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Friends of the Houston Public Library History

Founded in 1953, the Friends of the Houston Public Library is currently celebrating its 59th year. The 34th Annual Bargain Book Sale will take place April 13-15, 2012 at the George R. Brown Convention Center. The Friends was founded as a non-profit corporation dedicated to supporting the Houston Public Library by raising money and promoting public awareness.

At the Friends’ 25th anniversary in 1978, Mrs. O. L. Rash, one of the founders, discussed early days when dues were $1.00 and the Friends bought some dishes and silver “so we could have a party.” Clay Bailey, president 1962-64, said, “Things were a little rough in those days,” as he recalled a newspaper headline “Empty Library Shelves Shameful.”

Even today, great libraries cannot be supported with tax dollars alone. Help for needed programs, materials and library staff support is still needed and the Friends continues to provide support. Although good records were not kept in the early days, the Friends believes it has given more than $2 million to the library.

The Friends became a 501(c)(3) in 1958. Due to changes in tax laws that had negative implications for donor organizations, the Board of Directors of the Friends voted in July, 2007 to dissolve their 501(c)(3) and join that of the Houston Public Library Foundation. The Foundation’s 501(c)(3) was organized in 2006 to comply with new tax laws and to provide an umbrella organization for other Houston Public Library groups. The Friends retains its own mission, by-laws, and board of directors. Tax returns and audits are done by the Foundation.

The Friends chief fundraising event has been the Annual Bargain Book Sale. The first one was held on the Central Library plaza in 1978. The “new” library was two years old. “The book sale (1st) is planned as a huge extravaganza to be held under a tent on the Central Library plaza. We now have approximately 20,000 books that are being processed and priced.” Sorting was done in the Houston Terminal Warehouse space donated by Mr. Victor Samuels, a board member. The one-day “Buck-A-Book” sale sold out. The 25th Annual Bargain Book Sale, held at the George R. Brown Convention Center in 2003, had 90,000 books and took in over $130,000 during the three day sale. That year, 49 sorters worked 2,125 hours preparing for the sale, and 276 volunteers at the sale put in 1,393 hours.

Between the first and the 25th sales, rain storms in 1985 and 1986 drove the Friends to look elsewhere than the Central Library plaza to hold the sale. The Albert Thomas Convention Center was chosen and one year later it closed. The Friends moved the sale to the Sam Houston Coliseum and it was there until it also closed in 1994. The next stop was the Astrohall and the sale was held there until it faced major remodeling in 1997. Since 1998 the sale has been held in the George R. Brown Convention Center. Members of the Friends continue to enjoy the Preview Sale on Friday each year. Every year members are lined up at 4:30 on opening day, eager to find the best, most wonderful buys!

Warehouse space for storing and sorting books has also had quite a history. Beginning at the Houston Terminal Warehouse, sorting moved to a second-story loft on Walnut in 1989, then to the North Port Center from 1990 to 1992, then to an old National Guard Armory for 1993, then to the Resource Center for 1993 and 1994, including a second site in the Resource Center for 1995, and currently to a Chase Bank site on West Little York. Rain has been an enemy in the past and still can be on book moving day. The Chase Bank facility does not have a covered loading dock to protect the 80,000 – 90,000 books that have to be moved. Members are always on the lookout for more adequate space.

Six biennial galas were held from 1978 to 1986 and were very successful for funding endowments for various library departments. The first several events were “evenings to reminisce.” In 1978 guests appeared in vintage costumes. Guests came to celebrate the restoration and preservation of the Julia Ideson Building in 1980, and 1982 followed a similar theme. In 1984 guests were thrilled with an oriental theme showcasing the grandeur of Imperial China. Guests spent a Night in Camelot with King Arthur in 1986. In 1988 they had an evening of adventure into different worlds at the Galaxy Gala.

Writing contests that bows on the experience of living in Houston were held in three consecutive years, 1986 – 1988. The first was open to African Americans. The second year gave Hispanics an opportunity to write about their experiences, and the third year gave Asians their opportunity. There were 20 to 30 participants each year.

Annual meetings have been held with a variety of local authors as guest speakers. The Friends present their gift to the Director of HPL each year at this meeting. Gala gifts were $96,000, $85,000 and $50,000. The Gala funds provided endowments for various library departments. The annual gift from book sales rose from $15,000 in 1987 to a high of $105,000 in 2003. In 2006 was $65,000; $75,000 in 2007, and $80,000 in 2008. The more recent annual gifts are used to provide training, employee recognition, programming, and to support neighborhood libraries. The Friends also support the HPL newsletter, the link. The Friends provided initial support for the Power Card campaign, and helped purchase materials during lean budget years.

A scholarship fund was established in 1993 to help members of the library staff earn a Masters of Library Science Degree. Over $100,000 has been awarded since the program began. Many of the recipients are still at the library, some have completed their career and retired, while others are working to complete their programs. Three of the four regional managers are Friends scholarship recipients. In 2009, the Friends increased the amount of the scholarship to $5,000 from $3,000. This amount is approximately half the online degree program tuition.

The Friends has met many challenges and given much support to the Houston Public Library over the past 59 years and has many more challenges to meet. One of the most important challenges is to increase membership, not only to provide funds for the library, but also to show wide community support. The Friends must take a lead in advocacy to increase public awareness of the role HPL plays in providing education, information, and recreation to the community and to turn awareness into support for the funding necessary for the library to fulfill that role adequately. The opportunities continue to be many for members to support Dr. Rhea Brown Lawson in her vision of making the Houston Public Library the best in the country.