Libraries count on loyal Friends
By Wally Eberhard
For the Journal-Constitution
Monday, January 05, 2009
All of Georgia’s publicly funded institutions are on a forced economic diet these days, and your public library isn’t exempt.
But most have a loyal group of Friends —- that’s uppercase, please —- to help them out.
So the patrons of the Hart County library in Hartwell can still count on getting the New York Times top 10 fiction and nonfiction books each month. The library’s Friends group is paying for them.
And those who frequent the East Point library continue to enjoy author visits, cultural programs and receptions that make their library a lively community center, thanks to $5,000 in contributions from its Friends. In Echols County, a $1,000 Friends gift provides 28 percent of a branch library’s operating budget.
Friends of Georgia Libraries is building a list of money raised and donated by the 180 Friends groups across the state. So far the total is around $250,000 and climbing. The coordinator of the 22 Friends groups in the Atlanta-Fulton County system reports gifts of more than $150,000 in the past year.
Whatever the amount is, it’s a small though important fraction of the cost of running the state’s public libraries. For the year ending June 2007, the Georgia Public Library Service reported revenues of $220 million. Seventy-five percent of that came from local funding, 17 percent from the state of Georgia, 1 percent from the federal government and the rest from other sources, including grants and gifts.
Friends groups are also at the center of advocating support at the courthouse and the Statehouse. No one knows commissioners and state senators and representatives better than those who live in the same community. Lobbying doesn’t always work. Georgia’s state allocation for collections and library maintenance has been level for a decade or more, meaning the value has declined. But the annual program of state grants for library construction and remodeling has been critical to help libraries keep up with change and growth.
It’s both ironic and logical that the American public library has been rediscovered in a recession. Jim Rettig, library director at the University of Richmond and president of the American Library Association, wrote in the American Librarian that as “the nation’s economy struggles, public libraries nationwide report increases in circulation and new demand for other services.” A library card is still free and available to anyone with minimal credentials. With that card you can check out a book that costs upwards of $20 at a big-box bookstore. Many can’t afford a computer or Internet service, but their library provides both.
Rettig reminds us of the importance of libraries. From preschool story hours to research collections at university libraries to programs for senior citizens, “Our multitiered network of libraries demonstrates that the library is the only agency or institution in American society that provides lifelong learning.”
For most of us that means the public library. Georgia library statistics for the 2007 fiscal year report 35.7 million visits to public libraries in the state. That tops the million attendances at UGA or Tech football games, the 3.5 million visits to the Georgia Aquarium and the 2.75 million tickets bought for Atlanta Braves games .
This writer was the boyhood beneficiary of one of America’s greatest library friends, Andrew Carnegie. I was born in a Carnegie library in my hometown of Niles, Mich., or so I liked to believe. The motto “Free to All” was chiseled over the entryway. Carnegie funded construction of 1,689 libraries in the United States, sparking an unprecedented wave of library building in towns large and small.
Since then, the cause of the library has been taken up by others, including local Friends groups. The most touching story we’ve heard comes from the Carrollton public library, where for two decades a retiree from Boston has dedicated her spare time to running used-book sales. She’s now in charge of an ongoing Friends sale that nets $500 to $600 a month.
Our support for libraries is at heart genetic, a chromosome of affection, need and respect turned into action by Friends organizations as well as citizens at large. Witness the overwhelming approval of a $275 million bond issue for library construction and renovation by Fulton County voters on Nov. 4.
Lady Bird Johnson put it this way: “Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library. The only entrance requirement is interest.”
Thanks to thousands of Friends in Georgia, libraries continue to serve that interest, in good times and bad.
> Wally Eberhard, an Athens resident, is president of the Friends of Georgia Libraries and a retired UGA journalism professor.