ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - It was September 1945. The war was over. Trains began bringing “our boys” home to St. Paul.
Peace! It was finally here.
Perrie Jones - St. Paul’s library director at the time - decided it was the perfect time to mobilize a different kind of troop for this pending postwar boom.
“What we need,” the Pioneer Press quotes her as saying, “is some community library spirit, some people to carry the message … to provide nuts and bolts, to generate enthusiasm for libraries as the best free thing in town, to maybe fund some froth and pleasures the budget couldn’t.
“We need,” she declared, “Friends of the library to trumpet our cause, our needs and our programs.”
This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, one that will mark its 75th anniversary in 2020, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.
Palaces for the People: Those are what St. Paul has: Our libraries.
“I think St. Paul would have a good library whether or not the Friends existed,” says Beth Burns, president of the nonprofit that is still today known as the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library. “This is a smart, literate, intellectual city that has an ethos of wanting to care for your neighbors. The Friends takes that and amplifies it.”
Who are the Friends?
The Friends’ mission is to act as a catalyst for libraries to strengthen and inspire their communities.
Here in St. Paul, the nonprofit creates those sparks through fundraising, advocacy and programming.
It’s created such a bonfire that other libraries now hire the Friends to serve as library consultants.
In part because of its work as the producer of the Minnesota Book Awards - a yearlong program that connects readers and writers throughout the state - the Friends were designated by the Library of Congress as the Center for the Book in Minnesota. It is tasked with promoting reading, literacy, libraries and the scholarly study of books.
In its almost 75 years, it has gone from an all-volunteer group to a nonprofit with a staff of 15 and an annual budget of about $3 million. Its donors range from individuals to corporations. It has 46 board members, many of them leaders in our community. Every year, the Friends directly contributes about $1 million to our city libraries. Library patrons benefit by way of summer programming, author events, homework help and much more.
“I’ll be in discussion with other libraries and they’ll ask me, ‘How’s it going with your Friends’ organization?’ in a tone that infers that maybe it’s not going so well with their own,” says Library Director Catherine Penkert.
Penkert can’t relate.
“Our relationship with the Friends is incredible,” she says. “I can’t think of another library system that has a relationship like this. It feels so supportive.”
Burns wants to remind us that we are all friends here.
“It’s not being thankful for the Friends,” Burns says of the anniversary. “It’s being thankful for the people who live in St. Paul who are the Friends. We are only as good as the people who support our work and we are only as strong as the people who support our work. The Friends are a collective of the people of St. Paul who say, ‘Yep, I care about my library.’ We’re the way they can activate that love for the library.”
The first meeting of the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library was held Sept. 25, 1945, about three weeks after World War II ended, according to the Ramsey County Historical Society. At the start, membership cost $1.
What comes to mind when you think of a Friends group, whether it be a library or a garden club?
Back in 1945, the group was very much the stereotype: “The organization was composed of educated, upper-class women volunteers who, by holding teas and book sales, raised several thousand dollars a year to buy books and materials,” wrote Biloine Young in her book, “A Noble Task: The St. Paul Public Library Celebrates 125!”
It’s not 1945 anymore.
“Instead of running a book sale,” says Stu Wilson, “we run a national consulting group.”
Wilson is the director of programs and services for the Friends, including Library Strategies, the consulting group that other libraries hire to help with fundraising, planning, community engagement and more.
“Our consulting really got its start in 2006,” Wilson says. “And it was because the St. Paul Friends were getting so many requests from other libraries for advice that we realized first of all that we couldn’t keep doing it. At the same time, we realized this might be an income stream. It’s become a vibrant part of our mission.”
Currently, Wilson says the consulting arm of the Friends raises about $600,000 in revenue annually.
The consulting group was a turning point for the Friends; so was a program for the homebound.
“At first, the Friends of the Library was an all-volunteer group who raised small amounts of money - until the bequest by Dr. Briggs,” says Peter Pearson, who retired as president in 2016. “Have you heard that story? Oh, it’s a great story.
“So, at first, the Friends of the Library was a typical group of volunteers and one thing the ladies did was bring books to the homebound. There was a couple in town, Dr. John Briggs and his wife, Myrtle. Myrtle Briggs was bedridden in the final years of her life. So the Friends would bring her books every two weeks. After she passed away, Dr. Briggs said that was the only joy in her life during her final years. They had no children, no heirs, so he left his entire estate to the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library.”
In 1972, that estate - left in trust to the Friends - was worth $1.6 million. It is now valued at more than $13 million.
“Doing nice things for people was in the ladies’ DNA - they never dreamed it would lead to a huge bequest - but it launched this organization into this whole new realm,” Pearson says. “And they turned to the St. Paul Foundation to help them figure out how to invest funds, how to make grants - they became a granting agency following this bequest.”
The St. Paul Foundation helped house the Friends and helped them manage the endowment. In the 1990s, the organization - which now has its own offices on Montreal Avenue - hired Pearson as its first full-time executive.
What does it mean today, this friendship? How do the Friends help the library?
Think of it this way:
You don’t expect your friends to help pay your Xcel bill.
“The city largely does a good job of supporting the basic operations of the library,” says Burns. “The Friends has been very careful not to fund, through private philanthropy, the business of being the library: being a city library means paying for hours, staff, facilities maintenance.”
“We can fund the innovation, the new, the different, the ‘We need to try this,’” Burns says. “You can do that with private dollars.”
It makes a difference.
“It’s been a contributor to why the St. Paul Public Library is so front of field in so many ways and widely respected nationally,” Burns says.
One example is on the third floor of the George Latimer Central Library: “This is a working/creative space,” a sign states at the entrance to the Nicholson Workforce and Innovation Center: “Please expect noise. Ask us how you can join the fun with weekly business, creative skill, job help and computer classes!”
Tom Coffee joined in on that fun on a Monday evening this fall: He was here for an hourlong, new member orientation for the Innovation Lab, an adults-only “makerspace.”
A software developer by training, he is in transition: “I’m trying to segue back into teaching,” he said.
For now, the Innovation Lab can help him with his own innovations.
“I thought I could use some of their resources to make mobile apps,” Coffee said, “because I can’t really afford to buy a new laptop right now.”
After the orientation was completed and his membership approved, Coffee opened one of the laptops and got to work.
The power of friendship
Former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer saw the power of friendship back in 1981. At the time, a recession was forcing budget cuts. One recommendation: The closure of three library branches. One of them was Riverview on the West Side.
“Sister Giovanni, a giant on the West Side, called me and said: ‘Mayor, I understand you are thinking of closing our library. Would you mind coming to the West Side and meeting with me and some other folks?’” recalls Latimer. “I said, ‘Sister, of course I will.’”
The little Carnegie library wasn’t big enough to hold those gathered: The meeting had to be moved to a nearby church. It was packed.
“One after the other, people got up to speak,” Latimer says. “They weren’t haranguing. They were not angry. They were not accusing me of plundering or asking me what I was doing. Instead, they said: ‘We love our library and here’s why.’ You couldn’t help but be moved by this.”
Riverview was given a reprieve - as were the other branches facing closure. A capital campaign - led by the Friends - ensured their survival. All three of the branches are still open - and the St. Paul Library has even grown since then: Beyond the George Latimer Central Library in downtown St. Paul, and the bookmobile, there are 12 branch libraries spanning the city. In 2014, another public-private partnership raised $14.8 million through a capital campaign for the Sun Ray, Highland and Central branches.
It was also the power of friendship that ensured that this library system would not be as vulnerable to the shifting priorities of any particular budget cycle: Through the advocacy work of the Friends, and with the support of then-City Council Member Pat Harris, in addition to some required legislation, St. Paul created the St. Paul Library Agency in 2003, governed by the city council acting as the Library Board. City funding for the library began showing up on taxation notices separately from the general city levy.
The Friends are still there, every budget year, working with Library leadership to recommend funding priorities: In 2019, one of those priorities was eliminating library fines. It has resulted in a circulation boost. This year, after funding a successful pilot project for a library social worker, the Friends recommend that the city find a way to permanently fund that position.
City Council Member Jane Prince, current chair of the Library Board, finds it easy to work with these Friends.
“When the Friends say, ‘We think you should do this,’” Prince says, “we know it comes from a depth of knowledge and experience and concern about our library.”
The Friends, of course, don’t just ask. They also give.
“The relationship between the Friends and the city,” says Prince, “is a real example of a private-public partnership that works.”
St Paul Mayor Melvin Carter agrees.
“For 75 years, the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library has been an incredible partner in our community,” he said in a statement. “Their work ensures our libraries continue to thrive and remain accessible to all of us.”
A new board member
As a child living in a refugee camp in Thailand, Der Yang was accustomed to sharing photocopied versions of books with the other students at the camp’s school. An original book, one that she could read on her own? It wasn’t something she imagined.
“We didn’t have books at the camp,” Yang says.
Then the bookmobile drove into her life.
By then, Yang was 8 and she and her family were living in the McDonough Homes community in St. Paul.
“At the time, my parents didn’t drive, but every Wednesday, as soon as we got out of school, the bookmobile would come to our neighborhood,” Yang remembers.
At first, it was confusing.
“I couldn’t believe they let you just take the books home,” she recalls. “It was amazing to me.”
It changed everything.
“That’s where my sister and I learned to love books and reading,” she says. “That’s the place where we felt safe. It was just one of those places that transported you to a different world. And the bookmobile librarian was just the most wonderful person.”
Yang’s sister, Kao Kalia Yang, is now an award-winning author, and Yang is a lawyer. Known as the “Village Lawyer,” she works out of the Hmong Village shopping center in St. Paul. She and her husband own a home on the East Side, are raising their three kids in the city and live within a couple of miles of a neighborhood library branch. And Yang? She’ll be the newest board member of the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library beginning in 2020.
“The St. Paul Public Library has always been like a friend to me,” she says. “It’s never been just a place to hold books. It’s a resource, a lifeline, a place where people help each other.”
She wants to help, too.
“I’m ready to contribute,” she says. “I want to be that friend for others.”
The Perrie Jones Circle
The George Latimer Central Library was closed for the day, but the scavenger hunt was just beginning on this November evening.
Hosted by the Friends, it was an event designed to introduce a new version of the Perrie Jones Circle for donors and show them around her former workplace in a fun and interactive way.
As the lights flickered on and off in a programming glitch, some of the people gathered in the library director’s office studied a framed photograph of Jones, who stared back at them with her hand on her hip.
“She looks like someone you don’t want to mess with,” someone said.
“I’m sure you didn’t,” someone else replied.
After the lights went back on, Burns told the crowd a spooky bit of trivia: “She died on this night in 1968.”
Jones was a benevolent force, though, one whose legacy continues today: She left $500,000 to the Friends, to be used for the professional development of library staff. Ahead of her time, Jones even worried about the impact of screens on society back when television’s influence was rising in the 1950s.
What would Perrie Jones have us focus on today?
“I think about that every day,” Burns says.
Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.