Information for FOLA Groups

Successful Friends

Creating a culture of enhancement
Daniel Ferguson

To have friends can be hard work. As in personal life, friends require nurturing and understanding. The relationship is not a one-way process. The same can be identified with Friends associated with libraries. Some clear messages remain timeless.

The most successful Friends groups worldwide approach the relationship as a partnership. Key to the successful partnership are some characteristics that can be stated by:

Apart from the United States, home to the Friends movement, one country to which Australia can learn from is New Zealand. They appear to have found a successful model for sustainable Friends development, and no place more so than at Dunedin Public Library. Another clear winner has been Christchurch City Libraries, who this year celebrates 150 years of library services. Christchurch Friends are relatively new, formed in 1988. Dunedin has longevity, having its origins dating back to 1890, making it one of the oldest ‘modern’ day Friends of Library groups worldwide. Both these groups have individual memberships of over 300.

Key to the success of these two groups, and many groups, both in Australia and worldwide are some guiding principles.

All parties must clearly understand their respective roles in order to work together towards common goals. The primary responsibility for bringing about this favourable state of affairs rests, in large measure with the library manager. And, although Friends can exist without the strong support and direction the of the library administration, it will not sustain a culture of enhancement.

To bring about this ‘culture of enhancement’ nine (9) guiding principles must be nurtured and sustained.

They are:

  1. The library manager’s desire for a Friends group and a belief in the benefits of having such a group. Unless the library administration really wants a Friends group, it is less than fair to encourage citizens to form one. Well intentioned motives may lead to the formation of a group and successful goals achieved in the short term. But sustainable and the development of a culture of enhancement is unlikely to be evident for the long term benefit of the library service.
  2. Availability of time to work with Friends. Continuous communication, information, and encouragement are needed to sustain interest on the part of volunteers; the library manager must be available for such leadership.
  3. Willingness to assist Friends in understanding the legal and organisational structure of the library. If Friends are not told how they fit into the organisation, chaos can result. Effectively, not a path for sustainable growth.
  4. Necessary staff leadership in helping the Friends formulate long-term goals and short-term objectives. The Friends program is most valuable when it moves the total library program forward. The Friends group should be challenged to think and plan on a broad scale, beyond the facilitation of regular events ie. Book sales, author visits, assistance with programmes and funding provision. They need to be incorporated into a culture of improvement.
  5. Honest appraisals by both parties as to whether the library’s program is worthy of a Friends group. If library programs do not meet community needs, a Friends group will be useless.
  6. Time to attend all Friends meetings, whether they be executive committee or general membership gatherings. The Friends must be made to feel that the library manager is an important and indispensable part of its endeavours.
  7. Praise and publicity for the achievements of the Friends. All appropriate governing bodies should learn of their achievements. An exemplary role model in Australia, is Chris Jones, Library Manager at Great Lakes (NSW), and Bernie Hawke (Dunedin, NZ), not only do they give time and knowledge on the subject of Friends, they are above all, passionate. Managers who are ‘passionate’ about Friends help create the culture in which Friends groups survive. They are helping to build more sustainable libraries.
  8. Awareness of how the community views the Friends. A group that becomes elitist, overspecialised, or simply social may antagonise voters in local elections. The library manager should see that Friends activities are broad-based and varied.
  9. Most importantly, the realisation that the library manager’s performance can and should inspire faith in the library program and, therefore, increase and inspire the Friends’ willingness to work for the program.

Cooperation is vital for creating a culture of enhancement. Without it, the longer term success of the Friends can be limited.

The Friends of the Christchurch City Libraries have strengthened their charter by enunciating clear strategic directions which sustain a partnership and enhance the library. Key among the strategic goals are:

These are by no means casual goals. They are about connecting and developing a sustaining culture that shares and values the library user and non user as an asset in the development of the library. Often, the library manager is unable to undertake actions, either being restricted by council as an employee or by implication, as being seen to be involved in political decision-making. Also, managers must often abide by a code of conduct that restricts engagement with sponsors and the business community. This is where the Friends can be of value. They can perform a role as part of the community, deciding what is and is not seen to justify a ‘community of interest’. The library manager cannot display a political role, and the elected representatives may have an agenda not favourable to the library. The Friends group can transcend these debates.

If the Friends have a purely ‘partisan’ objective, they can at time conflict with the library management. Conversely, the library manager needs to reflect views and aspirations of the community. The power to elect representatives, vote and provide budgets comes from the community and a library administration that undervalues this, provides no service at all.

Dunedin Friends illustrious history is both witness to longevity and the creation of a culture where both parties are enhanced. The Friends are valued for their voice and library management listen. For the Friends, it is about examining issues and being a watchdog. A concerned citizenry and a manager who has the interests of the community are the core of the free public library movement.

Dunedin Council is committed to the principle of consultation, even when it is not required by law, for it believes it helps build positive relationships with stakeholders and the wider community and it encourages public involvement in decision-making (DCC Consultation Policy adopted in 2000). Council’s Consultative Framework on Participation in fact mentions - ‘Libraries’ community surveys and consultation on options for service participation’, which in fact gives the opportunity for the Friends to make regular submissions on budget and planning.

Local government in New Zealand has provided for a community voice through legislation (Local Government Act 2002 and other legislation), requiring citizens to vote on strategic planning, this has created the opportunity for Friends and concerned citizens to argue a case for support of the library. A well developed Friends of the Library group is the perfect conduit for supporting and expressing concern for the library.

Great libraries have Friends -The British Library, New York Public Library, National Library of Australia. To sustain and value the friendship, library management need to explore opportunities with their communities. This includes creating a partnership which has been the success of many library-Friends over the decades. But to truly value and enhance the library movement we must provide the opportunities to create a culture that enhances Friends. When we do this, we shall truly value our libraries for the next generation.

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