I mean Friends … as in Friends of the Library! They are a blessing and a curse depending on your experience and always an interesting challenge.
In my professional career I have worked closely with two Friends groups in two different library systems. For me, working with Friends has been a positive experience with a dedicated and organized group of volunteers raising badly needed funds for library enhancements.
I have worked in two multi-branch systems, one with seventeen branches and the second with eight. The key to having a successful Friends organization in a multi-branch system is to ensure that there is only one Friends group. The worst thing that can happen for anyone in this situation is money being raised in an unequal manner. Having a Friends group that only supports one or two of your library branches goes against everything libraries fundamentally believe in.
In order for library staff and the library board to view the Friends as successful and not a thorn in their side, the Friends have to be seen as working in co-operation and communication with the library as a whole.
Running a library system with consistency of service is a difficult challenge for a library CEO. This does not mean that every branch offers exactly the same thing. You may not get a story time at all of the branches as some are simply too small, but you will know you are in the same library system. The signage will look the same; in house produced materials will have the same branding; and the décor will be similar. When a Friends group hasn’t worked in co-operation with the library and decides independently how one library branch will look without considering the library system’s overall planning, it is unhelpful at best. Managing expectations for how much library space Friends can use for their enterprises and how much staff time they can take up is also crucial to a good relationship.
A strong governance structure, one that clearly outlines the Friends function and responsibility goes a long way to mitigate potential problems. So too does a rigorous orientation program for potential Friends executive members. I have experienced instances where an individual who had an agenda to forward the needs of one branch over another left the Friends executive after orientation because it was clear that partisan support was not going to be tolerated.
Good governance also relies on strong leadership within the Friends group. There will be disagreements, but with mechanisms in place to work them out along with good communication between the Friends, the Library Board, and the Library staff, all parties can act with cohesion for the betterment of the library.
In spite of the possible difficulties, there are several clear upsides to Friends groups. You have a built in advocacy group; you can use your Friends group as your volunteers; and your Friends group can take on specific activities that allow the library to expand their programming.
Clearly the main function of a Friends group is to raise funds for the library, but advocacy for the library is strongly connected to this function. It is difficult to convince people to give money to a cause if you aren’t able to clearly articulate how the money will benefit the community.
Our library system is too small to have staff available to co-ordinate volunteers. However, our Friends group allows us to offer library-related volunteering in our community, including student volunteer hours for high school.
Your Friends group can also take the heat off the library by taking on specific events. In small communities author events will surpass the space and staff resources of the library. There is a distinct advantage to referring author signings and book launches to the Friends who can organize their own venue and volunteers.
Obviously a great relationship with your Friends includes many elements that add complexity to an already complex library system. Personally, I have been enriched by meeting and working with people who will give so much time and energy for an institution that is so near and dear to my heart. As long as everyone is willingly on the same page, wonderful things can be accomplished.
Bessie Sullivan is the CEO of the Haliburton County Public Library. She can be reached at bsullivan [at] haliburtonlibrary.ca. Trees and Forests is a column about library issues and ideas.