Rae Webb - The Cooloola Shire

Good Morning "Friends". My name is Rae Webb and I am a member of The Friends of the Cooloola Shire Libraries. The Cooloola Shire is centred on the city of Gympie 160 kms. north of Brisbane. It has a population of 36,000, 70% of whom are members of the Gympie Library and its three branches. Our FOL group has been in existence for nearly 23 years and is the oldest in Queensland.

The opinions expressed are entirely my own, based on 17 years as a "Friend". I have been a committee member of FOLA for four years but have been unable to get to Melbourne for a single meeting. How slack!

Here is my position. I don't believe the growth and prosperity of a free public library service can ever be guaranteed. I believe that a good, free public library service is as important a part of the well being of a community as are the education and public health services. It must be protected and fought for. The price of a better library service is eternal advocacy.

In Cooloola we are fortunate because every day we are reminded of what can be achieved if the will is there.

Until 1977 Gympie only had a School of Arts Subscription Library, described at the time as "dirty, dismal and uninviting". We now have a fine public library service because of the initiative of one woman. She had left Gympie, become a teacher and had two young children. When her husband was posted back to Gympie she went in search of books for her children. Horrified at what she found in the School of Arts she stood as a candidate in the next council election. The only plank in her platform "A free public library service for Gympie." First term no joy - she stood again, was re-elected and we had our free public library. It was no easy fight, she faced strong opposition and a council which had considerable financial problems over a new civic centre.

Although the Council acquired the School of Arts building and its contents for a token dollar, money was still tight. Most of the work required to clean, paint and restock the seventy-year-old building was done by volunteers. Some of these people formed the nucleus of our Friends Group, the inaugural meeting being held in July 1979.

I see attendance at this conference as both an opportunity and a responsibility. An opportunity to learn from each other and also to learn what you think about our organisation. A responsibility to use the time wisely for the ultimate benefit of public libraries and importantly the volunteers who suppor them.

Let's not be coy about this, it all comes down to money. I would hazard a guess that not one local government authority in Queensland has as part of its strategic plan: "To have a first class public library service".

We are going to get the libraries we work for. Libraries are one of many calls on the public purse. One of our roles is to make sure that the money they receive adequately reflects their important role. Libraries are good value for money.

Parliamentarians and councillors are elected to represent voters but they have to satisfy a wide range of sectional interests. Our "electorate" are library users. They deserve the highest standard of library service that can be achieved.

Most ratepayers are not passionate about their library. As long as their personal needs are met they are more or less content. It is only when their needs are NOT met that they become vocal. Many ratepayers are not aware of the vast range of services that a modern library can provide. We need to make all ratepayers aware of what could be and what should be.

Some years ago the citizens of Chicago were getting nowhere in their attempts to get a better library service. In desperation they sought the advice of a leading national politician on how best to influence the mayor and his administration. The advice given was "Don't worry about the mayor convince the people".

This educational process, this hearts and minds, is essential at local regional and national levels. However to achieve success we must have in place at each level appropriate organisations and effective channels of communication between them. We must also spell out clearly what are our aims. What are we trying to achieve?

Recently I was discussing FOLA with a friend. "Come on" he said "FOLA's up there and we are down here". He then went on to make rather unnecessary comparisons between Chardonnay and beer drinkers. But he did have a point about FOLA.

The jump from a group of people working hard for their local library to a national body is a great leap, not only in the organisational sense but also of faith. How do we make that leap and how do we make it so we end up with a better organisation?

Currently in Queensland we are trying to organise regional groupings which will in turn will lead to a statewide organisation. This will be a great step forward but its value will be greatly enhanced if it can be part of a dynamic, national organisation.

This conference is evidence of what FOLA has achieved in a relatively short time. However we should decide now where we go from here. I say "we" because we are FOLA, the groups and individuals who are represented here today. This is not a revolution but it is the individuals who are out there working in their library, talking to their councillors who are our power base. We must work out how best to serve them and at the same time use their energies to create the national body we need.

As I see it we have two options for the development of FOLA.

  1. A clearing house for ideas, views and news from and between individual groups
  2. or
  3. A high profile national body, recognised as the voice of Friends Groups and of public library users in addition to our present co-ordinating role.

We are currently doing the first reasonably well with "News Update". However the present structure and funding of FOLA means it does not have the capacity to become a high profile national body that will be listened to by the people who can make a difference. I believe we need such a body. The problem is "How do we achieve it?"

It all comes down to numbers. At all levels we are dealing with elected representatives and public officials. Two of their criteria when considering funding are always:

  1. How many voters will this proposal benefit and please?
  2. Is this the best value per dollar on offer? There is nothing sinister in this, it's their job and it's democracy in action. When the president or executive officer of FOLA can say "Our organisation represents the views of thousands of volunteers who across Australia are working every day to help provide a better library service to millions of library users" then we will have a national body. Let's not forget that more people use a library than any other recreational activity. In Gympie more people come through our doors everyday than any other venue apart from the two supermarkets and the three high schools. We have a customer base that most businesses would kill for.

It's the chicken and the egg. Until we have the numbers we won't have an effective national body but we can't get the numbers without national coordinating machinery.

In my opinion the Executive lacks three things and please remember I am a small part of that executive.

Firstly we need a much better awareness of how public relations works. I realise most of the newsworthy activities are happening at local level but we must create mechanisms to develop these into national news. "Newsupdate" does a reasonable job but it's entirely for internal consumption. The President and Committee of the group to which I belong are highly supportive of FOLA but they can only sell it to the members if they can say "FOLA did that" or "This is FOLA's position". As an example I believe FOLA's response to the "GST on books" debate was half-hearted and wishy-washy.

The second thing we lack are comprehensive, relevant and up-to-date statistics. For example, there are 326 public libraries in Queensland but nobody knows how many Friends groups there are. We do know only seven groups are currently financial members of FOLA together with three libraries. We must find out how many groups there are and why aren't they in FOLA.

How do we solve these two problems?

Firstly the Executive must give external publicity a much higher priority. I know Daniel has been spreading the word in the UK but what do we get out of it? I am not interested in libraries in the UK or the USA, particularly as they have have completely different methods of organisation and funding. Our publicity dollar must be better focused. The posters were nice but after one glance they become part of the wallpaper. If my time in libraries has taught me anything it is that the public don't read signs. For goodness sake I have been asked "Where are the toilets?" by somebody standing under a sign pointing to "Public toilets".

How should this publicity be targeted?

We must be both proactive and reactive. FOLA must have a stated policy on such subjects as library funding, the status of volunteers, insurance and library privatisation. I realise some of these may vary from state to state but only in degree - not substance. We must also be ready to respond to changing circumstances.

If we want FOL groups to join FOLA we must be able to offer them something more than just a copy of "Newsupdate". Recently an FOL Group in Queensland had to surrender their status as an incorporated body because of the cost of the required insurance. In Queensland, and I presume elsewhere, you have to be incorporated and have an Australian Business Number to be eligible for grants from such bodies as The Gaming Trust or Jupiter's Casino. These bodies are required to give a percentage of their profits to non-government, non-profit groups such as FOLs. They are a great source of money and do it in a friendly manner. The loss of this source of funds is a major setback.

Before an FOL such as I have described write a cheque for $60 to join FOLA they first have to earn the money and then they think about it. I can remember when Cooloola first achieved a bank balance of $100 we were so elated we thought about a party but wiser counsels prevailed, actually the treasurer put her foot down.

On the subject of statistics. At present this will have to come from the bottom up which is another reason we urgently need regional and/or state organisations. The Federal Executive will have to develop the capacity to collate and use these statistics.

What about that third 'lack'?

We must have a clear understanding of our aims.

We must know what we want to achieve and we must only use our resources to achieve our aim. In today's parlance a simple "mission statement". It should be short, unambiguous and memorable. It should be on our official stationary, on media releases and under the masthead of every edition of "Newsupdate"

Something like:

Now I come back to my great mates - numbers and money. To create my plan for FOLA we need more affiliated FOL Groups. There are many ways to encourage both the formation of new groups and to get existing groups to sign up. But we must be cost effective in both time and money.

I believe we must get FOLA a guaranteed annual income. This must be used to increase membership and publicity and the money must come from outside FOLA.

I have done some sums and have come up with a figure of $10,000 a year. OK it sounds like a lot of money but it should be achievable and anyway we are never going to know if we don't try. Surely we must have the people with the expertise and the contacts and it may be possible to get some tax relief for the donors. [If anyone has a high or even middle or even low level contact in the tax office please see me afterwards.] It doesn't have to be big hits, 50 times $200 is still $10,000. I suggest a wide spread net. Currently in Queensland approaches are being made to the Queensland Local Government Association, a very powerful organisation which has the hear of the State Government. Let's face it we are major stakeholders in public library systems who provide thousands of hours of volunteer labour every week.

When we get these new groups we must be able to welcome them into a well-organised and dynamic organisation. We must all be prepared to work to create regional and statewide organisations. There are always critics but remember you are always amongst friends.

Early last year the President of the Friends of the Cooloola Shire Libraries organised a day for the FOL Groups in our area to meet in the Gympie Library to discuss mutual concerns and exchange ideas. Representatives of five FOL Groups attended. One of our guests was Ray Mclnnerney Chief Librarian of the Bundaberg City Library who was sounding the water for a possible conference of FOL Groups and to decide on possible subjects for discussion at that conference.

Last september saw the inaugural FROLIQ [Friends of Libraries in Queensland] conference in Bundaberg. The aims of the two day conference were:

I should add that, thanks to the generosity of the mayor and the councillors of the Cooloola Shire, nine Cooloola FOL members and two Gympie Library staffmembers were able to attend this conference. The council paid for our travel, registration and accommodation. They have also paid my fare and registration to come to Sydney. No, I don't have any relatives on the council. This is an acknowledgement of the thousands of hours that our members have put in for our library.

It is tentatively planned to hold another FROLIQ conference next year. Hopefully by then we will have in place regional organisations and be in a position to discuss a statewide organisation. Until then an informal group is trying to decide our next step. What are the points to be resolved? How do we do it?

Once again I must emphasise these are just my ideas. These are entirely in a Queensland context, large area, dominated to some degree by a state capital right at "one end", several large and important regional centres and also no long term guaranteed levels of state finding. Before I go any further I emphasise that any regional or statewide body we are able to achieve will be part of FOLA. This is not secession.

I believe a statewide body is both necessary and achievable but it's not going to be easy.

Firstly we need to know how many groups there are, where they are and what would be their attitude to any possible organisation. Ray Mclnnerney and his colleges in Bundaberg made a start on this when planning FROLIQ. The President of the Cooloola Group is organising the compiling of information of groups in our area.

One of the problems we face is that although most Friends Groups have the same basic aim, that is, to support their local library service, their prioribes and the methods used to achieve their aims vary considerably. I don't think anyone can describe a "typical" Friends Group.

Another factor is the variation in the relationships between individual groups, the library staff and the local council.

This means that any proposals we put to groups must be broad enough to attract them to join but tight enough to keep us focused. We must also be prepared for a considerable range of responses.

As a brief, but necessary digression, my experience of FOL Groups, admittedly limited, is that they often consist of a fairly long-standing committee who set the agenda and a hard-working band of members who just want to do their "jobs" and who view their contribution as a very personal thing. Not everybody wants to stand for office and, I presume, not everybody or all groups will want to be part of the "bigger picture".

To get groups to join we will have to:

Before we can have a statewide organisation it will be necessary to establish say, three regional groups. This will let us get used to working together, identifying aims, deciding tactics etc. We will also be able to exchange ideas on how to progress to a statewide body.

As you can see it's still in the planning stage but I am hopeful that we will have at least one regional group up and running this year.

My impression is that most of us are members of an organisation, FOLA, that we know very little about. How many FOL groups are there in Western Australia? How many are in FOLA? How many groups are incorporated? How do they pay the insurance?

As a way to overcome, what I perceive to be, this ignorance and isolation I urge you to get a dialogue going with other groups in your area. Talk about your problems and successes. In other words set up networks. Then consider writing an article for "Newsupdate". We are going to get the FOLA we work for.

We are all in this life together. The wellbeing of any community is the sum of the well being of each of its members. We have a duty to hand on to future generations a better Australia than the one we inherited. I believe libraries have a major role to play in that "better Australia". If we are to defend and improve our libraries we must know what we are talking about and we must learn how best to convince those in authority of the importance and justice of our cause.

Henry Brooks Adams said "Teachers affect eternity - You can never tell where their influence stops." The same can be said of libraries.

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