Surprise move: funds for library's book group axed
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.