Friend or Foe?: The role of Friends Groups in community development
The role of Friends Groups in community development

by Daniel Ferguson Executive Director, Friends of Libraries Australia
Inc Paper presented at the NSW Country Public Libraries Association conference,
Tweed Heads NSW 2 July 2003

I'm not having anyone tell me how to run my library, is an often-heard remark. Interfering 'do-gooders' who think they know best. Many library managers fear, resent and mistrust their communities, in particular, citizens voicing an opinion that may differ to theirs, particularly when it concerns issues of library management.

Unlike the United States - Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom operate in a library environment that does not readily facilitate community input into library management decision- making.

I have referred to the structures involved in previous literature, and this can be found in a detailed analysis in the Friends of Libraries Resource Book (1997) published by FOLA.

For our discussion, it is important to recognise that a failure to understand the workings of Friends of Library (FOL) groups, and follow some clear guidelines, is one of the main reasons for mistrust and a negative perception of the usefulness of Friends in the library community, particularly among some library managers. This is despite some outstanding success stories among many high profile libraries, that have very successful Friends groups, i.e. Friends of the State Library of South Australia, Friends of the State Library of New South Wales, Friends of the National Library of Australia and Friends of the Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne. The Friends of the State Library of South Australia have for seventy years been a catalyst for initiatives and success, that clearly rank with the best worldwide.

Understanding the role of Friends

The purpose of all Friends groups can simply be stated as: to enhance the library image to the public and to provide the library with the support called for by the librarian (Watson & Ferguson, 1989). One reason for misunderstanding the role of FOL groups comes from not being clear about the role Friends perform. Loeber (1942) expresses, still to this day, the most detailed definition, when he states: that a Friends of the Library group is a group of people voluntarily associated to assist the library in its work by:

So where does the problem come from?

Friends or Foe

Some Friends groups are often overheard to say: "We get the feeling, whenever we develop our own ideas, we are overstepping our role", "Our library manager is very defensive and unsure of himself and refuses to let us communicate with Council."

An often heard remark from the Library Manager is: "The Friends need to recognise that the Library Manager makes decisions, not the Friends", "I'm not having anyone tell me how to run my library."

A particular concern amongst some managers is the issue of staffing, and the role the volunteer - FOL member performs. Volunteers eliminate the need for paid staff and they take too much time to train, along with the problems, which take up valuable time. Are they a threat to paid positions and do they lack accountability. In other words, more trouble than they're worth? Other common concerns are: unreliability of the volunteer, the 'know it all' attitude, and being too much an activist.


Many of these issues can be overcome, if library management benchmark a few clear goals:

Many FOL groups have formulated a plan of action to see these goals fulfilled. Some notable groups are: Cooloola (Qld) where a Friends of the Library Induction Booklet is provided to all new members of the Friends groups. At Unley (SA) the Council provides training to all community volunteers and the Friends group see the process as an important part of the Friends development. And at the State Library of South Australia, the Friends and library management have devised a package for Friends who undertake a variety of functions. Clearly, in all these cases, a partnership exists between the Friends group and library management.

Some years ago, in Victoria, during Council amalgamations and the competitive tendering process in local government, many in the community saw their local library under threat of closure, reduction in services and amalgamation with a neighbouring Council. Groups of citizens in the community often expressed their views and in some instances, formed what were termed 'Friends of the Library'. Many library managers, staff and Councils felt under seige from sections in the community. They were not alone. Similar events had been witnessed in the United Kingdom under the Thatcher government. Clearly, many of these people had a strong grievance, at what they saw as the destruction of a community asset, the local public library. The approach these groups took was often displayed in terms of activism and pressure to overturn a political decision. The focus was to target the local authority, library management or whoever made the decision.

While lobbying is a legitimate, and often necessary role for a FOL group, it is never the sole purpose.

The distinction between 'lobby' group, often a 'one-issue' group, the wider focus of an FOL group needs to be appreciated, understood and not confused. Many of the 'campaign style' Friends groups that appeared at this time have now folded. They either won or lost the campaign (battle), or have moved to another issue and changed name. One of the distinct hallmarks of a Friends group is the wider focus on goals and objectives as outlined in their constitution. Rarely, if ever, do the lobby group define themselves within a formal constitution.


Successful FOL groups have lobbied on issues and won. But this is only one part of the agenda. Unley in South Australia, provides an example of winning on a particular issue. But this was only 'one' issue within the context of numerous goals.

Unley Friends actively campaigned for the upgrade of their library building, collecting 600 signatures to overturn a Council motion. However, Unley provide an example of an FOL group with a framework in place that contributes to furthering a partnership between Council, library management and the community. It is this partnership that wins results for Friends when lobbying takes place. Here we see 'Friends' as 'Friends', and not as 'foes'.

So what makes the partnership work? Sarah Philpott, Unley library manager stated the reasons at a recent FOLA Workshop in April 2003 as:

Sarah went on to say.

"The partnership between Friends, the library and council is a strong and healthy one at the City of Unley. Critical to success is establishing clear goals, communicating regularly and positively, and the personal involvement and energy that committee members bring to the group. Their involvement with our library service is extraordinarily valuable, and contributes to us meeting our goals of excellent service to our community."

Understanding the role of successful Friends of Library groups is predicated on understanding clearly the foundations upon which FOL groups stand. The best interpretation remains with Sandy Dolnick, founder of Friends of Libraries USA, and stated in her 10 Commandments for FOL groups. These can be varied slightly from country to country, however, they remain a valuable foundation for groups in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, United Kingdom, South Africa and elsewhere.

The 10 Commandments are:

  1. The library manager must want a Friends group;
  2. library staff must be willing to work with Friends;
  3. all parties must realise that a time commitment is involved;
  4. the library must agree which of its resources will be used;
  5. a committed core group must exist;
  6. the authority to which the library manager reports must be aware of the Friends group;
  7. communication must be open;
  8. all involved must realise that the Friends do not make library policy;
  9. the library must decide, in discussion with the Friends, the roles it wishes the group to play;and
  10. all involved must understand that council, library management and Friends have separate functions.

In establishing a framework for success, Friends are better placed to enhance the library and give value to the community. Building a true partnership of interests and getting involved.

Building better communities

Some 2,500 year ago, the city-state of ancient Athens rose to unprecedented political and economic power by giving its citizens a direct voice and an active role in civic governance. Not without its flaws, the city's uniquely participative system of democracy helped unleash the creativity of the Athenian people and channel it in ways that produced the greatest good for the society as a whole. The system succeeded in bringing individual initiative and common cause into harmony.

Athens was at heart a community of citizens - a "politeia" to use the Greek word - and each of those citizens had both the right and the obligation to play an active role in the society's governance.

What we call "citizenship" today - and essentially passive legal status involving only minimal civic obligations and relying on a distinct and entrenched governing elite - is but a shallow of the Athenian politeia.

Why you may ask, have I laboured this point? Well, to understand the role Friends perform, and can play in community development, we must gain an insight into the role of the citizen in our democratic structure.

The successful development of FOL groups in the United States has arisen over some seventy years, largely, as a result of the citizen's role and relationship to the various structures of society and government in that country. In particular, the public library. Mutual obligation and enhancement of the citizens potential has been a core tenet of the U.S. constitution. As a citizen, you owed the community your best effort; the community in return, owed you every opportunity to fulfil your potential. A common and accessible place to all, was the public library.

And, one thing was certain. The practice of citizenship cannot be imposed from above. It must grow out of the actions and beliefs of the citizens themselves.

These beliefs are commonly understood, if not always practiced in American society. However, its strength, has committed many citizens to take part in 'local citizenry' and become active and involved members of a Friends group associated with the local public library.

In the United States, there is a higher-than average participation in citizen groups and local associations (Almond and Verba 1963). For most Americans, the notion of getting involved has two fundamental and equally important meanings: as a general concept, it expresses a genuine concern for one's local community; and on an individual level, it relates to the protection of one's own interests. Australians, on the other hand, have in the past been seen as a people still oriented primarily towards output aspects of the system (that is, towards the results and benefits they expect and demand from the government) and relatively few people have developed a strong orientation towards the input aspects (that is, they do not see the system in terms of their reciprocal duties and obligations as active, participatory citizens) but still adopt the passive role associated with a subject culture (Emy 1974).

However, this view of Emy's may be changing. Australia's leading social researcher, Hugh Mackay describes the thirst for community as desire to retribalise. And he believes this is emerging in consumer behaviour: "Australians are expressing increasing demand for improved quality of personal service and that demand focuses on the personal relationship between customer and service provider." (Mackay 1993)

In furthering our understanding of the role the citizen can play in community development and, in particular, the role Friends can play within the context of the library, Professor Don Edgar of RMIT, gives us a few clues.

In his most recent book, Patchwork Nation (2001) he documents the often adverse impact of enormous technological, global and socio-economic changes we have experienced. He shows how these have affected key social institutions. Re-engagement of government in its task of serving the common good of all Australian citizens is a major focus. How in other words do we rebuild a sense of community - a "politeia", to use the Greek, and re-vision our understanding of the role of the individual society.

If librarians are to be sent out to deal with various community elements and form a cohesive support group, they must learn to build a positive environment for the library by:

Surely, this can be achieved with greater success if Friends have a role to perform in this partnership and together they display mutual benefits.

"Excellence in library services is not a simple matter of numbers. It lies in the fit between the library's roles and the needs and expectations of the community it services." (Robinson in Rodger 1988)

No better, or responsive mechanism can be offered than the establishment of a Friends of the Library group. The Friends recognise the needs of the library as clients of the library. Friends appreciate and respond to the civic value of the library in the community. Friends can provide various levels of advocacy both direct and indirect. And Friends can contribute to supporting the library in economic terms by way of identifying the circumstances in which funding opportunities can exist. Friends have a major stake in the library, in fact; they are majority shareholders.

Citizen or customer

In a recent book by Crenson and Ginsburg, Downsizing Democracy (2002) the authors, professors of political science at The Johns Hopkins University, point to the demise of participatory democracy.

For more than two centuries, the ordinary American citizen played an important role in the state. In exchange for this participation, the citizen received benefits such as legal rights, pensions and the right to vote. In more recent times, Western governments have found ways to raise armies and taxes that do not require much involvement from its citizens, rendering people into customers rather than engaged citizens. "The major change is that organising citizens who used to loom large in the political process, just don't matter much anymore," said Ginsberg. However, if Ginsberg and Crenson's thesis holds validity, the question must be asked: Is the new political order a "personal" rather than a popular democracy. For ordinary citizens, the most potent political resource is the power of numbers. When they deal with government one by one, they lose their leverage. One telling fact in America has been, although over the last 30 years the number of "advocacy" organizations with offices in Washington has doubled or tripled, the percentage of Americans belonging to organizations has not increased.

The selfless volunteers and the self-centred customer seem unlikely soul mates, but they are both products of a political system that has less and less use for real citizens who dare to ask both what our government can do for us, and what we can do for our government.

Globalisation is impacting upon society and upon libraries, in Australia and elsewhere. The need to place the library, particularly the public library in a more stable environment is the challenge for all stakeholders - and that means Friends.

Federal MP, Mark Latham reminded us of the role public libraries have to play, when he stated at FOLA's biennial conference in Sydney in 2002, that "For those of us who believe in an inclusive and just society, libraries are at the vanguard of our hopes and policy plans."

To deny Friends an opportunity in this is to deny a sense of place for citizens in our democracy.

Community organizations have the power to improve population health. And, in this case, what's good for community is good for you.


Daniel Ferguson BA, Grad Dip Lib, Master of Librarianship (Monash), AALIA, AIMM, has worked in libraries, local government and the business sector for almost 30 years, holding a senior management position for 20 years and developing innovative services during his time as library manager at Altona City Library in Victoria.

He is founder and Executive Director of Friends of Libraries Australia Inc. His work with FOLA has seen him undertake projects throughout Australia and New Zealand and overseas, where he was consultant to the Library and Information Commission in the UK in 1999. Address: FOLA, Locked Bag 1315 Tullamarine Vic 3043 phone 61 3 9338 0666 fax 61 3 9335 1903 email

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