Libraries have long benefited from volunteer support groups, often known as Friends of the Library. Whether the groups have offered monetary cushions, extra sets of hands at events, or vocal advocacy and outreach in the communities we serve, their help can significantly enhance programs, services, and overall library health. Many public libraries work with their Friends groups regularly but may not know the ins-and-outs of their day-to-day work. Curious to learn more about the Friends and their operations from an insider’s perspective, I reached out to the president of the Friends of the Southwest Neighborhood Library (SNL) in Washington, D.C., Georgine Wallace.
AH: Tell us a little about your history with the Friends. Do you remember how you first heard about the concept and how you got involved? What roles have you played since then?
GW: I heard about the Friends group at SNL over 15 years ago. I saw the words “books $1 or less” and I was hooked. I purchased 4 bags. Volunteers helped me load them into my car. I had initially brought two bags and a volunteer kept saying, “We have another bag if you need it.” The person providing me with yet “another bag” told me about the Friends. I got involved at first by sorting donations on weekends. I then experimented with volunteering at book sales. Before I knew it, I was the Treasurer. I ran for President in 2014 and have served in that capacity since.
AH: Can you give us a brief rundown of the various roles in a Friends organization and their responsibilities?
GW: Roles can vary from group to group but, in general, you have at least four key officers: President, Vice President, Secretary, and Treasurer. The President is normally the public face of the group, attending community meetings, testifying before the DC Council, and attending Federation [the umbrella group including individual Friends organizations across the DC Public Library system] meetings. The Vice President fills in where needed unless otherwise specified in the group’s bylaws. The treasurer collects the annual dues (if applicable), handles the money from fundraising, and writes checks. The secretary takes minutes, monitors the group’s email box, and serves as the group’s record retention officer.
Some groups are large enough to create positions to handle key tasks like publicity, book sales, new membership, and other fundraising. If the group is small, much of the work falls to the officers and usually the President. The buck really stops with the President. The group fundraises for things the library system either legally cannot or is financially unable to provide. For example, we purchase refreshments for programs, cover instructor/speaker fees, and sponsor/cosponsor programs not otherwise provided.
AH: How have you seen the Friends of the Library both on a local and larger scale change over time?
GW: In Washington, DC we have 25 neighborhood libraries and a central library. Each library is able to have their own Friends group to support them. However, only about 22 of the 26 have an active group. Every Friends group linked to a neighborhood library is encouraged to become a member of the city-wide organization, the Federation of Friends of the DC Public Library. The Federation elects a President, VP, Treasurer, Secretary, and a membership Secretary from among the group members. Federation bimonthly meetings are attended by Executive Director Richard Reyes-Gavilan and his staff. We are fortunate to have a close relationship with the library system and our local officials.
The service area for SNL contains the highest concentration of public housing in the city of Washington. Given that these areas are surrounded by more affluent areas like the DC Wharf, the Navy Yard, and Buzzard Point, we are often overlooked by city government as an area in need. Obtaining city resources for the area is always a challenge.
Looking at the evolution of the Federation of Friends and my group, I witnessed changes due to COVID-19, technology, and the political climate. A blend of the pandemic and technology contributed to changes as the lockdown forced libraries and library Friends groups to change how they served the community. Groups that never had a social media account or website quickly learned how to create them to maintain a link to the community. In the case of SNL, it was even more of a challenge as we were under construction and had no Friends room to use as a base of operations. I had 18 bags of book donations from our old stockpile in my very full living room. We had planned to use the books to start our collection when the new building opened. However, during the pandemic, we filled all four of the Little Free Libraries across the service area with about 14 of the 18 bags. The books and items were well received.
A young father of a 4-year-old had never heard of a Little Free Library. When I told him we filled a shelf with books for kids and he could take several books back to his little girl, he was shocked. Money was tight as his hours had been cut and his little girl loved books. I pulled out a few books she may like and he chose several when I walked away (social distancing). He was smiling as he left, with three books in his hand.
As you may expect, everything is political in Washington, even the library system. The relationship the Friends have with library senior management is cyclical. You may have a close relationship with the director, but the political winds change. He or she may align more with elected officials and keep a distance from the Friends. Or, an administration may change and the Director is in need of support. As a Federation, we seek to form a bond with administration without compromising the interests of our respective service areas, no matter the climate.
The Friends have changed in another way as well. The budget process has grown more sophisticated. Staff are now asked to report metrics in a more concerted effort than ever before. The Friends know that those metrics dictate resources provided to the branch and many of us are trying to assist in increasing interest in programs and the use of the library in general.
AH: What have been some of your favorite projects to work on in your capacity as a Friends volunteer?
GW: The funding procurement, design, and build of the new Southwest Library took seven years and thousands of hours but it is my favorite project. Now that it is open, the challenge is to ensure that the staff has everything they need to offer quality and impactful programs to the community. A beautiful building is a gift, but, in service areas like Southwest, the building needs to have quality programming and innovative approaches to neighborhood engagement for it to have real impact. We are proud of the awards SNL has earned but now the real work begins.
Two programs occurred around Christmas. We created Santa’s Secret Book Shop in 2017. Kids are able to “shop” in our donation pile for up to 3 gifts for their family. In recent years, we added things like jewelry to the items offered. Every woman has been given costume jewelry that may not suit her taste, and this provides a way to ensure they find a new home. Once the gift selections have been made, kids then wrap the gifts with help, add a card, and are then given a cookie and cider as a thank you for being thoughtful. My favorite story involved a young man who clutched a beautiful cookbook in his hands as he tried to struggle with the paper. I helped him with the wrapping and he told me proudly that his mom was training to be a chef and she did not have many cookbooks. He was hugging his wrapped gift to his chest as he left the room.
Another program we worked on was Books and Bling, an initiative created to provide morale support to the victims of a fire in a senior housing facility. We sought donations of jewelry and accessories from the community and drove books and other items to the hotels used as temporary housing. A community member donated her mother’s beloved scarf collection, asking that they go to a good home. We took them to a hotel in Northeast Washington that housed some of the seniors. An elderly woman walked directly to the scarves, covered her mouth, and started to cry. She later told me that she loved scarves her entire life, and her entire collection was lost in the fire. She joyously selected three of them. The Books and Bling project was one of the many impacted by the pandemic but I hope to one day be able to offer it to our local short-term housing facility.
The part that I love the most about being in the Friends is when we have a sale. When a child finds a book he or she treasures, they sit down to read. Sometimes the middle of a hallway or walkway is the location of choice. That happiness, curiosity, and desire to learn are still a joyful sight to me.
AH: What is something about the Friends that might surprise library staff?
GW: Many of us did not have access to books at a young age. I recall a discussion during a sale set-up where group members talked about how they never took library access for granted and cherished the ability to use a library on a regular basis.mThat being said, most of us who sort the donations have added at least one, if not two, bookshelves in their homes since joining the group.
AH: What can libraries and their staff do to best support their Friends groups?
GW: Remember that we are there to work with you and not replace or undermine you. I think being creative and passionate about your job and sharing your vision with us as a partner is also important. I have the great honor of working with very creative and hardworking librarians. They inspire me daily to obtain resources needed for their vision to come into being