Readers Become Noisy Advocates
Grass-roots campaigns rally public and private support in the face of budget cuts or closings. FRIENDS OF LIBRARIES
WEST BRIDGEWATER, MASS. — JUST a year after residents of this middle-class community celebrated the opening of a long-awaited, $1.6 million library, Beth Roll, the library director, received startling news: The library would have to close. Faced with a projected town budget deficit of $775,000, selectmen voted to shut down the facility on July 1, thereby saving most of the library's $135,000 operating budget."It was shocking to realize that the town didn't think the library was important enough to maintain," Ms. Roll says. "The fact that the library is a discretionary agency used voluntarily by residents led them to believe the library could be closed." But what town officials didn't count on, according to Roll, was "a grass-roots movement from the library, informing citizens what was going on." Staff members, trustees, and a small band of stalwart supporters known as the Friends of the Library went into action, turning the library into what Roll terms "a PR machine." The Friends of the Library formed a Save Our Library committee, which paid for postage to send flyers to local voters. They also organized a telephone campaign, asking residents to attend the town meeting and vote to keep the library open. News releases and letters to the editor further publicized the crisis. A banner over the circulation desk delivered a bleak warning: "A town without a library is like a body without a brain." On June 26, six weeks after the recommendation to close the library, these collective efforts paid off. A town meeting vote restored more than $99,000 to the library budget. Although the amount is significantly short of the original $135,000, it will keep the building open on a reduced schedule for 20 hours a week. Today a new banner over the circulation desk bears a jubilant message: "Our library is saved!! We're here to stay! Thank you for your support!!!" The victory at the West Bridgewater Public Library typifies the growing activism of many of the nation's 2,400 Friends of the Library groups. Faced with local funding cutbacks and threatened closings, members are going beyond their original low-key activities - holding book sales to buy extra books or equipment, for example - to spearhead highly visible grass-roots campaigns to save imperiled libraries. More than 600,000 Americans now belong to Friends groups, according to Sandy Dolnick, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Friends of Libraries U.S.A., an umbrella organization of 1,860 groups nationwide. Explaining the importance of their advocacy efforts, Ms. Dolnick says, "An energized community can make a difference in getting a tax issue or a bond issue passed, or in making sure the library is not zeroed out of the budget." When the Dallas Public Library faced a $1 million budget cut last summer, the local Friends group sent a mailing to its members, asking them to write to city council members and newspapers. The group also distributed buttons with the message "Back our library." "We were absolutely overwhelmed by the response," says Sandy Melton, president of Friends of the Dallas Public Library Inc. "Because editors were swamped with letters from people telling what libraries meant to them and how they depended on them, the newspapers themselves came out with editorials of support." The calls, letters, and newspaper responses also prompted city council members to request a reinstatement of library funds. Eventually the city increased its budget and reinstated $780,000 for the l ibrary. "If we hadn't had all of our people with their input, pushing, it would have been very easy for that council to go ahead and pass the budget that had been sent to them from the city manager's office," Ms. Melton says. As an unexpected bonus, membership in the Dallas Friends group doubled in the past two years, from 650 to 1,300. Late last month, similar efforts by the City-Wide Friends of the Boston Public Library and 18 neighborhood Friends groups were instrumental in getting Boston's mayor to rescind proposed layoffs and reinstate $1.5 million that had been cut from the library budget. Among other activities, the group held a "book-in," urging people to bring bags of books to a city council meeting to symbolize their "pro-book" sentiments. Members also distributed 40,000 flyers. 'WE feel we were the major force this time in restoring funds," says John Thomson, a board member of the City-Wide Friends. Not all Friends groups focus on helping existing libraries. Two years ago, when residents of the tiny town of Point Arena, Calif., decided to establish a library for the first time, they knew they could not expect county funds. A retired professor donated a small office building for four years at $1 a year. Volunteers moved walls, doors, and windows, and did all the rewiring, insulating, painting, and landscaping. Local craftsmen made a card catalog and two tables. "We raised money every way we could," says Elise Wainscott, the acting librarian. Residents sold books, magazines, bookmarks, apples, asparagus plants, freesia corms, baked goods, and memberships in the Friends of the Library. Schoolchildren also surprised the group by soliciting funds on Halloween. The grand opening took place in February 1990. The building is open six days and two evenings a week, staffed by volunteers. "We're very proud of this little library," says Mrs. Wainscott. "It demonstrates what can be done by people eager and determined to have reading material available to everyone in the community without charge. We have received no government funds, we're out of debt, and we've started a building fund." Yet library advocates emphasize that in most communities, volunteer efforts can never take the place of tax dollars. "You have to keep in mind that the monies generated by any fund-raising technique cannot begin to match the monies provided by taxes or state funding," explains Dolnick. Still, to keep library funds from shrinking and library doors from closing, the vocal protests of readers will have to continue, even if such agitation is somewhat out of character. "Many people who read tend to be very quiet and low-key," says Sandy Melton of the Friends group in Dallas. "We've got to teach them to be noisier."