Advocacy Made the Difference:
How the Friends of the Irondequoit Public Library Helped Secure a New Library
by Lisa C. Wemett, Past President of the Friends of Libraries Section (FLS)
The Friends of the Irondequoit Public Library hosted the Friends Council of the Monroe County Library System last November to showcase their brand new library. Friends President Terri Dalton, Board member Diane Stark, and Library Board President Stephanie Squicciarini shared the steps that brought the new 40,000 square-foot facility to fruition.
The new two-story building opened in September 2015 and has been embraced by the community. Previously, the Town of Irondequoit, an eastern suburb of Rochester, had two library branches, both more than 50 years old. The aging spaces were woefully inadequate to meet the 21st century needs of nearly 52,000 residents. It was a long road to the ribbon cutting, with years of discussions with community groups, public forums, legal challenges, and two votes before residents overwhelmingly approved a bond for not more than $13 million. (The cost of the entire project has not yet been finalized since some of the expenses will be offset by donations to the library’s Foundation and by the sale of one of the former branches.)
Through it all, the Friends of the Irondequoit Public Library were strong advocates, standing by the side of the library’s Board of Trustees. The new library came about in no small measure due to the efforts of the Friends of the Library. Here are Diane’s remarks telling the group’s story.
The Friends were asked by the library’s Board of Trustees to assist at six informational meetings that were scheduled to inform Irondequoit residents of the process taking place to build a new library in town. The meetings were at different times of the day so that people who worked a later shift could attend a morning meeting or people who worked what we might call “normal hours” could attend an evening meeting.
The first meeting took place at Bishop Kearney High School and subsequent meetings were held in the Broderick Room at Irondequoit’s Town Hall. At these sessions, the Friends were asked to distribute packets of information to audience members that gave a lot of facts about why a new facility was needed. New information was added as the meetings progressed over several months.
All the way through, each resident who attended a community meeting was given a pencil and a sheet of paper on which to write a question. Instead of having meetings where people just raised their hands to ask questions, it was decided to use this method so that more questions were able to be answered in the allotted time of the meeting.
Members of the Friends Board handed out informational packets, question sheets, and pencils. Other volunteers recorded e-mail addresses of residents or directed people into the meetings. Once the sessions began, Friends collected the question sheets, bringing them to a moderator who read each question aloud for the library trustees to answer.
Some people were not too happy with this method. The Friends explained to the attendees why it seemed to be the fairest way to allow many people to have their questions answered, as well as weeding out duplicate inquiries. We also instructed people that if their question was not answered at the meeting that it would be answered by a Library Board member who would call them at home.
The Friends remained at each meeting all the way through in order to direct late-comers and answer questions. Often the volunteers had to explain that the 3D architectural model and drawings on display were old renderings from years before when the idea of a new library was first put forth. We also helped to clean up after each meeting. All members of the Friends Board assisted at the six informational meetings. Some of us volunteered our help when the library trustees were invited to speak about the new library at various organizations throughout the community. All in all, the Library Board held 23 informational meetings.
The Friends were becoming known around town for book sales and our “Walk to Connect” fund-raisers where residents completed a walk between the two former branches of our library. Most of all we seemed to be noticed for our teal T-shirts with the big white letters, “Friends of the Irondequoit Library,” which we wore proudly to “announce” our presence at Town Board meetings, Chamber of Commerce luncheons, and other public sessions.
On a personal level, I can tell you that our former Friends President Ann Ryan and I attended all the Town Board meetings. On a few occasions, we stepped up to the podium during public input time to encourage people to attend meetings and to go to the polls on the days of the library referendum votes. We also were asked questions by television crews when they came to cover the latest news on the library and ended up in the news on a few occasions. In fact, I had a big laugh when a friend of mine called me on the phone to tell me that she was in her kitchen and heard my voice in her living room. She had the TV on and Channel 9 was airing the latest on our library.
In addition to attending and providing assistance at the informational meetings, the Friends brought information to different groups in town and spoke with members at their gatherings, such as the Women’s Irondequoit Network (WIN), a community group of professional women, and the Young at Heart, a senior citizens group. We attended a number of the programs at the library that the Friends underwrite. In doing so, we were able to encourage people to attend the informational meetings as well as answer questions on the spot and advocate for the library any way we could. At the annual community July 4th celebration, Friends helped the Library Board sell raffle tickets and promote the “Barbeque and Blues” fund-raising event. Friends’ members also staffed a book sale booth at that event and encouraged people to attend the fund-raiser.
In the weeks before the library vote, the Friends delivered lawn signs to residents who had asked, or were asked, to display them and had agreed to do so. We also put signs at our own houses. We had signs that we placed in our cars, wore buttons on our clothing that said “Vote Yes” (with the date of the vote), and pretty much did whatever we could do to persuade people to get out and vote in favor of a new library.
It was a very interesting experience seeing how people reacted to all that went on in getting the word out. The Friends spent a great deal of time promoting the new library by discussing it wherever we went. We found that there were people who immediately became excited and felt that it “was about time” for a new facility. Then there were those people at the other end of the spectrum who were loud and clear with their negative comments. The funny thing was that the people in favor were the ones who attended at least one, and in many cases, several informational meetings. But the people who loudly voiced their objections were generally quite ill-informed. After “discussing” the topic with them, we usually found that they had not attended any of the informational meetings. Their reaction: “What meetings? I didn’t know there were meetings!”
Even at the recent donors’ reception in September, we met a man (who liked the library and had donated toward it) who stated that he didn’t know the building was going to be this big and told us that there should have been better communication. He went on about how communication is important and blah, blah, blah. We told him how there had been meetings, information online, in the newspapers, on television, as well as fliers and signs, etc. He must have eventually talked with someone – or maybe the letter that the Foundation sent out asking for donations was enough for him to make a contribution.
My favorite story, though, is of the couple who came up to me at the Farmers’ Market, which is right here on the other side of the Town Hall. They said that they heard that the new library was up and running and wanted to know where it was. On Market day, the road through the market area is closed to traffic and the only way you can get into the complex is from Kings Highway, so they had driven right past it! So, I told them to turn around – and pointed to our brand new library.
I can tell you from personal experience that everyone on the Library Board of Trustees, the library staff, the Town Board, Town employees, the Friends Board of Directors, other volunteer members of the Friends, the Foundation Board, as well as the construction workers and everyone involved, worked very hard to make this beautiful new building a reality. It was time-consuming and it was work, but it was fun and exciting. I think that I can speak for the Friends in saying that we were all happy to do our part and are thrilled with the results.