Libraries Transform – and so do their Friends

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by Steve Zalusky

In August, the city council of Pleasant Hill, California, voted unanimously to place on the November ballot a measure that would raise the sales tax from 8.5 percent to 9 percent.  The increase would fund, among other things, a new Pleasant Hill Library.

Chronicling the decision for the Friends of the Pleasant Hill Library was blogger Julie McPherson, whose passionate posts have not only spurred advocacy efforts, but also spread her enthusiasm about the power of libraries to transform lives.

In her post, “Misty-eyed at City Hall,” she reported that several spoke on behalf of the library, including Friends director at large, a professional librarian named Crystal Schimpf, who “pointed out that ‘a modern library is designed to meet the needs of our modern community.’ ‘A 21st-century library,’ she assured us, ‘is a library of right now.’”

McPherson is an example of the importance of Friends groups in supporting libraries, especially during an era when they can expand their influence through social media.  Patrick Remer, manager of the library, which is part of the Contra Costa County Library system, said the impact of the Friends is “huge.”

Remer, who grew up in the community and whose mother is also a member of the Friends group, said, “They’re in our building pretty much whenever we’re open. Pretty much any hour of the day when we’re here, there’s a Friend or two around as well.”

Their activities include processing book donations, fundraising and engaging in strategic planning.  “They’re incredibly active,” he said. “Their fundraising efforts contribute over $40,000 to our collection and programs alone.”

Many of them, he said, were active in the committee to push for a new building, something that he said is sorely needed.  Remer notes that the role of the Friends has evolved to include not only traditional activities such as fundraising and book sales, but also a shift of resources toward advocacy.

“Recently we have had a real renaissance in our Friends of the Library group,” he said. Younger members and new ideas have found expression in outreach efforts at farmers markets and chamber of commerce mixers.

Blogger and Friend Julie McPhersonThe blog is one element of that renaissance.  For McPherson, a writer and editor and an East Coast expatriate, her involvement started with a bookmobile.

She, her husband and her son were on a trip to New York to catch up with old friends. As she describes the scene, it was a hot, muggy afternoon in late July, with the trio sitting in a rented Hyundai Sonata along the waterfront in Long Island, Queens.

As they were drinking in the view, she said they noticed an object parked nearby – a bookmobile. The sight stirred up waves of nostalgia and memories of her first library card.

She relived the scene for one of her regular blog posts, entitled, “The Transformative Transforms,” building to a statement that amounts to a credo, writing, “Libraries have always been transformative. Beyond the door of the library or the bookmobile, magic awaits. Our future dreamers, innovators, and makers can make discoveries–about themselves, about their world–that has the potential to change minds and hearts, and touch individual lives and communities.”

McPherson said her involvement with the Friends began after she spotted an ad placed by Susan Weaver, president of the Friends of the Pleasant Hill Library.  “Susan has given me free reign to write what I want to write,” she said. “It’s a really good fit. It’s great to be able to resonate the library’s value in a bigger way.”

“I love libraries,” she said. “They played a really important role in my life as a cognizant being. What I was able to access at the library formed and taught me in a fundamental way. It has delivered the world to me.”

She said the blog is “an authentic response that I have to something that was incredibly important in the formation of my life and is now going to be equally as important in my son’s life.” It presents, she said, library services in an accessible way.

Mentioning that she moved to Pleasant Hill from across the country to an area where she had to make new friends, “I value so much what the library does in a very basic way.”

“It surprised me, because I really wasn’t quite sure what Julie was going to write about,” Weaver said, who was “impressed on so many different levels. She says it’s organic and it comes from her personal experience and watching her child’s experience in the library. She has an overarching, high-level thinking about the libraries and I think really resonates with all of us. I am a librarian, but I feel that she has taught me so much just by reading all that she was written.”

Weaver knows what it is like to have her life changed by libraries.

“The library was my savior as well. When I was very young, I lost all of my hearing. Because I didn’t have too much outside play time or because of my hearing, people didn’t understand me. I couldn’t speak well. I learned how to read at a really early age. And my mother would take me to our bookmobile in Golf Acres Shopping Center in Colorado Springs (Colorado) every Wednesday. I loved it.”

Her library experiences led her to a career in libraries, beginning as a library assistant and culminating in her rise to manager at the Lafayette Library and Learning Center, in Lafayette, California.

Her experiences in administration led her to a special appreciation of Friends groups, even before she became involved in Pleasant Hill.

“Throughout my career working with so many different Friends groups, I knew that they were a godsend. They were there purely to support the library, to provide for programs that we couldn’t have had otherwise,” she said. “I never met a Friends member that I didn’t like.”

Remer said the McPherson’s posts are “part of a big push to make sure that our community recognizes the value of our library as we enter into this process.”  In the upcoming push for the sales tax increase, the Friends promise to be front and center.

Weaver said that on the library task force, which includes people on the city council, the school board and the Friends, “The city has decided that the Friends are the most powerful voice to get the word out.”

The current building dates to 1961, and Remer said he would like to see a new building so that future generations “can have an experience like I had when I grew up here.”

The library sees an average of 1,200 people per day and is one of the busiest library locations in the Contra Costa County Library System, which consists of 26 branches serving about 1 million people in the county. It offers core programs for more than 27,000 attendees of all ages, including an average of 75 attendees at storytimes and boasts circulation of around 400,000 items per year.

However, he said, the existing building is obsolete. More than five years ago, the county did an assessment, finding more than $10 million in deferred maintenance. Remer said the building needs a new roof and is beset by walls containing asbestos, a crumbling parking lot and elevator doors that experience constant malfunctions.

“Much of my job right now as a manager is just keeping the facility running,” he said. That means attending to such items as “putting in work requests to make sure that leaks are patched and carpets get cleaned. “But the biggest part of my job,” Remer continued, “is engaging the community to not simply use their library, but to help us spread a love for libraries and work with us to improve our libraries. When it comes to those things, I couldn’t ask for better friends than my Friends of the Library.”

Read more about the Pleasant Hill Friends.