By: Ned Davis
Who ‘pays’ for the intellectual freedom which libraries represent? Ideally we all do, if we share the goals of the ALA’s ‘Library Bill of Rights’, that all libraries are forums for the exchange of information and ideas, presenting all points of view in a community, and challenging censorship and abridgement of free expression and access. We literally pay both indirectly (through taxes and municipal support, in the case of public and school libraries) and directly (through personal donations of money or of volunteer time), and also through choosing to give one’s labor to libraries as a profession. And while it’s easy to agree with these ideas and ideals of intellectual freedom in an abstract way, and view ourselves (quietly, shyly) as s/heroes in this battleground of truth vs. lies, and facts vs. fake news, the issues become much harder when the challenges come to our own libraries. The majority of First Amendment challenges we hear about concern materials in public and school libraries, where self-appointed guardians of propriety seem ever-emboldened to voice their opposition to other people’s reading materials – though it is notable, and worrying, that OIF surveys suggest more than 80 percent of book challenges go unreported and don’t make the media, so attacks on access are actually much higher.
As one of the few writers in this roster who doesn’t hold a library degree, but who works daily with an urban public library’s administration and librarians in my role as the director of the library’s Friends and Foundation organization, one of the things I hope to examine in my future contributions to this Intellectual Freedom blog is the role that Friends and Foundations play to support the freedom-loving access to information and enlightenment in public libraries.
Much the same way that the Office for Intellectual Freedom provides resources and best practices support to combat censorship and materials challenges, the ALA’s United for Libraries, of which I am a board member, supports library trustees, advocates, friends and foundations with best practices/resources so that they may best serve their libraries and community. Trustees, Friends and Foundation members can be powerful helpers to frontline librarians and administration if they are kept engaged and informed as valuable partners supporting the mission of the library.
Although these relationships can take some effort to establish and tend, it can be well worth the time – library board Trustees and Friends members make great champions when a library needs an advocate with local legislators for ever-looming budget cuts. This applies primarily to Trustees who are volunteer board members (not political appointees), but since Friends and Foundation members are volunteers, drawn to support a library they love and whose work they want to enhance and promote, note that when engaging legislators, the testimony and impact stories from a ‘regular person’/volunteer carries more weight than from paid library or foundation staff, who are (properly) self-interested in abundant and well-deserved increases to library funding.
There is another good reason for librarians and administrators to keep cordial relationships tended with their Friends and Foundation organizations: depending on the municipal funding formulas that underpin your library’s budget (and there is a wide variety of combinations of city/county allocations, property tax allocations, state aid backed by federal funding, etc.), it can be incredibly useful to have a legally separate group like a Friends and/or Foundation, with an independent board of directors and its own 501(c)(3) status, to raise and hold money solely for library support, money that is outside the control of municipal funders and distinct from operational budgets. And because of that independence, Friends and Foundation groups can typically take chances to fund challenging/controversial speakers or programs on behalf of the library (that’s who pays!) – and as independent advocates, they can also be strong allies when a library is faced with challenges to its Intellectual Freedom.
Ned Davis has been Executive Director of the Friends & Foundation of the Rochester Public Library since 2010. He was recently honored with the New York Library Association’s ‘Intellectual Freedom Award’ in recognition of his effort to make connections, clear obstacles and find resources allowing the Library to host lively discussions, big thoughts, diverse stories, colorful people and ideas that stretch boundaries. In his non-spare time he also plays several musical instruments of and with varying degrees of difficulty and skill.