Former Carnegie library on North Union Street.
The Early Years
In 1980, the Olean Public Library received two pieces of financial bad news. First, the federal government reduced funding for CETA, a jobs training program. This led to a one-third reduction in the library’s full-time staff. At the same time, the Olean school board trimmed several thousand dollars from the library’s budget request.
The combined effect of these cuts was that some library programs had to be eliminated.
Maureen Curry, who served as library director from 1969 to 1994, was, by professional training and by temperament, unable to passively accept this erosion of library services.
Ms. Curry was also aware that other libraries in New York and across the country had benefitted from the creation of organized groups of volunteers, known as Friends of the Library, who were committed to support their library’s needs. Starting with an informal list she compiled, Ms. Curry brought together a small group during the winter of 1981 for a couple of organizational meetings.
In June 1981, with start-up funds generously provided by the Olean Zonta Club, Ms. Curry’s cluster of recruits filed a certificate of incorporation as a not-for-profit, educational organization in New York State.
Library Needs Identified
The new corporation’s first annual report identified three specific library needs. The most immediate was for an expanded volunteer corps.
Also needed was an advocacy program to inform politicians and school board members about the library’s service to the community. Finally, a book endowment fund was proposed which would, in time, enhance purchases of circulating materials.
Looking for Members
That early group may have had few resources and fewer members, but it had a very generous supply of energy and caring. Eager to increase their numbers as rapidly as possible, they began an inaugural membership drive with a wine-and-cheese reception.
Over the next few years, embellishments to this reception included special exhibits by local artists and collectors: music provided by a harpist, a string quartet, and ultimately a dance band; and even a ballet presentation by a local dance studio.
Friends worked for saturation coverage of their membership drive. Newspaper and radio ads appeared and interviews were given. Enrollment stations were set up at the library, the mall, and in local bank lobbies. At these stations, volunteers accepted membership dues and also sold T-shirts, totes and buttons—all with the Friends of the Olean Library logo.
The results were impressive. During the first year, more than 400 people joined Friends. Hundreds of hours donated by an expanded volunteer staff allowed the library to restore Sunday hours.
Annual Book Sale
From its inception, the organization’s major sources of funding were membership dues and an annual used book sale. The first sale was held in 1981 at the library.
Generous donations of books for sale, both from the library and interested area residents, quickly forced Friends to look for more space. Off-site rooms were rented for sorting and for storage and for the sale itself. In 1983, an estimated 10,000 items were available; posters advertising the 1985 sale boasted that 25,000 items were on hand.
Book Endowment Fund
Income from these sales, which sometimes amounted to thousands of dollars, went directly into the Book Endowment Fund, which had been formally established in 1982.
Friends directors decided that money placed in this fund, which was invested in certificates of deposit and later in conservative stocks, would remain untouched until its value reached $100,000.
Friends also fulfilled its role as library advocate by attending school budget hearings and legislative hearings in Little Valley and Albany.
A highlight of those efforts occurred in 1985 when Charlotte O’Dea, who had served for three years as president of the Friends of the Olean Public Library, was elected to the Olean school board.
A Fourth Purpose Identified
As soon as Friends had secured operating funds through membership dues plus raffles and even, briefly, a winter film series, the directors provided financial support for a variety of library projects.
Brochures, radio ads and posters promoted special library activities scheduled during National Library Week in April. Additional radio ads and posters promoted the library’s always-successful summer reading programs for children.
Operating funds also covered rental costs related to those off-site book sales. And in the mid-80s, an electronic message sign was installed in the library to promote cultural activities throughout the community.
Our three-plus-one purposes are unchanged. However, as the library’s relationship with the community has evolved, we have made adjustments.
Since the late 1980s, responsibility for the recruitment and supervision of volunteers who serve at the circulation desk and in the stacks has been delegated to a member of the library staff. Friends continues to provide volunteers for artists receptions and other special activities.
Our advocacy responsibilities changed significantly in the 1990s. State law changed, allowing residents of small cities like Olean to vote on their school budgets. That forced a change also for libraries connected to those school districts, including ours.
Through the determined efforts of Library Director Joan Armbruster, the annual public vote on the library budget was conducted separately from the vote on the school budget. Friends concentrated on encouraging residents of the Olean City School District to support the library budget with their vote.
The Book Endowment Fund reached its $100,000 goal in 1997. Each fall since then, a percentage of the fund’s overall value, including earnings through investment, has been presented to the library to supplement the purchase of circulating materials.
Friends financial support for other library projects continues. Most notable are the gallery renovations in 2004.
We continue to support projects for children, including the construction of the popular investigation stations. Our Books for Newborns project has been restructured and is now offering its services in a different way, thanks to a cooperative staff at Olean General Hospital.
The elaborate annual book sales of the 1980s have given way in recent years to monthly sales. Nowadays, the number of books available is in the hundreds rather than the thousands, which means that our 10-day sales can be held in the library.
Income from recent sales has ranged from $200 to $400. With no rental costs to pay, all of that is pure profit.
Friends’ non-financial support continues through our bookmark contest for grades K through 5, and our poetry writing contests for grades 6-8 and short story writing for grades 6-10. The awards ceremonies, always crowded with parents and students, showcase our library.
Over the last quarter century, both the library and Friends have changed in some ways. But some things will not change: the library’s dedication to providing a wide range of services for its patrons and Friends’ dedication to helping the library in any way possible.