'Friends' are hidden backbone of many libraries in Pittsburgh, elsewhere
In early December, Valerie Bailey and assorted relatives gathered in Bailey's Jefferson Hills' home for their annual marathon cookie-baking session.
Using her mother's recipe for mini nut-rolls, they made about 70 dozen, all destined for the annual holiday bake sale sponsored by Friends of the Jefferson Hills Public Library.
“It's a pretty good fundraiser for us,” says Bailey, a retired accountant who serves as treasurer for the all-volunteer group that supports library resources and programs. “It's not as big as our spring book-and-boutique sale, but it's newer, and every year — even with last year's bad weather — we beat the amount of money we made the previous December.”
A similar scenario unfolds at this time of year in the Squirrel Hill home of Mike and Ginny Turcsanyi, where Mike, a retired professional baker, turns out dozens of kolache, pecan rolls, chocolate biscotti and other treats to donate to Friends of Carnegie Free Library of Swissvale.
That group's holiday bake sale has become a December tradition in Swissvale where the library is as much a community center as a place to borrow books. Library director Kate Grannemann says the Friends are a big reason why.
“Their events are a lot of fun. Everyone loves to come. And if it weren't for the money they raise, we'd have just a bare-bones budget for children's programs,” she says. “The Friends also buy larger items as needed, like bookcases and carpeting. They contribute energy and ideas.
“They're a strong volunteer group, and we're very thankful for them.”
There's no official number, but about half of the libraries in Pennsylvania are believed to have Friends, who augment the funding libraries receive from municipal and state governments and other public sources, according to Carolyn Pfeifer, who staffs the Camp Hill-based Pennsylvania Citizens for Better Libraries.
Although they vary in size and effectiveness, many operate as official nonprofits, she says.
“We're talking about volunteers, so a lot depends on their leadership,” Pfeifer says. “Some are barely managing because their leadership is on the wane. Others have become very sophisticated, with 501-C3 status, in order to comply with IRS rules and to be more successful in getting grants.”
Friends assumed a more crucial role after the 2003 state funding cuts, from which libraries haven't fully recovered, says Al Kamper, a board member of the Allegheny County Library Association. “That crisis has moderated a little, but Friends still meet a critical need, not just raising money for libraries, but promoting them.”
Book and bake sales are mainstays, but some Friends also hold fashion shows, dances and silent auctions, says Kamper, a retired librarian who lives in Ross.
Some make annual appeals through direct mail, and larger ones charge membership dues of $10 or $15 a year, he says. “Friends of small libraries are usually happy to raise $3,000 a year, but groups associated with bigger libraries raise many more times that.”
Friends work with librarians on how the money should be spent, says Jillian Kalonick, spokeswoman for United for Libraries, a division of the American Library Association that maintains a national network of library supporters.
“Libraries usually have a wish list they run past their Friends, and the Friends vote on where the money should go,” she says. “At least, that's the model we recommend.”
The Friends of Mt. Lebanon Public Library is one of the largest and oldest library-advocacy groups in the region, having organized more than 50 years ago. “The library itself started in 1932 as an effort of the citizenry, funded by contributions. It was one room in the municipal building,” says Mt. Lebanon Friends President William Lewis, a retired corporate executive.
“When Pennsylvania enacted the Library Code in 1961, we turned everything over to the municipality to get state funding, and we began to operate as Friends.”
Last year, the group raised $165,000 to help fund an automated materials handling system and other projects. “Some of what we donate is for the book collection and programs, but most is for capital items,” says Lewis, noting that construction of the library courtyard was another Friends project.
Besides special events such as a beer and chili festival and garden tour, about $70,000 a year comes from the Friends' Book Cellar, a used-book store in the library basement. It featured a special sale of rare volumes in September.
While Friends everywhere depend on community engagement, the work of raising funds typically falls to a core group of volunteers, many of whom are retirees and want to ensure that their legacy of service will continue, Kamper says.
“There are checkbook Friends and active Friends, and a lot of the most active Friends are a little bit older. It was a concern that kept coming up at our annual meeting in October — how do we get more young people involved?' ”
Janet Miller, president of Friends of Shaler North Hills Library, which received a National Medal in 2012 from the Institute for Museum and Library Services in Washington, D.C., has tackled the issue by starting a junior chapter last year. Already, it has 80 members, about one-third the number of the adult membership, she says.
Kids age 10 and under pay $5 in annual dues, which entitles them to a book on their birthday and other perks, says Miller, who lives in Etna and is a retired corporate administrator. “We wanted young ones to feel more like a part of the library in the hope they'll eventually rotate into adult Friends.”
Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.