic training is as a post-colonialist, so in the classroom, much of my work has been using literature to bring students an understanding of terrible historical forces, and the effect those forces had on ordinary peoples’ lives.
I also teach early American lit., women and lit. (we’ll be covering The Handmaid’s Tale and Persepolis in a few weeks, which feel all too apropos right now), and writers of color in science fiction and fantasy. And of course, I teach fiction writing. I hope the work I do with my students helps them find their own voices and tell their own important stories. I also currently serve as editor-in-chief for Jaggery, a South Asian literature magazine, as part of my commitment to bringing those voices into the mainstream.
Do you feel there are communities or groups the Library has failed to sufficiently engage? If so, what initiatives would you advocate to promote increased engagement?
Oak Park’s libraries do an excellent job of serving the people who actually use the library. My main concern for the libraries right now is centered on equity, access, and outreach. I’ve met with David Seleb, the library’s director, and I’m confident that he shares these concerns and sees it as part of the library’s mission to reach out into communities that are still underserved by our current approaches.
If elected to the board, I would look forward to supporting the librarians’ further efforts in those regards, considering programs such as pop-up libraries in storefronts, to create a library presence in neighborhoods that are currently a little far from the actual buildings. Other initiatives I’d like to explore include expanding library hours (thereby making it easier for working people and families to access the library), adding more diverse offerings (such as the new Spanish-language story hour), and finding out if it’s possible to partner with the Township to use their shuttle to set up a weekly library day. (The library already offers home delivery, but some of the seniors would prefer to spend time actually at the library.)
All of these initiatives would, of course, be dependent on budgetary constraints, as it’s important to keep Oak Park as affordable as possible.
How will you work to foster collaboration between the Library and other governmental organizations?
My impression is that there is currently a strong push from all the taxing bodies to foster more cooperation going forward, and a perception in the Village that, especially with regard to taxes, it would be better if we made more of a strategic joint plan, rather than working in our separate silos, to ensure that taxes are distributed reasonably. The library is, of course, a very small percentage of the overall tax burden (around 5%), and we are currently retiring debt and have no plans to increase taxes in the near future, but I hope that we will be able to use iGov meetings to further coordinate taxes and other related issues in the future. As a library trustee, I would plan to attend school board, park district, and Village trustee meetings periodically, in order to stay abreast of current issues in the community.
In June the Library will eliminate fines for Oak Park residents borrowing OPPL materials. Do you foresee any unintended consequences to this policy? How do you anticipate this policy change will affect patrons’ relationship with the Library?
I am delighted that the library will be eliminating fines for Oak Park residents borrowing Oak Park books; the money from fines is a relatively small portion of our overall budget. As the librarians said when they asked the trustees to eliminate fines, fines are a barrier to access. They hit the lower-income families the hardest. What happens often is that such a family may lose track of a child’s book, be unable to pay the fine, and stop coming to the library. (I see the same pattern with my own students, who miss an assignment or two, enter a ‘shame spiral,’ and sometimes stop coming to class entirely.) I am very hopeful that eliminating fines will increase library usage significantly, especially for more financially challenged families, which can only be good overall for our community.
In the past six months, the Library has replaced outside security guards with social workers and employee security monitors. In your view, has this change had the desired result?
I am strongly supportive of the move to hire a social worker to work with patrons who may have challenges that have previously led to disruption on the library. It’s been less than a year since that program was started, and based on the board meeting I attended where the social worker presented, he is making good progress towards reducing disruption and better integrating those patrons into appropriate use of library services. There is clearly still more work to be done (and in particular, I would like to see the library revisit the concept of dedicated teen space), but I feel that we are on the right track, heading towards solutions that will serve the needs of all Oak Park library patrons.
With shifting values at the national level, do you anticipate any shift in the Library’s role and responsibilities in our community? How would you approach the elimination of the NEH and NEA?
We are facing a national administration that is clearly hostile to information, community services, diverse populations and freedom of expression. They are instituting policies that are likely to increase economic uncertainty and financial hardship for Americans. In hard economic times, library usage goes up – it is more important than ever that we defend our libraries to the utmost. Libraries are on the front lines of liberty – without accurate information, our society will suffer greatly. It already is.
As to the elimination of the NEA or the NEH – I very much hope it does not come to that. If it does, then we will have to try to support the work those organizations did, as much as possible. But I have to be honest – losing the NEA and the NEH would be a heavy blow, and with the best will in the world, I fear Oak Park will only be able to cushion it a little.
Please describe how lifelong learning has been a value in your own life. How would bring this perspective to your work on the Library Board?
Every time I feel like I don’t know enough, I go back to school. I was actually thinking I might try to pick up a Master’s in urban planning over the next few years! Or at least take a class or two. And maybe a few classes in public policy. I think the rest of my answer to question #1 above addresses this question.
The Library is an essential meeting location for local businesses, governmental agencies, and non-profits. How do you believe this resource should be managed?
The librarians would like to eliminate charges for meeting spaces at the libraries – while they’re in demand during peak hours, they go largely unused for non-library-sponsored functions much of the time. Even a small $20 charge is a hardship for a Girl Scout troop holding its monthly meeting. I serve on the board of the OPRF Garden Club, and when we’ve discussed adding evening or weekend meetings, one concern has been that renting space at the library would be too expensive for our small budget. The current library board has been reluctant to eliminate charges, but I would at least like to see them eliminated for non-profits
Over the years the Library has invested heavily in technology. Do you see unexplored opportunities for technology to enhance the Library’s work or extend its reach?
The most obvious aspect of tech use that I’d like to see expanded is education for patrons on how they might use the tech that the library already has. I, for example, own a Kindle, but still buy books for it – I haven’t taken the time (probably five minutes!) to figure out how to borrow books from the library. I think we have a vast array of terrific tech resources (I heard something about a 3D printer!), and what I’d like to see next is more work on community access to those resources.
Please list the three largest donors to your campaign by dollar amount contributed.
Alex Gurevich ($1000), George R.R. Martin ($500), John Scalzi ($250)
Profile of Mary Anne Mohanraj (Wednesday Journal)
Me, My Shelf and I: Mary Anne Mohanraj (Chicago Tribune, 2015)
Oak Park Library Board race is packed (Wednesday Journal)