Reflection On A 20-Year Community Friendship With The Pennsauken Library

BobFisher-HughesBy Robert Fisher-Hughes, AAP Columnist and Amateur Historian

Unless you are a teenager, or not much past, 20 years doesn’t seem to be a very historic period of time looking back. On the other hand, yesterday’s news is already history. It all depends on perspective and the relative significance of events. Measured by these factors, the founding of the Friends of Pennsauken Free Public Library is historic, because of the fundamental worth to our community of the Library itself. In these years of challenge for our local public institutions, it is all the more so.

To really grasp the historic significance of the founding of the Friends of Pennsauken Free Public Library, it may be helpful to consider how much the Library has changed in those 20 years since, in the way it runs and the way people use it. In 1995, libraries still operated on the currency of printed paper. Books, periodicals, printed newspapers, even card catalogs were the standard stock in trade and tools of public information and culture which is the business of libraries.

The digital revolution had hardly begun in 1995. Google was not founded until 1998. Wikipedia was not begun until 2001. Computer use in the home was far from common as it is today and high speed internet was a fantasy.

The founders of the Friends of Pennsauken Free Public Library could not possibly foresee the Library as it is today and the new challenges it continues to face in adapting to a technologically transformed world; but the fact that change was approaching was obvious. How would the Library maintain its traditional services and go through the trial and error, the testing of new technology and new ways to deliver services, as well as the expenses associated with it all at the same time?

Resources for public libraries have always had limits, even as the potential for public benefits from libraries has always been almost unlimited. The state of New Jersey has long maintained a commitment to fund public libraries and Pennsauken Township has long exceeded that required minimum so that high quality library resources and services can be provided. Especially in a time of such impending change, more resources would make a very big difference.

Also, the untimely death in 1994 of the director of Pennsauken Free Public Library for almost 10 years, Mike Phillips, and the need to seek his replacement, may have accentuated the moment when impending change called for new initiatives.

It was in late 1994 and early 1995 that a group of Pennsauken residents who believed in the potential of their Library began to coalesce around the idea of creating a “Friends” group, a supporting organization linked to an existing public non-profit or governmental entity, carrying out a function for the public good. Recognized by the IRS as a 501(c)(3) non-profit because of its organizational commitment to support the public benefit of a non-profit or government entity, this group can allow the supported organization to focus on its main work, while receiving the expanded resources generated by its “Friends.” “Friends” organizations expand the resources of an organization like the Library by recruiting volunteers, raising funds to supplement the budget, carrying out programs and events that promote the mission of the Library and increase awareness of its services, and by serving as a public advocate on behalf of the Library.

The group that began meeting to find new ways to support the Pennsauken Library included citizens of a range of backgrounds, all sharing a commitment to the Library. One leader of the project, Mary Wallace Levin, had been a physical education teacher and chair of the Physical Education Department of Pennsauken High School for many years. She played a key role in the creation of the indoor guard at the high school. She had also served on the Board of Trustees of Pennsauken Free Public Library and had taken on the role of president. Remembered for her abilities to motivate people and get things done, just like any coach, she also remained very active as a member of the Friends in later years until her passing in 2009. The annual poetry contest sponsored by the Friends, which she initiated, is now named in her memory.

Others included Ellen Eifert, who was interim director of the Library at that time; June Cardone; Nicholas Rossi, whose work with the Pennsauken Lions demonstrated his public spirit; Patricia Ward; Bernhard Kofoet, who was recruited to the Friends initiative because of his service on the Community Dispute Resolution Committee and later served on the School Board and as director of Public Works; Susan Williams; and Erika Morton, who was employed at the Library.

After the first meetings had begun to shape agreement, the group was also joined by Timothy Ellis, locally well known for his cooking show on Channel 19, his later work to revitalize the Business Industry and Government Council of Pennsauken Township and the formation of the Pennsauken-Merchantville Area Chamber of Commerce. Tim added his usual drive to the effort and became the first president of the Friends as a result.

After much discussion of ways to help the Library and about incorporation, bylaws, mission and related business of founding an organization, a Certificate of Incorporation of the Friends of Pennsauken Free Public Library was filed in July 1995, with the assistance of attorney Frederick H. Martin. By September, the Friends of Pennsauken Free Public Library were in business.

The first public event sponsored by the Friends was a reception in October to welcome and get acquainted with the new director of the Library, Susan Briant. Tim Ellis, as president of the Friends, welcomed everyone and spoke of a vision for the Pennsauken Library. Also speaking and welcoming the new director was Pennsauken Mayor Rick Taylor. Ms. Briant was soon enlisted as a great supporter of the Friends of Pennsauken Free Public Library, serving as director for years before moving on to the Haddonfield Public Library.

The program issued for the new director’s reception included a list of the first membership of the Friends of Pennsauken Free Public Library. While too long to include here, these early members were the cornerstone of future success and included the future longtime president of the Friends, Mary Deisher.

This inaugural event began an impressive flurry of activity in the first year that included marching in the Township Holiday Parade; a Valentine’s Day program featuring local romance authors; a St. Patrick’s Day event featuring a published poet and a Celtic harpist; a logo contest with prizes won by the design of Mark Viggiano; a bike safety program including bicycle rodeo at the old Discount Harry’s store; a concert by the Pennsauken High School Jazz Band led by Ray Wiggins; the annual golf tournament, which benefited the Friends in that year; and a Friends-sponsored field trip to the Garden State Discovery Museum.

Thus began 20 years of service to the Library and to the community that has included the founding of annual art shows and poetry contests; many speaking programs and demonstrations free to the public; the annual used book and media sale; bake sales, raffles, and much more. Funds generated by the Friends of the Pennsauken Free Public Library have paid for or supported new furniture or equipment, new programs, and seed money to try new things at the Library. These include the refurbishment of the Community Room with up-to-date audio visual equipment, the television monitor in the lobby to announce upcoming events, the display case in the lobby, new furniture in the children’s department, new computer programs such as Ancestry, support for the Summer Reading Program, and most recently the seed money to start the Museum Pass program, which will allow Library card holders to check out passes to local museums to make family visits more affordable.

So this month, be sure to wish your Friends a happy anniversary! You can support the Library by becoming a member and a Friend yourself while you are at it!

Sources for this Column were found in the archives of the Friends of Pennsauken Free Public Library. Thanks to Timothy Ellis and Bernhard Kofoet for sharing their recollections.

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