Libraries have primary sources of funding. Public libraries rely on local taxes. Academic libraries rely on their part of a college or university budget. School libraries get funding through the school district. But that funding has never been enough. You have probably come across more than one group called Friends of the Library.
What is Friends of the Library and why does it matter?
- Libraries need additional financial support.
- Besides getting financial support directly from the activity of Friends of the Library, the existence and activities of the group make it easier for libraries to get grant money.
- Friends of the Library supplies volunteers needed for library programs—quite apart from fundraising.
- In recent decades, politicians and bureaucrats have started to think of libraries as archaic and no longer necessary. Friends of the Library have a powerful advocacy role. Library directors may seem like they’re simply protecting their turf. Friends of the Library, as community members, may have more credibility.
- And, of course, Friends of the Library advocates to the public at large, not just the organizations with the purse strings.
A little history
Public libraries and Carnegie library buildings
If we define “public library” as a tax-supported institution that offers free services to patrons, none existed in the U.S. until the establishment of the Peterborough, New Hampshire Town Library in 1833.
The Boston Public Library, established twenty-two years later, was only the second public library in the country.
Soon after, public libraries started to become common. That doesn’t mean they had their own buildings. They took space in city halls, old houses, rooms in stores (even a ladies’ restroom in one of them), a fire station horse barn, a doctor’s waiting room—basically any place that made itself available.
Andrew Carnegie began to provide funds for building public libraries in 1886. He made these grants personally until 1911, when the Carnegie Corporation took on that role. In all, his gifts of $56,162,622 enabled the construction of 2,509 library buildings in English-speaking countries, including 1679 buildings in 1412 American towns and cities. By the time of the last grant in 1919, more Carnegie had funded more than half of all American public library buildings.
Carnegie insisted on receiving an official request from the mayor or the town council. That letter had to include a pledge of support both in terms of a site for the building and tax support for the library. Thanks in part to Carnegie’s stipulations, the country started to take community support for public libraries for granted. But has any town provided enough funding to satisfy library patrons?
Friends of the Library
Mrs. Al Chase of Glen Ellyn, Illinois founded the first group in the US officially named Friends of the Library in 1922. It raised $365 to help the library purchase new books. Another group called Friends of the Library started in Syracuse, New York in the same year. Either someone there may have known or heard of Mrs. Chase’s effort, or the name may be simply coincidence.
I haven’t been able to find a history specifically of friends of academic libraries, but Harvard University had one starting in 1925.
The American Library Association formed a Friends of Libraries Committee in 1929 to help the formation of more such groups. It remained a committee within ALA until 1980, when it became a separate but affiliated organization called Friends of the Libraries USA.
By 1985, the organization’s membership included more than 2,300 friends groups with about 600,000 members. In 2009, it merged with the Association for Library Trustees and Advocates. The original name strung together all those keywords. Soon enough, it changed its name to the easier to remember United for Libraries.
School libraries have long lagged behind public and academic libraries in establishing friends groups. PTA groups often have committees that focus on raising funds for the school library, but they’re not enough. They must serve many constituencies. If the school administration looks at music, the arts, foreign languages, and the library as “non-essential,” how effectively can the PTA advocate for all of them?
Each of these constituencies need their own very active, very vocal friends group to point out the administration’s own truly non-essential excess personnel and pet projects.
It’s up to school librarians to start friends groups, unfortunately. Too many school library jobs have been eliminated without warning, and the school principal may actively oppose forming a friends group.
Some Friends of the Library projects
Perhaps you have noticed some shelves inside the library door with books for sale, really cheap. Libraries may run their own small-scale book sale this way, but if a library hosts a weekend-long event with dozens of book-laden tables, Friends of the Library has probably organized it.
If a book sale or other fundraising activity takes place somewhere other than the library, then Friends of the Library has probably organized it.
To make room for new materials, libraries have to cull their collections from time to time. If they’re in good enough condition, they’re added to the book sale. Most of the books come from donations, however. I say books for convenience, but since the library collects more than books, the book sale likely includes such other materials as various kinds of recordings.
Besides book sales, friends groups may solicit donations through bake sales, craft sales, etc.
In some libraries, Friends of the Library operates a bookstore in a room in the library. Other friends groups organize completely different kinds of fundraisers. For example, some have mounted theatrical events and sold tickets. Some have sponsored fundraising races or golf outings.
Less publicly, friends groups have recognized donors with their names in bookplates, commemorative bricks, etc. Equally important, they have sought grant money.
Libraries often have art shows, lecture series, concert series, and other events quite apart from the collection. Friends groups often supply the volunteers that make these events possible. The idea for particular programs might come from library staff or Friends of the Library.
Reading marathons and writing contests sponsored by friends groups clearly relate to the library’s mission. Moreover, most towns probably have important local authors or artists, both living and dead. Library special events can honor them and give the community an opportunity to learn more about them.
For deceased authors, some friends groups have set up commemorative plaques in carefully selected places—with the name of the library and friends group included. Mounting them can be an opportunity for a special public ceremony.
All these programs raise public awareness of the library and all it has to offer.
What is a library to do in the face of budget cuts, staff reductions, reduced hours, and other threats? It has to justify its existence. The library director can’t successfully advocate without help from the friends group.
Friends of the Library groups have successfully lobbied city and state governments. They have provided money and manpower for publicity campaigns that have resulted in passage of tax levies in support of the library.
Much of this activity requires maintaining up-to-date email lists and other back-office efforts. Friends groups need to send out newsletters, press releases, newspaper articles, and other literature. Library staff have neither the time nor the resources to do all that Friends of the Library does for them.
101+ great ideas for libraries and friends / Sally Gardner Reed, Beth Nawalinsky, Alex Peterson of Friends of Libraries USA. 2004
Carnegie libraries: their history and impact on American public library development / George S. Bobinski, ALA Bulletin 62 (1968):1361-67
Friends groups: critical support for school libraries / Sally Gardner Reed, United for Libraries. November 2013
Friends of the Libraries USA / American Library Association Archives
Friends of the library, the history / Susan Cushman, susancushman.com. September 6, 2019
Libraries need friends: a toolkit to create a friends group or revitalize the one you have / Sally Gardner Reed, United for Libraries. August 2012