Friends help move library into digital age

DOWNEY - Among Downey's many civic and service groups, one in particular works to preserve an American tradition that is considered a bedrock of democracy - our public library. Working diligently and without fanfare, the volunteer group known as Friends of the Downey City Library raises over $30,000 annually to support a cornerstone of the American political system - free access to information and the open exchange of ideas.

It is not just the amount of money raised by these civic-minded volunteers that has such an impact on the local library, but also their success at keeping the library in the public eye, and their forward-looking commitment to keeping the library relevant in the digital age.

These book-loving Friends of the Library have shown themselves to be quite savvy about the importance of access to electronic media. Their efforts contributed to the remodeling and redecoration of the computer room with its 18 terminals. Computer access is in such demand that sessions are limited to one hour per day, with time tracked by the user's library card. There is no charge for this service. The library also has free Wi-Fi for patrons who wish to bring their own laptops.

Eight large-format kindles, purchased by the Friends, can now be checked out just like any other book. Funding by the Friends also led to a new, more efficient electronic check-out system for video cassettes and CD's.

Pat Smith, president of the Friends, says the electronic media services are important for residents who are on a tight budget and cannot afford internet access to their home. Access to computers also provides employment search opportunities for job seekers, and tips on writing resumes and interviewing.

Asked if there are any plans to expand computer services, Smith said, "We would like to help this happen more quickly. We could do more with more volunteers."

The Friends boast a membership of over 200, and they don't all live in Downey. Jack Gardner, a Lakewood resident who helps staff the book store, has been with the Friends for four years. He also helps to sort through donated volumes, evaluating whether a book might be a valuable addition to the library's collection.

Smith said the used book and gift store is the group's principal fund-raiser, and the Friends are always looking for new recruits to replace those who have moved away or are no longer able to get around. It is a challenge, she explained, to keep the store staffed in an economy where many families have two working parents.

In addition to the used books and magazines, many bargain-priced at only 50 cents, the store sells a range of greeting cards, pencils, candy, and even ear buds for listening to music. Colette Stallcup, the bookstore director, said people are encouraged to volunteer even if only for two hours a week. The ability to keep the store open during library hours has a tremendous financial impact on the support that the Friends can offer the library.

Cuts in Services Downey's library is a city institution that suffered cuts in staff and hours as City Hall struggled last year to retain a balanced budget during the economic downturn. Staff was cut to nine, and there are no more Sunday hours during the school year.

According to Shannon De Long, executive director of the Library, the yearly budget is close to $2 million, including general library services and IT support. Four "valuable staff members" were laid off last year, and De Long says that "It's been very challenging to carry on without them."

The supplemental funding raised by the Friends is not intended to, nor can it, replace city funding, says De Long. Rather, the Friends host programs that keep residents engaged with the library, and they also fund items for which taxpayer funds might not be appropriate.

Crafts and treats provided during story time in the children's section are an example of items not covered by the library's budget. The activities, entertainment, and prizes for participation in the summer reading program are also funded by the Friends. This reading program serves adults as well as children and teens.

The Friends also maintain a physical presence for the library at community events, such as staffing a library booth for Kid's Day in the park. This year they will resume having a booth at the Street Fair. The Friends feel such publicity for the library is essential. As California struggles with economic issues, Smith feels that library services "are getting pushed into the background."

"I'm concerned about our younger children," she says. "The library plays a necessary role in the education of young people."

Author Events Many adults enjoy attending the author events in the library's Cormack Room. In addition to sponsoring some of these events, the Friends often contribute honorariums to those events organized by the library staff.

Every June, a special meet-the-author event is scheduled as a fundraiser at the Rio Hondo Event Center. This year, on June 1, the Friends are presenting an Authors Tea that will feature three romance novelists - Debra Holland, Laura Drake and Tanya Hanson. Tickets for the tea are $25 and include a free book.

Another fund-raising event is the annual Friends Holiday Marketplace in November. Baked goods and boutique items are available for sale, and there are opportunity drawings with prizes from local businesses.

Famously promoted by Benjamin Franklin over 200 years ago, the public library is as much a symbol of American civic life as is City Hall. Libraries have become partners with public education, and their free services, available to even the poorest residents, are critical to maintaining an educated electorate.

Library services have expanded and morphed as society has grown and changed. Where once a library might have kept a large collection of road maps and even phone directories, modern libraries now offer electronic access to Google Maps and Yelp.

But the core mission of public libraries remains unchanged. These institutions, with their reputation for soft speech and decorum, promote the open exchange of ideas and vigorously guard against censorship. They are both repository and protector of the country's cultural heritage.

Faced with the difficulties posed by changing times, the Friends of the Downey City Library feel an urgency about publicizing the need for public support and recruiting new volunteers. For those who would like to participate in some way, please call Norma Jean Horan at (562) 861-6767, or stop by the book store and visit a while.

********** Published: February 21, 2013 - Volume 11 - Issue 45