That's What Friends Are For

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By Steve Zalusky

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.

Friends groups have been instrumental in helping sustain libraries – and historically have played an important role in their creation as well. In the late 19th and early 20th Century, among the requirements for securing a Carnegie grant was a commitment by community members to raise funds and support a new library.

“The Carnegie grants, I think, really lit the fire. It totally changed the American landscape for libraries and public libraries in particular, because up until the Carnegie grants, libraries were few and far between,” said Sally Gardner Reed, executive director of United for Libraries, a division of the American Library Association. United for Libraries supports those who govern, promote, advocate and fundraise for libraries.

She explained, “It was mostly women’s clubs across America who went to town halls and fought to have the budget recognize a line item for the libraries. They had to raise the money. They had all kinds of activities – carnivals and pie-eating contests and all those wonderful old-fashioned things. Those groups morphed into Friends of the Library.”

Most importantly, Reed said, the grants required that the town council or city council agree to put a line item in the budget in perpetuity for the library.  “That one single thing put public libraries in the public domain instantly. By the time, Carnegie was done giving away his grants, we had well over 1,600 Carnegie libraries built in a 20-year time span (1890-1910).”

Today, Friends help out libraries through donations, volunteer efforts and advocacy. They are there when libraries need new buildings or need to expand services or collections. In addition, their support is used to leverage grant funding.

“It starts with a small core of people,” Reed said.  “Just like in the old days with Carnegie, it took a small core of people.”

Reed said it will often start with a group asking people, “’Can you do a mailing for us? Can you stand at the polls and hold a sign for us? Can you put in a yard sign?’ So you begin to incorporate more and more people. But the core is often no more than 10 people. Ten to 20 perhaps.”

Reed said there are abundant examples of Friends groups spurring their towns to support libraries, such as the group in Gilmanton, New Hampshire.  In 2014, the Gilmanton Year-Round Library, which was on the brink of closing, was granted its request for $52,000 from the town of Gilmanton.

It was a dramatic turnaround from 2013, when residents voted down the funding for the library (by 401-322), which was then kept open for the year through fundraising and gifts.  Fast forward to 2014, when the warrant article passed 500-483.

Gilmanton was one of 10 recipients of United for Libraries' 2013 Neal-Schuman Foundation Grants. The grants help friends of the library groups, library directors and trustees develop individual blueprints for advocacy campaigns to restore, increase or save threatened library budgets.

The advocacy team for the library launched a major public education and promotion campaign, educating residents about how important the library’s services are to seniors, teens, children and the community as a whole. After recruiting supporters they followed up with a major “vote yes” campaign.   

“It was a great example of what a tiny town can do,” Reed said.

Those who are interested in forming or joining Friends groups can visit United for Libraries for resources, including free toolkits, promotional materials and Public Service Announcements for Friends Groups featuring author and comedian Paula Poundstone.