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Friend or foe? The role of Friends of Library groups in community development.

A failure to understand the workings of Friends of Library groups and follow clear guidelines may be a reason for negative perceptions of their roles by the library community. This is despite increasing evidence of their value to their communities and library managers. Edited version of a paper presented at the NSW Country Public Libraries Association conference Tweed Heads NSW July 2003


Unlike the US, Australia, New Zealand and the UK operate in an environment that does not readily facilitate community input into library decision making. A detailed analysis of this is to be found in the Friends of Libraries resource book (1) published by Fola.

It is important to recognise that a failure to understand the workings of Friends of Library (Fol) groups, and follow clear guidelines, is one of the main reasons for possible mistrust and a negative perception of the value of Friends in the library community. This is despite outstanding success stories among high profile libraries that have very successful Friends groups, such as Friends of the State Library of South Australia, Friends of the State Library of NSW, 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 70 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 a library's image with the public and to provide the library with the support called for by the librarian. (2) One reason for misunderstanding the role of Fol groups comes from not being clear about that role, which Loeber defines as
 That a Friends of the Library group is a group of
 people voluntarily associated to assist the library
 in its work by: encouraging communication
 between the community and the library; (ii)
 promoting use of the library by all groups in the
 community; (iii) enhancing the social, cultural
 and educational role of the library to users and
 funders of the library; (iv) protecting and
 encouraging sources of funding; (v) assisting in
 developing and maintaining library services for
 the benefit of all. (3)

This seems clear. So from where does the problem come?

Friend or foe?

Friends groups may be 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 herself and refuses to let us communicate with council'.

A remark from the library manager may be 'The Friends need to recognise that the library manager makes decisions, not the Friends' or 'I'm not having anyone tell me how to run my library'.

A particular concern among some managers is the issue of staffing, and the role the volunteer Fol member performs. Volunteers may be seen as eliminating the need for paid staff and taking too much time to train, along with other 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 are worth? Other common concerns are the possible unreliability of the volunteer, the 'know it all' attitude, and too much activism.


Many of these issues can be overcome if library management establishes a few clear goals

* be precise in defining what you expect

* define the chain of command

* be sure adequate training is given

* build in recognition

* build in some form of evaluation

* be hospitable

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. 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'. Some library managers, staff and councils felt under siege from sections in the community. They were not alone.

Similar events had been witnessed in the UK under the Thatcher government. Clearly, many people had a strong grievance about what they saw as the destruction of a major 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.

Whilst 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, and the wider focus of an Fol group needs to be understood. Many of the campaign style Friends groups that appeared at this time have now folded. They either won or lost the campaign 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 its constitution. Rarely, if ever, do lobby groups define themselves within a formal constitution.


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

Unley Friends actively campaigned for the upgrading of their library building, collecting 600 signatures to overturn a council motion. However it provides an example of a 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 Fola workshop in April 2003 (4) as

* commitment from the Friends committee

* drive and support from the president

* clear aims for Friends (constitution and library manager)

* recognition of the role of being a Friend

* support for Friends as volunteers (library manager and council)

* relationship with library staff

* recognition from council

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

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 ten commandments for Fol groups. (5) These can be varied slightly from country to country. However they remain a valuable foundation for groups in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, UK, South Africa and elsewhere.

The ten 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

10 all involved must understand that council, library management and Friends have separate functions

By establishing a framework for success, Friends are better placed to enhance the library and give value to the community.

Building better communities

Some 2,500 year ago the city state of 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. 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 is essentially a passive legal status involving only minimal civic obligations and relying on a distinct and entrenched governing elite. It is but a shadow of the Athenian politeia.

Why you may ask, do I labour this point? 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 US Fol groups has arisen over some 70 years, largely as a result of the citizen's role and relationship to the various structures of society and government in that country, and in particular to the public library. Mutual obligation and enhancement of the citizens' potential is a core tenet of the US constitution. As a citizen you owe the community your best effort; the community, in return, owes you every opportunity to fulfil your potential. A common and accessible place to all is the public library.

Yet the practice of citizenship cannot be imposed from above. It must grow out of the beliefs and actions of the citizens themselves. These beliefs are commonly understood, if not always practiced, in American society. Its strength has committed many citizens to take part in local citizenry and become active members of a Friends group associated with the local public library.

In the US there is a relatively high participation in citizen groups and local associations. (6) 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. 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. 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. (7)

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. 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. (8)

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 gives us a few clues.

In his most recent book Patchwork nation (9) he documents the often adverse impact of enormous technological, global and socioeconomic 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 and re vision our understanding of the role of the individual society?

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

* defining components of library support

* identifying the power structure in the community

* learning to use and appreciate volunteers

* educating library authorities

* building staff/volunteer relationships

* involving the community learning persuasion techniques

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. (10)

No better or more 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 it. 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 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 (11) the authors, professors of political science at 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 ramies 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' says Ginsberg. However if Ginsberg and Crenson's thesis has 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 that, although over the last 30 years the number of advocacy organisations with offices in Washington has doubled or tripled, the percentage of Americans belonging to organisations has not increased.

The selfless volunteer 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. (12)

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

Community organisations have the power to improve population health, and, in the case of libraries, what is good for community is good for everyone.


(1) Ferguson, D ed Friends of Libraries resource book Tullamarine, Fola 1997

(2) Watson, C and Ferguson, D Friends of Library Groups Friends of the Library resource file Flynn E J ed Melbourne LPCV 1989

(3) Loeber, L Friends of the Library Ontario library review 26 1942

(4) Philpott, S Creating effective partnerships: friends, libraries and council Paper presented at Fola workshop Adelaide April 2003

(5) Dolnick, Sed Friends of Libraries sourcebook Chicago, ALA 1990

(6) Almond, G and Verba S The civic culture: political attitudes and democracy in five nations Boston, Little Brown 1963

(7) Emy, H The politics of Australian democracy South Melbourne, Macmillan 1974

(8) Mackay, H Reinventing Australia Pymble, Angus & Robertson 1993

(9) Edgar, D Patchwork nation Melbourne, Macmillan 2001

(10) Rodger, E Commitment to renewal Baltimore County Public Library 1988

(11) Crenson, M and Ginsberg B Downsizing democracy Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University 2002

(12) Latham, M Papers" of 4th biennial conference Sydney, Fola 2002

Other references

Edgar, D Globalisation and regional governance Address to 2002 ALGA Regional cooperation and development forum Alice Springs

Ferguson, D Repositioning the library in the community Proceedings of the 5th biennial conference Adelaide Canberra, Alia 1998 pp223-227

Manville, B and Ober J Beyond empowerment: building a company of citizens Harvard business review January 2003 pp48-53

Reed, S Library volunteers Jefferson McFarland 1994

Daniel Ferguson BA GradDipLib MLib 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 including the UK where he was consultant to the Library and Information Commission in 1999. Address: Fola Locked Bag 1315 Tullamarine Vic 3043 tel(03)3 93380666 fax(03)93351903 email
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Author:Ferguson, Daniel
Publication:Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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