30 Years of Connecting and Inspiring Friends: A Closer Look at the Friends of Libraries Section (FLS/NYLA)
EFR Becomes FLS 2014
At the 2014 NYLA Annual Conference, the NYLA membership voted to create the Friends of Libraries Section.
Becoming the eighth Section in NYLA by a vote of the general membership at the Association’s Annual Conference in 2014 was exciting and exhilarating, capping the 22-year run of this grassroots group originally known as the Empire Friends Roundtable (EFR). I always refer to it as our “Norma Rae moment,” as we stood holding our newly printed FLS signs aloft when the final vote was announced, and the ballroom erupted with applause!
The change to become a Section started in 2013 at NYLA’s Annual Conference in Niagara Falls, with a petition to gather signatures of NYLA members to move EFR to this new status. As a Section, FLS was granted a voting seat on NYLA Council, giving community volunteers and library civic leaders equal footing with their professional colleagues. FLS has come a long way in its work to promote and inspire local Friends groups for the betterment of New York State’s library community.
About the FLS Leadership
Five years of FLS/NYLA Presidents! (left-right): Randall Enos, Lisa C. Wemett, Sarah Sachs, Janet Kreason, Rebecca Fuss.
Within state library associations across the United States, roughly half have divisions like FLS that assist Friends organizations. The Friends of Libraries Section is directed by a 13-member Board of officers and members at large who represent the geographic diversity of the Empire State. The Board spans Friends groups from the Southern Tier to the Adirondack Mountains, from western NYS to the Hudson Valley. Volunteers include librarians who support the efforts of Friends organizations as part of their job responsibilities, community volunteers who are active in the Friends group in their home library, and retired librarians, many of whom have served NYLA in key leadership positions throughout their professional careers.
The Board has an additional dozen auxiliary volunteers who represent the Section on NYLA’s standing committees and coordinate FLS awards. Randall Enos is President Emeritus, a title bestowed in honor of his numerous years serving as the President of the Empire Friends Roundtable, helping to keep the group going from its inception through more than two decades of growth. We are so grateful to have his continuing guidance and recruitment skills, building the organization you now know as FLS. The FLS Board conducts meetings via video conference about every two months year-round and holds one in-person meeting in the summer when possible.
“Exciting things are happening in New York and the Library Friends of New York State are at the heart of it all!” So opened an article by President Charlotte K. O’Dea in the May 1993 issue of the NYLA Bulletin. The newly-formed Library Friends of New York State Roundtable introduced themselves to their professional library colleagues in the Association’s journal, excited about the possibility to support the growth and productivity of libraries statewide.
Acting on the recommendations made at the White House Conference on Library and Information Services in 1991, a task force was headed by Ross Kitt with the purpose of harnessing the energy and enthusiasm of the lay delegates who attended both the New York Governor’s Conference on Libraries and Information Services in 1990 and the White House Conference. The goal was “to further cement the connection between libraries and their supporters” (NYLA Bulletin, October 1993).
The Friends Roundtable was established by NYLA in October 1992 at the Association’s Annual Conference in Lake Placid. Its purpose was “to provide a forum for an exchange of information, to promote cooperative efforts among individuals, and be active in community Friends groups, to encourage and assist in the establishment of new Friends groups across New York.” The Roundtable also was committed to presenting programs relevant to Friends organizations at NYLA’s annual conferences.
“Last, but not least,” said President O’Dea, “we are the grassroots voice of support and strength in our libraries—the greatest source of entertainment, culture, and education in our respective communities.” The initial Board of Directors of the Roundtable was involved and ambitious, working to compile a list of all Friends groups throughout New York—not a simple task and one that continues to this day. Charlotte O’Dea was active on the national level right from the start, serving on a panel in April 1993 at the “Government-Friends-Libraries New Alliance in the Nineties” conference presented by Friends of Libraries USA in Washington, DC.
Continuing Education Initiatives
In the early years of EFR, education was a high priority. Phyllis Pittman, who served as Special Projects Coordinator and Chair of the Nominating Committee, secured a grant for the production of a video to promote Friends groups to the general public. “Empire Friends: How to Form or Revitalize a Library Support Group” was completed in 1995. The Board also worked on a training module to take “on the road,” to assist libraries across the state with starting Friends groups, along with practical hints for Friends already in place.
The core concepts were there for the taking and in 2015, President Lisa C. Wemett presented the first “Getting Started” classroom workshop for the Southern Tier Library System’s staff training day. The session focuses on creating and supporting a Friends group for libraries of all types, stepping through the process of recruiting helpers for a steering committee, determining the Friends mission, expanding the group’s membership, and growing the leadership to maintain an active organization.
The Mid-Hudson Library System in Poughkeepsie requested a “Part 2” workshop and “Keep It Growing! Strengthening Your Friends of the Library Group” was developed to meet the needs of established groups looking for assistance in revitalizing their core group of supporters. The two-hour workshop includes plenty of best practices on membership recruitment and volunteer engagement and tips for established Friends groups to keep things fresh and thriving as they carry on their crucial advocacy work for the library.
From 2015 through 2019, these two workshops were hosted by Friends groups and library systems in geographically diverse regions statewide. Nearly 300 community volunteers, library staff, and trustees were trained, and several libraries reported success in establishing new Friends organizations for their libraries.
Besides the in-person regional workshops, FLS tentatively stepped into the webinar arena to reach FLS members, library staff, and trustees that were unable to travel to the NYLA Annual Conference. With the support of NYLA staff members, FLS offered its first webinar in 2018 on “Best Practices for Management of Friends Boards” featuring an attorney from the Pro Bono Partnership of White Plains, NY. (NYLA members can view the one-hour session in the webinar archives.)
The second webinar in March 2019 entitled “Administrative Teams: A New Approach for Friends Leadership” featured the Friends of the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Public Library. This group’s shared leadership model, where a team of four people serves as Presidents, divides the workload into four distinct areas for the Friends. The webinar was based on the group’s panel discussion at the 2017 NYLA Annual Conference. Nine webinars later, this method of professional development has allowed Friends volunteers and staff to enrich the experiences of their respective Friends organizations with guidance on board management, conflict behavior and conflict resolution, engaging today’s volunteers, community partnerships, charitable planned giving, and other topics.
NYLA Annual Conference
FLS Trade Show Booth
FLS participate in the trade show offered in conjunction with the NYLA Annual Conference.
At each of NYLA’s annual conferences, FLS offers a full complement of program sessions of interest to both library administrators and community volunteers. From 2013 to 2019, thirty-three FLS programs were attended by more than 1,400 participants. NYLA has offered “Friends Day” with special registration rates for library civic leaders since 1997. FLS members may receive a vastly reduced registration rate to attend any sessions at the conference that day.
Conference offerings in Rochester in 2018 drew standing-room-only crowds and the first-ever “FLS Friend-Raiser Luncheon” sold out its 70 seats. Topics included marketing, public mural projects, fundraising without book sales, and the roles and relationships among Friends, library directors, and trustees. A two-hour workshop by a local broadcast journalist from Rochester’s National Public Radio affiliate helped participants strengthen their skills on how best to communicate the impact their libraries have on the community, through print, broadcast, and social media.
When NYLA was last in Saratoga Springs, FLS offered five sessions at the conference that reached 215 people. The Section fully participated in NYLA’s virtual conference in 2020 with one on-demand program and embraced the hybrid offerings of the 2021 NYLA Annual Conference with an in-person session in Syracuse plus two virtual sessions. Friends can pivot just like everyone else!
Newsletters and Website
FLS members receive a quarterly newsletter by mail, “Friends News and Notes,” to share with their groups. Additional distributions are made electronically, and back issues are archived. The FLS Publications page provides readers access to the entire archive of newsletters with a content list for each issue. The intent is to help members locate articles on topics that are important to their groups: legal issues for NYS nonprofits, fundraising ideas, recaps of program offerings at current and past conferences, promotional ideas for National Friends of Libraries Week, and more.
FLS strives to keep both personal and organizational members informed of the issues of concern to Friends groups across the state. Each newsletter highlights successful events sponsored by Friends, primarily within NYS. FLS takes pride in featuring current, relevant content with many replicable ideas for libraries of all sizes. Members are encouraged to send submissions about their Friends projects and activities to be highlighted.
In addition to the newsletter archives, the Board’s entire “Leadership Manual” is online, where access is provided to the Section’s by-laws, long-range plan, Board job descriptions, and operating procedures. Webpage content is updated regularly by Terry Mulee, FLS Web Editor extraordinaire, highlighting upcoming training sessions, meet-ups, and reminders about application deadlines for FLS awards. To reinforce the Section’s strong commitment to professional development, access is provided to content from the conference sessions sponsored by FLS including slide decks and handouts to assist groups that were unable to attend the NYLA Annual Conference.
Networking and Meet-Ups
Because the FLS Board’s annual in-person meeting is held in various regions around the state, the Board members agreed to try a new approach in 2014 to hold a “meet-up” in combination with
FLS 2017 Meet-Up
The Friends of the Clifton Park – Halfmoon Public Library hosted the 2017 meet-up with the FLS Board.
the Board meeting. The first Friends Meet-Up was so successful, that it was an annual tradition for five years. A Friends group and library director in the location where the Board wishes to meet are approached to host the Board and an informal afternoon gathering of Friends which follows the Board’s business meeting. The focus is on area Friends being introduced to the Board members, learning about FLS, and sharing best practices for Friends groups.
The FLS Board found this event was an excellent way to create an awareness of a statewide membership organization, our support system, and services, taking FLS/NYLA directly to our members and potential members, essentially “Friends helping Friends.” The Board members are energized as they encourage dialogue among the assembled Friends, many of whom have not met one another, even if they are from neighboring libraries. The conversation is casual, as participants offer their experiences with fundraising, strategies for volunteer engagement, and other topics of interest to volunteers and staff. Similar events dubbed “Friendly Café Meet-Ups” were offered in conjunction with two of NYLA’s conferences. The sessions were well attended and may become a staple in the line-up for Friends Day in the future.
When the pandemic rolled into our lives, FLS established “FLS Connections,” taking these networking opportunities into the virtual realm. The conversation is casual in these 75-minute online sessions, as participants share their experiences with fundraising, strategies for volunteer engagement, how to handle book sale remainders responsibly, and other topics of interest to volunteers and staff. More than 100 participants representing 63 Friends of the Library groups statewide attended four sessions from July 2021 through February 2022, many logging in at Friends' “watch parties” with several members of their groups. Gathering via videoconferencing is here to stay and allows volunteers from tiny villages to interact with representatives from some of our state’s largest urban libraries—a remarkable achievement nearly unthinkable three years ago!
FLS gives an annual award to honor a single volunteer or a group of supporters in the library community whose efforts have contributed to the growth of libraries or Friends organizations. The FLS Daniel W. Casey Library Advocacy Award was named posthumously to recognize an NYS library champion known as “Mr. Library” for his tireless advocacy on behalf of libraries at international, national, state, county, and local levels. Dan Casey was one of the delegates to the 1991 White House Conference. Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush later named him to the U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Informational Services. Today’s Casey Award recipients emulate Dan’s commitment to their libraries, and each is recognized with a plaque and a membership in FLS.
The FLS leadership participates in NYLA’s annual Advocacy Day, reaching out to elected officials with the Association’s message and requests for support. For many years, in honor of National Friends of Libraries Week, EFR and FLS leaders worked with elected representatives to secure an annual state legislative resolution to recognize the contributions of library Friends groups. Groups are always encouraged to pursue their own resolutions on the local level and to offer special events at their libraries. When NYLA and the Central New York Library Resources Council had a booth at the State Fair, several FLS officers staffed it in late summer in Syracuse, enjoying the opportunity to meet families from around the state.
Carrying on Our Mission
Our mission statement says “FLS creates a network to connect and inspire Friends groups in all types of libraries to support the New York library community.” We’re Friendly! We encourage all NYLA members, regardless of Section affiliation, to find out how they can become involved in our activities and projects. Our auxiliary volunteers coordinate FLS awards and represent the Section on NYLA’s standing committees. We are actively seeking volunteers to serve as assistants to our key positions, including a Coordinator for National Friends of Libraries Week, a Deputy Treasurer, Assistants for our Award Coordinators, an Assistant Web Editor, and other positions. We would value your involvement and encourage you to bring your skills to help our work with Friends groups across the state.
Please visit FLS’s webpage, www.nyla.org/friends, for more details on our projects. We hope you will consider adding FLS to your NYLA membership and join in the work of this vibrant network of library advocates and enthusiasts from across the Empire State.
Lisa C. Wemett is First Vice President of the Friends of Libraries Section and the FLS Coordinator for Professional Development. After being a long-time member of the Empire Friends Roundtable, she joined the EFR Board in 2012. Lisa served as the first president of FLS when the Empire Friends became the eighth Section of NYLA in 2014. She also was elected President in 2018-19 and 2019-20. A public librarian for more than 30 years, she retired in 2009 from the Webster Public Library, where she was the assistant director and teen services librarian. For 9½ years, Lisa was staff advisor to the Friends of the Webster Public Library, helping the organization grow their membership numbers substantially and securing their tax-exempt status from the IRS. In 2014, Lisa was the first recipient of NYLA’s “Above and Beyond Award,” recognizing her continuous contributions to NYLA since 1983 in many leadership capacities with the Youth Services Section, NYLA’s standing committees, and NYLA Council.
****A previous version of this article was published as “Friends of Libraries Section of the New York Library Association (FLS/NYLA),” State Friends Spotlight. The Voice for America’s Libraries (February 2019): 14-16.