Above: Pat Bruschini, Gwinnett Friends of the Library president, gets her hands dirty while helping to beautify the library landscape. The group plants annuals around the sign at the Peachtree Corners branch twice a year. Photo courtesy of Pat Bruschini.

Area libraries rely on Friends of the Library for community programming and projects

Libraries aren’t what they used to be.

The former shhh-be-quiet repositories of books have morphed into virtual community centers, bringing far-flung residents together into everything from Adult Astronomy clubs to Zumba classes.

They hold author talks, bring in petting zoos, show films and teach people how to make their own films.

Shoppers look through some of the thousands of books sorted into two rooms of shopping center space at the fifth annual Friends of the East Roswell Library book sale, held in February.
Photo courtesy of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System.

In metro Atlanta, much of this programming is thanks in large part to Friends of the Library, volunteer groups that advocate for library branches and systems and give them financial, volunteer and program support.

“Libraries need Friends — it’s just that simple,” the American Library Association says in its information about these helping hands.

The ALA observes the 60th anniversary of National Library Week this month, from April 8–14. Celebrations include Take Action for Libraries Day on April 12.

Friends groups take action for libraries year-round.

In the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library system, 23 of 34 library branches have Friends groups. Nine volunteers among those groups have been Friends for more than 25 years, according to Heather Staniszewski, the library system’s volunteer services manager.

Friends groups are vital in a library system that no longer has a programming budget, Staniszewski said.

“They’re made up of very compassionate and passionate people who support a strong public library system beyond what the county can budget for each year,” she said. “We couldn’t provide the best patron experience possible without our volunteers.”

Friends groups in Milton, East Roswell and Ocee were collecting books for sales to support their library branches even before they opened so that programming could be in place from day one, Staniszewski said.

“Some of the Friends groups are the reason why libraries are in their locations,” she said.

In February, the Friends of the East Roswell Library held their fifth annual book sale, raising about $7,000 for the 3-year-old library at the rate of $2 per hardback and $1 per paperback.

Barbara Gradolf, president of the Friends of the East Roswell Library, said books are collected throughout the year for the huge event and about 60 volunteers helped pull off this year’s four-day sale.

“It’s been fun,” Gradolf said. “It’s kind of a social event.”

Linda Steele, at right, a five-year volunteer with Friends of the East Roswell Library, assists shoppers at the Friends’ annual book sale. The event supports library programming.
Photo courtesy of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System.

Among other things, proceeds from the sale help fund the East Roswell Library’s summer reading program, contribute to the library system’s foundation and help support less financially fortunate Friends groups elsewhere in Fulton, she said.

Across town, Cora S. Cramer, president of Friends of the Roswell Library, said the group is always looking for volunteers to fill Friends management positions and to staff the library’s book store, where donated books are sold.

“Volunteering at the library keeps my brain active,” Cramer said. “It also provides friendship and exercise.”

Twenty of DeKalb County’s public library branches have Friends groups — all but the Gresham Library and the Scottdale-Tobie Grant Homework Center.

Meanwhile, work has begun to reinvigorate an umbrella organization, the Alliance of Friends of the DeKalb County Public Library. That effort is spearheaded by Jill Joplin, executive director of the DeKalb Library Foundation, who said she sees Friends groups as “community support for each individual branch.”

At a recent meeting of the Friends of DeKalb’s Clarkston Library, members talked with staff about ways to extend the library’s reach to the area’s large refugee community.

Over the past year, the group, chaired by Cynthia Haley Dunn, has sponsored a Chinese dance performance, Ecuadorian-inspired jewelry making, monthly films and book clubs for youths and adults at the library.

There is no Friends of the Library organization in Cobb County, but many very detailed volunteer opportunities are listed on the county’s website.

In Gwinnett County, there is one Friends of the Library group, an active organization of currently about 70 members who support all of Gwinnett’s 15 branches.

The group’s treasurer, Merwin Chambers, first became active in library affairs when he was recruited years ago to help defeat a book-banning effort. His wife, Corliss, is the group’s secretary.

They like being among Friends.

Friends of the Gwinnett Library members Merwin Chambers, left, and Corliss Chambers, right, meet Ellis Henican, co-author of “Tuesday’s Promise: One Veteran, One Dog, and Their Bold Quest to Change Lives,” during his appearance at a library system author talk.
Photo courtesy of Deborah Oscarson.

“As seniors, it keeps us active, so we’re not just sitting around,” Merwin Chambers said.  “So we’re not sitting around feeling old,” Corliss Chambers added. “It has given me more of a sense of community and pride in the Gwinnett County library system.”

While book sales are the bread and butter of many other metro Friends groups, the Gwinnett Friends use other means of raising money — a wine bar at the back of an author talk or a silent auction at an event, for example.

Among other activities, they fund prizes for reading programs and contests, rent venues for author talks, help manage and provide refreshments for large events and supply holiday treats for the branches.

Denise Auger, adult programming manager of Gwinnett’s library system, is grateful for the Friends.

“Thank heavens for them,” she said. “They make it possible for us to have those wonderful extras.”

She emphasized the Friends’ assistance with author talks, which she said include on average 25 New York Times best-selling authors each year.

“Our teeny tiny department of myself and two people can’t serve refreshments and manage the county’s TV people who film the shows, keep the authors happy and seat 200 people,” Auger said.

“They literally stand out in the driveway and tell you how to park,” she said, of the Friends. “They’re lovely people who genuinely care about literacy and their library system.”

Be a Library Friend!

To join a Friends of the Library group, contact your local library branch for information. You can also learn more at the following websites:

Donna Williams Lewis

Donna Williams Lewis a freelance writer based in Atlanta. She previously worked as an editor and journalist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.