Libraries on edge as bomb threats grow

Oak Park, Chicago, Forest Park and libraries across the state are taking steps to keep patrons and employees safe.
by Stacey Sheridan September 19, 2023

The rising number of bomb threats made against the state’s public libraries is causing unease among local libraries in the western suburbs of Chicago.

And while all threats have been deemed unfounded, that has not served to make the situation any less frightening in the eyes of librarians.

“We’re all really relieved that these threats have turned out to be false, but, at the end of the day, they’re still threats and those aren’t designed to make people feel comfortable or safe,” said Vicki Rakowski, director of the Forest Park Public Library.

The Oak Park Public Library received threats twice: last Thursday and on Aug. 21, according to Dan Yopchick, spokesperson for the Village of Oak Park. The Aug. 21 threat read: “

“There will be a big explosion all over Cook county’s highways and librarys including Chicago gurnee and oak park. It will explode sometime tomorrow 8/21/2023,” the threat said.

Local police found all the threats unsubstantiated following searches of all three Oak Park library branches. The threats are still under investigation.

“We all will continue to take any threat seriously, always putting people and safety first,” said OPPL Executive Director Joslyn Bowling Dixon in a statement to Growing Community Media. She declined to be interviewed for the story.

“Receiving emails or chats about threats of explosions—whether it is at our library or neighboring Chicago libraries—is difficult and stressful for our entire library team,” she added in the statement.

Bowling Dixon said that they are working with agencies, including the Oak Park Police Department, state and national library organizations, the Illinois Library Association, and the American Library Association to address these threats.

Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, an Oak Park resident, condemned the threats made against libraries in a statement to GCM.

“Threats against our libraries have no place in our society. I support librarians and staff as they continue to provide welcoming spaces for everyone in our communities,” he said.

And in statement released last week, The American Library Association denounced the attacks. Libraries, they said, are supposed to be a safe haven where people can civilly exchange ideas.

“These ongoing and rising attacks on America’s libraries pose an existential threat to the cornerstone of our democracy. Libraries are committed to upholding and defending the core values of inclusion and free and equal access to ideas and information, which are essential to an informed democratic society,” the statement said.

“The freedom to read is a constitutionally protected right, and reading choices must be left to the reader, and in case of children, their parents.”

Threats of physical harm and harassment are not, they pointed out, protected speech.

Local preparation

Threats have been sent in recent days against a growing number of area libraries, including Chicago, Aurora, Bolingbrook, Addison, Joliet, Evanston, Morton Grove and Wilmette. The executive directors of the Brookfield, Riverside, River Forest and Forest Park public libraries all told GCM they are working with law enforcement to protect their staff and patrons in the event their libraries receive a threat. They did not share the specifics of any emergency protocols fearing that could make them vulnerable to attack.

“I, along with – I’m positive – every director in the Chicagoland area, feel very protective of staff members,” said Kimberly Coughran, director of the Linda Sokol Brookfield Library.

The threats have disrupted services by forcing targeted libraries to temporarily close doors as a safety precaution. About half a dozen libraries were forced to evacuate last week because of the bomb threats, just as Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias defended the state’s law prohibiting book banning before the U.S. Senate. The law goes into effect Jan. 1.

As secretary of state, Giannoulias also holds the position of the state librarian and, during last Tuesday’s senate hearing, he linked recent threats to partisan political efforts to remove materials such as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” from shelves.

“What I am concerned with is political attempts to ban books that are driving libraries to close their doors, stifle creativity, make librarians quit their jobs, and just a few weeks ago, literally have to evacuate due to numerous bomb threats at multiple locations,” Giannoulias told senators.

The same day, another round of threats hit Illinois public libraries, including an anonymous email to the Harold Washington Library in Chicago. The Chicago Public Library ended up closing all of its branches last Thursday.

“The exact same time that I was in D.C., libraries here were forced to close their doors and be evacuated because of bomb threats,” Giannoulias said to NBC Chicago. “And unfortunately, that’s symbolic of what we’re seeing, literally – our bill was meant to protect libraries and librarians.”

Jonathan Friedman, the director of free expression and education of PEN America, echoed Giannoulias’ beliefs.

“The threats against public libraries in the Chicago area are yet another manifestation of the hostility we are witnessing toward books, ideas and intellectual activity writ large. Library staff and patrons are put at risk by threats of this kind and all Americans who value the freedom to read and learn should be as appalled as we are at PEN America,” Friedman said. A non-profit, PEN America works to raise awareness for the protection of free expression.

Emily Compton, director of the River Forest Public Library, told GCM “people were wondering” if the threats were made based on efforts to censor and remove antiracism and LGTBQ+ literature from schools and libraries.

Compton, however, said she had no “facts” to back up any speculation.

“Librarians are pretty fact-based,” she said.