Friendly Persuasion: Friends Groups Advocate for Legislation

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Libraries not only transform communities – they are, in turn, transformed by them.  This is certainly true as it applies to Friends of the Library groups.

By Steve Zalusky

Libraries may be the hub of their communities, but Friends of the Library groups supply the spokes that turn the wheel.  Through fundraisers like book sales, they help support the library. But they also play a critical role when the library goes to the voters for needed funds.

Getting the message across to voters is critical when a library needs to go to referendum.  But there is one catch. Unlike candidates for public office, a library cannot campaign.  During the election, Friends of the Library groups go on the stump, spreading the message about the value of libraries to an often tough audience of taxpayers.

A shining example of a Friends group that goes above and beyond the call is the Salem-South Lyon District (Michigan) Library Friends of the Library.

The Friends of the Salem-South Lyon District Library were formed in April 1962.  By August of that year they had purchased a lot for what was then the South Lyon Public Library, which led to construction of the 2,000-square-foot South Lyon Public Library that opened in September 1963.  Thirty years later, in May 1993, the City of South Lyon, the South Lyon Public Library and Salem Township voted to join forces and form a new district library. 

The Friends of the Library led the charge to advocate for the new district library’s first operating millage, 1.25 mill in perpetuity. One mill is equal to one-one thousandth – in terms of taxes it equals one dollar in taxes per $1,000 in taxable value, or $100 in taxes per mill on $100,000 of taxable property.

The Friends also advocated for the $2.5 million bond to build a new 15,000 sq. ft. library in Salem Township.  Both measures passed successfully.

On top of that, the Friends of the Library provided funds, labor, and know-how for the new library by raising $10,000, hand-building a stone fireplace with local stone and installing an outdoor brick-paved courtyard and raised central flowerbed.  The library has since paid off the bond debt and is now debt-free.

Fast forward to 2014, and the Friends of the Library AGAIN were instrumental in the passage of an additional .495 operating millage that enabled the library to enhance its programs and services for another 20 years. It was the first new millage request in 19 years.

“We now have an additional operating millage in place that will allow the library to provide needed services and materials for the community through the year 2033,” said the library’s director, Doreen Hannon. Now in its 23rd year, the Salem-South Lyon District Library has checked out more than 5 million items and has 44 employees.

In their recent efforts, the Friends received some help in the form of a Citizens-Save-Libraries grant through United for Libraries, a division of the American Library Association (ALA), and the Neal-Schuman Foundation. Twenty libraries were selected for the grant, which entitled the libraries to advocacy training for leadership teams from experts.

The training for this campaign was provided by Libby Post of Communication Services.

“Salem-South Lyon’s victory speaks to the importance of the United for Libraries training they received,” Post said. “When I met with them, they knew what their goal should be, but didn’t know how to get there. After training the board and staff on building their base, developing their message and organizing a campaign, they had a roadmap to success that was very well travelled.”

Hannon relates the need for the millage request was dire, saying, “The recession of 2007 – 2009 really hit Michigan hard, especially here in southeast Michigan where the auto industry plays a huge role in the economy. 

“There was an increase in needs and a decrease in funds.  The original 1.25 mills had declined to 1.1147 by 2013, a common result of Michigan’s Headlee Amendment, a 1978 amendment to the Michigan Constitution that automatically “rolls back” tax rates to the rate of inflation.  We needed to ask voters if they would be willing to support this additional millage in order to continue the services that people had grown accustomed to.”

Hannon said the Friends pushed for passage of the additional millage request, unhampered by the limitations on advocacy faced by library staff.

 “We had to form a separate campaign team, because we cannot advocate for funds on library time or property,” states Hannon.  So the Friends became instrumental in our separate advocacy group, helping us take the needed steps to make the campaign successful.”

The Salem-South Lyon District Library Friends of the Library is a not-for-profit corporation that started in 1962 with the purpose of supporting and advocating for the library. The seven elected board members meet at least six times a year. The organization has 100 members.

The contribution the Salem-South Lyon friends make is significant from a monetary standpoint – in its report for the year ending, it states the friends donated $11,061.81.

And there are intangible contributions as well. The army of more than 44 volunteers staffs the book room and the library gardens, as well as represents the library at such community events as parades, farmers’ markets and Chamber of Commerce functions.

Thirty volunteers tend the library’s gardens, each taking care of a specific plot. Their work in the gardens, which includes birdhouses, water features and statuary, amounted to 545 hours during the last season.

Fourteen volunteers logging nearly 2,000 hours also operate the library Book Shoppe, where $17,373.77 in book shop sales, as well as $3,826.52 in online sales, were generated during the year.  The Book Shoppe is open sixty-six hours per week, concurrent with the Library’s hours.  Additionally, the Friends host a large book sale annually during the third week of August.

The Friends supported one of the library’s largest events, the Winter Extravaganza for the past two years in December, with more than 300 visitors and featuring Santa and the elves, a lighted walk in the woods and tuba players performing Christmas music.  Several Friends of the Library volunteers have received the President’s Volunteer Service Award, which celebrates the impact we can all make in bettering our communities and our world.

Advocacy for the Friends is a full-time job, an approach that carried over into the millage campaign, Hannon said.

 “Our Friends of the Library are on the job and advocating for the Library every day even if they don’t realize it!” said Hannon. “Our Friends of the Library have been spreading goodwill for the past 54 years.

“Advocacy is not something Friends just do when the library needs to ask for more funding – advocacy is embedded in the very framework of the Friends.  The Friends of the Library, the library board of trustees, and the library director must work together as a team to provide the best possible library service.”

The unique role of the Friends enables them to serve both the library and the taxpayers.

Hannon said, “It is our intention to be uncompromisingly successful and indispensable in our community, while being good stewards of the public’s tax investment in the library.  Our Friends of the Library help us do just that.”

Those who are interested in forming or joining Friends groups can visit United for Libraries for resources and information.