Friends don’t let libraries go broke

Katherine Lanpher
Courtesy of Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library
Katherine Lanpher, a former talk-show host for MPR and Air America and once a columnist for the Pioneer Press, signs a copy of her book, “Leap Days: Chronicles of a Midlife Move,” at a Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library event.

It’s never too early to fall behind. School just started, and this week Homework Hub, a popular program available at many Hennepin County library locations, kicks into action to help kids untangle those tricky assignments.

Hosmer Music Series featuring Szkska plays Hungarian, Transylvanian and Gypsy music.
Photo by Adam Olson
Hosmer Music Series featuring Szkska plays Hungarian, Transylvanian and Gypsy music at a Minneapolis library event.

Formerly called Homework Help, the Hub is open at more libraries and — thanks to the portion of ballpark funds dedicated to expanding library hours — on Sundays, when lackluster learners are panicking about Monday.
 
The program might not exist, however, if it wasn’t for the support of the Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library; there isn’t enough money in the library’s own operating budget for such things these days.
 
Between a projected $2.5 million budget reduction for 2009 because of falling property tax revenue and other economy-related factors, and a $2.2 million deficit from costs associated with the merger between Minneapolis and Hennepin County, the Hennepin County library system is counting on financial support from its donor-based Friends organization to fund both premiere and basic library offerings.

“We don’t solve budget shortfalls,” says Glenn Miller, board president of the 59-year-old Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library. “But it’s safe to say that without our efforts, the libraries would be greatly diminished. They would still be a place to go and check out books, but there would be less for the public in terms of programming and materials.”
 
In other words, the cake would have no icing.

Childish Films event
Photo by Adam Olson
Childish Films event for the Minneapolis library system.

In 2007, the nonprofit Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library provided more than $1.8 million in cash grants, and made possible world language materials, computer classes, the Guys Read program, Homework Helpers, the Talk of the Stacks reading series, film programs, and other materials and services. Between 2002 and 2006, the group raised $16.4 million to supplement the referendum dollars needed to build the new Central Library downtown.
 
In St. Paul, the 63-year-old Friends brought author and film events to the libraries, raised $1.3 million for materials and programming, and co-sponsored the Minnesota Book Awards. The suburban Hennepin County locations each have their own Friends chapter; together, those 26 locations raised about $200,000 for the libraries last year, most of it going toward new books. Since 1979, Friends of the Ramsey County Libraries has raised more than $600,000 in support.
 
The Library Foundation of Hennepin County, another nonprofit library support organization, works with the libraries and Friends groups to determine needs and provides grants to fund a wide number of projects. Many of the Friends’ programs begin with a foundation grant, including the Pen Pals readings series, book clubs and numerous programs aimed at children. Now, with the library landscape redrawn by the merger, the Minneapolis Friends and the foundation are in negotiations to merge as well, pending final board approval. Stu Wilson, vice president of the Friends of the St. Paul Library, will be executive director of the new organization.

 
Friends indeed
In some ways, these various library charities have an organic and motley nature. Some are large, highly organized groups that support full-time staff who work closely with library staff to develop programming, and contribute volunteer hours to facilitate programming and operations. In 2007, the Friends of the Minneapolis Library supported 702 volunteers, who contributed a total of 21,812 service hours. Others are small citizens clubs that hold a book sale or a pancake breakfast every year to buy new books. Other libraries don’t have Friends, such as the Washington County Library system, which dissolved its Friends group many years ago, but still hopefully solicits donations on its website.
 
Friends chapters exist at more than half of Minnesota’s public libraries, and for those libraries lucky enough to have them, the Friends’ influence can extend beyond the reach of their own fundraising; in an era of dwindling public funding for libraries, these library-loving volunteers have become powerful political forces, lobbying elected officials on behalf of libraries.

Talk of the Stacks event with Barrie Jean Borich, Kathryn Kysar, Shannon Olson, Wang Ping, Faith Sullivan, Anne Ursu, and Ka Vang, moderated by Minnesota Public Radio Midmorning host Kerri Miller.
Photo by Adam Olson
Talk of the Stacks event with Barrie Jean Borich, Kathryn Kysar, Shannon Olson, Wang Ping, Faith Sullivan, Anne Ursu, and Ka Vang, moderated by Minnesota Public Radio Midmorning host Kerri Miller.

“Traditionally, Friends groups didn’t get involved in political advocacy,” says Peter Pearson, president of the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library and adviser to the national organization, Libraries for the Future. “They raised funds for specific projects, but the libraries counted on public funding for the rest of their operations. Now, however, because of decreasing funding of libraries, Friends groups are playing a very important role in bringing public and political attention to the needs of their libraries. There is the thought that private money should not replace public money to fund our libraries, but the reality is that every bit is needed to keep our libraries vibrant.”
 
The St. Paul group is so adept at the mission that in 2007 it spawned a consulting arm, Library Strategies, which advises libraries nationwide on fundraising efforts for new library buildings, new technology initiatives and other large-scale programming.
 
“Big-time fundraising for a public library is a relatively new concept, but we’ve been at it longer than almost anybody, so we have a certain amount of expertise we can offer,” said Pearson.
 
In 1973, the St. Paul Friends group received an unprecedented $2 million bequest from a patron, and suddenly experienced the impact that serious funding could bring to their efforts. Library Strategies calls upon the expertise of 35 library consultants around the country, and they’re currently advising libraries in Bayport, in Appleton, Wis., and in Virginia.

Spreading the word
The Friends’ advocacy efforts include letter-writing campaigns, raising public awareness at public events, and meeting with elected public officials to press for library funding. The expanded hours at the Hennepin libraries are a direct result of Friends’ advocacy efforts.
 
“All libraries should be expanding their hours now,” says Miller. “During the Great Depression, libraries expanded their hours. During economic hard times, the library becomes very important to people, as a resource for job searches and as a source of family entertainment. We’re heading back in that direction now, and most libraries across the country are cutting hours.”

As the Hennepin County library system awaits the final numbers for its 2009 budget, it’s contemplating eliminating a number of library-funded programs, including the Readmobile and library services for elderly or disabled home-bound patrons. If they can find funding, Friends of individual library locations may consider taking over offerings lost to budget cuts.

Childish Films event with Choo Choo Bob.
Photo by Adam Olson
Childish Films event with Choo Choo Bob at the Minneapolis system.

Pearson says that Friends’ advocacy efforts can make a big difference in obtaining public funding for libraries. “When people aren’t getting in front of elected public officials to remind them about libraries, they very easily forget about libraries. But most politicians realize that their constituents highly value their libraries. About 70 percent of the population is library patrons.”
 
That doesn’t mean the other 30 percent aren’t readers, however. “I am constantly amazed at the number of passionate, voracious readers out there who don’t use the library. They get their books at Barnes & Noble or elsewhere,” says Miller. “The enhanced programming we bring to the library, such as the Pen Pals author series, gets these readers into the library.”
 
“Our events play a critical role in getting people into the library,” says Rachel Fulkerson, communications, marketing and membership director with the Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library.
 
She says that the Friends’ most popular event is the Talk of the Stacks program reading series. Recent events include a rare appearance by local author Louise Erdrich, whose fans spilled beyond the auditorium, and Steven Pinker, a nonfiction writer who investigates psychology and brain development, and drew 400 people during a tornado.
 
Fulkerson says such events turn readers into library users, and library users into library supporters. And those supporters sometimes become Friends — or just friends.
 
“Several years ago,” she recalls, “when the Minneapolis library system was facing dramatic cuts, $4.4 million worth of cuts, which was 24 percent of the library’s budget, one citizen asked, ‘How much do I owe?’ If you divided the population of Minneapolis by 4.4 million, it came to $12, and she said, ‘Where do I write my check?’
 
“People sort of picked up on it, and it was an organic campaign, and we created these Xeroxed flyers that said, ‘How Much is the Library Worth to You?’ We actually had over 3,000 people that mailed in $12 or more over a couple months period. That type of campaign is really at the heart of what library Friends are all about. It’s not about donations as much as giving people reflection and input into their library experience.”

But if that input comes in the form of a donation? All the better.

Amy Goetzman writes about books, libraries and the Twin Cities literary scene. She can be reached at agoetzman [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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