December 8, 2017

Sally Gardner Reed on 15 Years of Uniting for Libraries

As executive director of United for Libraries (UFL), the American Library Association (ALA) division that supports library trustees, advocates, friends, and foundations, Sally Gardner Reed has been the organization’s driving force since 2002. Reed will be retiring at the end of July, having seen the organization grow and change greatly over the past 15 years, from the 2009 merger of Friends of Libraries U.S.A. (FOLUSA) and the Association of Library Trustees and Advocates (ALTA) to become the Association of Library Trustees, Advocates, Friends, and Foundations (ALTAFF)—which changed its name to UFL in 2012. She will be succeeded by deputy executive director Beth Nawalinski.

A former library administrator for 20 years before taking the helm at UFL, Reed is the author of eight books on library management, advocacy, volunteers, and fundraising, including her most recent, The Good, the Great, and the Unfriendly: A Librarian’s Guide to Working with Friends Groups (ALA). She was the 2000 recipient of ALA’s Herbert and Virginia White Award for promoting libraries and librarianship. LJ caught up with her to find out about some of the highs and lows of her time at UFL.

LJ: Was there an “aha” moment for you when you realized you wanted to work with trustees, Friends, and foundations?

Sally Gardner Reed: There was. I had the good luck of having fantastic boards of trustees and Friends throughout my library career. I had no idea there could be friends groups that weren’t friendly. I was watching as Sandy Dolnick headed up [FOLUSA] and thought, wow, what a great job that would be. And one day I was looking on the ALA job site, and I saw that Sandy was retiring. I remember yelling down to my husband, “Oh, my job’s open!” I practically went into the interview saying, “When do I start?” I just knew it was destiny. And I luckily was offered the position, and have really, really loved it.

What does day-to-day work with UFL involve?

We get a number of calls for advice, which is my favorite part, but mostly we work to develop member services—publications, webinars, FAQ sheets, and tip sheets. We want to provide Friends, trustees, and library directors with the materials they need to be really successful in working together.

We also do a lot of work with active members who are involved with committee work and task forces, and with our corporate sponsors. One of the important revenue streams we have comes from corporate support, so we have to nurture that.

The other thing we do is work very closely with our publishing partners to develop programs and services for authors and libraries. We have authorsforlibraries.org, a matchmaking site between authors who are willing to speak out on behalf of libraries, and libraries that can seek out authors in their area when they need an op-ed or a more powerful voice—or just to set up author programs.

About those Friends groups that aren’t friendly—is that an attitude you’ve often encountered?

It’s not typical. But when it happens, it’s agonizing for everybody. I mean, we never get calls at [UFL] about, “Hey, I just want to tell you the great story about my Friends group.” We get the calls when things break down. I would say that’s probably maybe five percent [of Friends groups], maybe even less, but when that happens, it’s horrible. We get both Friends and directors calling us [to ask], how can we fix this? What do we do?

What are some memorable triumphs or challenges from your 15 years at UFL?

The first thing that popped into my head is meeting with Dan Rather. He was our President’s Program speaker [at ALA Annual] around 2012. I got to meet him as his car dropped him off, spent time in the green room, and then introduce him. That was an amazing moment for me, because I think he’s such an important American. Other than that, I’ve written several books to help Friends and trustees over my tenure. The publication of those has meant a lot to me, and I’ve gotten really great feedback from people who’ve used them.

Getting out in the field and consulting with Friends and trustees and libraries has been really terrific, because when you’re sitting in the office and you’re imagining what Friends need or what trustees need, it’s abstract. But on the ground, meeting with these people who are giving their time and energy and expertise to make their libraries better—that is humbling.

So what do Friends and trustees need?

Friends are looking for ways to raise money for their library. Also they are wondering what to do to reenergize their group. People who are 65 and older are aging out, and they don’t want the legacy that they’ve created to go by the wayside. So they’re very interested in knowing how they attract new, active members.

For trustees, it’s advocacy. Primarily, how do we get the budget we really need? How do we convince our funders that this is really critical; that libraries are essential? What is the case we can make, and how do we make it?

How have things changed since you’ve been working with these advocate groups?

The major change has been in technology. One of the things that Sandy Dolnick did in early days—and it’s still so robust today—is set up a listserv. That was pretty unique back in 2001 or 2000. The importance of that is that Friends all across the country from all different types and sizes of libraries can connect—and do, on a regular basis—about questions they have, problems they’re dealing with. They get peer-to-peer advice. We’ve seen that technology now has provided us the ability to consult remotely via Skype, and that Friends newsletters, for example, are now online and available to everybody. Sandy got her feet in that pool really early, and it’s been great.

Other changes—in 2008 everything crashed, and libraries became more and more dependent on fundraising because budgets were slashed. They became more and more dependent on advocacy. That’s still important, and Friends have gotten really savvy at advocating for their library, and so have trustees. Prior to 2008, advocacy was not as big as fundraising, not by a longshot.

What are you most proud of from your tenure?

I’m most proud of the development of my staff. Now that I’m going, I don’t have one single look in the rearview mirror. I don’t worry a bit about where UFL is going, because Beth Nawalinski and [marketing/PR specialist] Jillian Wentworth are just fabulous, and they’re perfectly prepared to carry on and bring UFL to new heights .

Can you talk a bit about the books you wrote?

I’m very proud of the Complete Library Trustee Handbook (ALA), because I feel like it covers the waterfront on areas that trustees need to address, and I’ve gotten terrific feedback from people.

My most recent book, The Good, the Great, and the Unfriendly: A Librarian’s Guide to Working Effectively with Friends, I think is unique. I don’t think there’s anything else out there that really addresses Friends groups from a director’s standpoint: how to start a Friends group, how to revitalize a Friends group, and importantly, how do deal with the Friends group that maybe goes rogue—because that does happen: how to bring them back into alignment and how to get everybody on the same page with the direction the library’s going.

What would you like to see UFL accomplish after you’ve gone?

I would like to see United for Libraries be financially really healthy. When we merged [with ALA], even though we wrote articles and went out on the listserv and did everything we possibly could to communicate this merger, when the Friends groups got their renewal, it was in a third-class envelope from ALA, so you can imagine probably most of them were not even opened and just went into the trash, because they didn’t come from FOLUSA. We lost a boatload of member groups. And on top of that, we didn’t know that we would be paying about 25 percent overhead back to ALA. I could go on forever about this. There were a number of things we didn’t know we didn’t know.

On top of all of that, our predecessor, ALTA, was getting $95,000 a year from ALA in a small division subsidy. We were counting on that. Our very first year, ALA took half of it away, and they’ve steadily decreased it to where now we’re not getting any.

So all of that put together put us in a terrible situation financially, and we’ve been working really hard ever since to claw our way back. We are just barely in the black nowadays, but it’s really close. I would like to see UFL able to work without worrying day in and day out about how we’re going to make ends meet.

What’s coming up within UFL that we should know about?

Book Club Central is really big, and Sarah Jessica Parker has accepted a lifetime position on our board of trustees. I think having her voice and her support behind us is just phenomenal. We’re really proud about that. Her agent told us that she would like to become, in some way, more involved with UFL, and I’ve got my fingers crossed that maybe she’ll help us in the fundraising department. I think just having her name is going to help tremendously in that regard.

We’ve seen our membership increase over the last year or two. I think the word is getting out there that United for Libraries is a great place to belong and to get resources that everyone needs.

What will you be doing next?

My husband and I are heading over to Europe. We’re going to spend a month over there. And I am seriously considering starting a food blog called The Chubby Vegan, because it doesn’t seem fair when you’re a vegan to be chubby, but there you have it. I love cooking, I love making up recipes, and I do love to write. I think I can maybe pull it off.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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