News - August 25, 2010

Surprise move: funds for library's book group axed

by Renee Batti

The final chapter of the Menlo Park Library's 15-year-old book discussion group doesn't make for a happy ending. In fact, it's proven to be quite the tear-jerker.

Last month, as they were reading the selected novel and preparing for their August meeting, members were shocked to learn that the group would no longer be funded by the Friends of the Menlo Park Library.

Even more shocking to them, and to longtime group leader Lauren John, is that Ms. John was notified — by e-mail of the group's demise by Library Director Susan Holmer after the fact. They were given no warning that Ms. Holmer planned not to ask the nonprofit Friends to continue funding the discussion group.

Ms. Holmer presented a funding proposal for library programs to the Friends on July 12, and sent the e-mail to Ms. Johns the next day.

Group members were up in arms, and Ms. John was "devastated" and "in tears," according to members who spoke to The Almanac. But members who brought their complaints to the Friends of the Library leadership were informed that it is the Friends' practice to grant the funding requests of the library director.

Friends president Karen Zechnich wrote in an e-mail to two book group members: "Please understand that the Friends board does not determine the library's budget or make decisions regarding the operations of the library. This is the responsibility of our library director."

Ms. Holmer said she decided not to fund the book discussion group, at an annual cost of $1,200, because the funds were needed for such things as the children's and teen collections.

Several members asserted that, even if the meager amount of book group funding had been needed for other library programs, it is likely that members would have raised the money themselves to continue paying Ms. John the $100 per session to lead the group.

"We could have all chipped in and had the meetings in the same room in the library — maybe we could have had a book fair, or another kind of fundraiser," said Susan Huch, a book group member from the beginning.

Ms. Huch dismissed Ms. Holmer's assertion that attendance at the group's meetings represented a "relatively low number of beneficiaries for the cost," saying that 150 in attendance over the course of a year is a robust number. What's more, she said, the diversity of group members was wide and uncommon for such discussion groups — men and women, in a range of professions, ranging in age from their 30s to 85.

"This has been a community thing that we've been doing for so long," she added. "We're very passionate for our book group and very passionate for Lauren."

Ms. John, a member of the Menlo Park group for eight years and leader for six, is a widely regarded book group leader; in 2006, she published "Running Book Discussion Groups: A How-To-Do-It Manual."

In an e-mail to angry and upset group members who had suggested petitioning to keep the group alive, Ms. John wrote that if the group continues, "I will not be rejoining it at Menlo Park Library. I have given countless hours of paid and volunteer service and donated hundreds of dollars of books to the library over the years and it would just be too painful to continue to do so."

Ms. Holmer acknowledged that letting Ms. John and group members know about her decision ahead of time "probably would have been a good idea."

"Had I known that there was going to be such unhappiness, I certainly would have let them know before," she said, adding, "It wouldn't have made a difference in funding because I needed that money for other things."

In an e-mail to The Almanac, Ms. John said: "Good managers know that every difficult or controversial budget decision should be accompanied by a difficult conversation. Nothing is more difficult than firing someone or canceling a popular program.

"Director Holmer made the difficult decision but did not want to have the difficult discussion."

Meanwhile, Ms. John has been asked to lead a fiction/nonfiction discussion group at the Palo Alto Oshman Jewish Community Center beginning Oct. 5. There will be a cost — $5 for nonmembers of the center, and $3 for members.


Posted by lauren john, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Aug 24, 2010 at 10:13 am

Thanks to the generous Friends of the Menlo Park Library for funding our book group so well and for so long.
Thanks to the community members who protested to the extent that the story about our wonderful book group actually made it into the Menlo Park Almanac.
We all recognize the importance of funding children's and teen programs--and if the $1200 it cost to run book group is put towards those programs, it would be great to know how they were applied.
Director Holmer has also informed me that should a volunteer step forward to lead a library based book group, the library will provide meeting space and publicity via the library Web site and bulletin board--should a leader produce flyers at their own cost.

What concerns me and should concern other community members is Director Holmer's continuous use of the word "I" as in her Almanac quote below. A library community is a "we" .

"Had I known that there was going to be such unhappiness, I certainly would have let them know before," she said, adding, "It wouldn't have made a difference in funding because I needed that money for other things."

Posted by WHAT?, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Aug 24, 2010 at 10:35 am

By email? Holmer told the group leader she was history BY EMAIL? Words fail.

Posted by Christine Traut Miller, a resident of another community
on Aug 24, 2010 at 10:37 am

Thank for for your accurate, fair and thorough coverage of the dismal treatment given to the Menlo Park Book Group and Ms. Lauren John by the Director of the Menlo Park Public Library Susan Holmer. Anyone who has had the privilege of attending one of Lauren's book group meetings knows that she is a treasure. I cannot fathom why Ms. Holmer would treat her in such a shabby manner.

The Menlo Park Library is a precious public resource that helps create community. Ms. Holmer's leadership most emphatically does not advance that aim.

My thanks to the Friends of the Menlo Park Library for supporting the book group for so many years. I enthusiastically invite anyone who loves book discussions to join our new group at the Palo Alto Oshman Community Center.

Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Aug 24, 2010 at 12:34 pm

It is sad to see the results of the disgraceful looting of the public coffers by our so-called public servants.

Posted by Barbara Seaney, a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Aug 24, 2010 at 8:34 pm

There's no question that the disbanding of the Menlo Park Library Book Club should have been handled in a more diplomatic manner. Those of us who were loyal members--and there were many-=will miss both our meetings and Lauren's enthusiastic and extremely competent leadership.

Posted by Frances Zavis, a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Aug 25, 2010 at 10:48 am

Are adult book readers less important to the library system than children and teens? The principal supporters and users of local libraries are the strengths of the community. Was any thought of these factors considered before canceling this 15 year old book club in such a shameful manner? Evidently not!

Posted by Trilda, a resident of another community
on Aug 28, 2010 at 12:01 am

I'm simply appalled.

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.


Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields