A diversifying group of steadfast supporters gives their all for the University Libraries.
Although The Beatles didn’t have libraries in mind when they sang, “I get by with a little help from my friends,” the sentiment captures the relationship between the University Libraries and the Friends of the Library, especially its board of directors.
The Friends of the Library Board consists of 33 steadfast supporters who provide their time, talents and financial support to the University Libraries. Working in partnership with the office of library development, the Friends Board is growing stronger by continuing to diversify with regard to the age, race, ethnicity, gender and geography of the members.
“I welcome the Friends Board as partners, advisers and, of course, as advocates who help me achieve the bold vision that I have for our library system,” says University Librarian Elaine L. Westbrooks. “It’s essential to have advocates from many backgrounds and perspectives who can champion the Library for philanthropic reasons and be that voice that holds the Library and myself accountable.”
“Friends Board members are ambassadors for the Library,” says Blue Dean, executive director of library development and liaison to the board. “One of their primary roles is to help with fundraising efforts. Board members are a voice for the importance and value of philanthropic gifts that allow us to be flexible and quickly respond to greatest needs. COVID and budget cuts mean more than ever that there is work we can’t do without donor support.”
Becoming a friend
With a minimum gift of $100, anyone can become a member of the Friends of the Library. Westbrooks says that joining is a great investment.
“Friends get access to our events and our planning and stay connected and engaged with the University Libraries,” she says. “They are part of a special community that is dedicated to the future and mission of the Library.”
“This is a unique community that is passionate about knowledge, access, student learning, our amazing collections and the history of the American South. You’re going to miss something if you’re not a Friend. You’re investing in the future of the Library. State support of the Library doesn’t fully support all we need to do. I cannot innovate and do transformational work without the Friends.”
A board chair sets the tone and agenda for the board to further Westbrook’s priorities. While Neilson Brown ’67 completed his term as chair last year, he continues to serve on the board he first joined more than 25 years ago. He now co-chairs the development committee.
“The Library is the main focus of the University,” says Brown. “You can’t have a global research-based university without a library already positioned to support that.”
“Our job as Friends Board members is to be informed about what’s going on,” he says. “I continue to learn that this is not your grandfather’s library and I have been committed to letting my communities know about the important work the Library is doing and why folks should support it. Plus, Friends programs are a great way to keep learning about local, regional and historic events.”
As a journalist, Mary Miller—who became Friends Board chair in November 2020—is passionate about the Library. “The libraries are the spine of Carolina,” she says. “If you didn’t have the libraries, you’d have to ask yourself if there would still be a university. The answer would be no.”
She cites a quote from Andrew Carnegie, industrialist and library philanthropist: “A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people.” Miller adds, “Everything I believe and everything I value in life exists in the expression of a public library and in Carolina’s libraries in particular.”
As the parent of a current UNC-Chapel Hill student, Miller is committed to the Library’s mission of serving people throughout the state. “You don’t have to be a Carolina student or alum to benefit from the work of these libraries or these collections,” she says. “People from all over the world use these collections for their research.”
“I am passionate about carrying the message of Carolina’s libraries and leading the Board in letting the community know that the strength of our state relies on the strength of our libraries,” she says. “It’s about creating a better, healthier, more prosperous future for everybody.”
A community of support
Alongside the Friends of the Library Board, the Administrative Board of the Library and the Student Library Advisory Board provide support and advocacy from Carolina faculty and students, respectively.
The Administrative Board of the Library—consisting of 13 faculty members from a diverse range of disciplines, along with one undergraduate and one graduate student—advises Vice Provost for University Libraries L. Elaine Westbrooks. The ABL advocates for the University Libraries and reports annually to the Faculty Council about Library issues.
Westbrooks appreciates the “tremendous sounding board” the ABL provides. “We intentionally have a cross-disciplinary group that offers egalitarian and inclusive views,” she says. “They advise me on ways we can communicate with the faculty and help me get feedback and input.”
ABL chair Kurt Gilliland, Ph.D., associate professor in the School of Medicine, says that the diversity of the ABL enables members to have an impact when they make suggestions and provide feedback.
“Our board members are so passionate in the ways that they bring their expertise to the committee,” says Gilliland. “Those diverse perspectives, the differences in our training and the ways that we function—some of us write grants and some of us write books—help Elaine make decisions about resources. We all have the greatest respect for Elaine, who is visionary and innovative.”
Gilliland says that serving on the ABL has reinforced his appreciation that “a library is more than just a physical location and a reservoir of books.”
“What really impresses me is that the Library has such an instructional role in the University, whether it’s in coding classes or consultation, follow-up, independent project work or online tutorials,” he says. “It’s amazing how much we rely upon their staff to be teachers.”
The Student Library Advisory Board was formed 25 years ago, shortly after students voted to institute a library fee (now $5 per year) that established the Student Endowed Library Fund. SLAB determines how to spend the endowment returns each year in ways that benefit students. Members also share suggestions with Library administrators and procure student feedback.
Suchi Mohanty, head of the Undergraduate Library and coordinator of SLAB, says that having a board jointly appointed by student government, the Library and the graduate student association yields a range of students, including undergraduates, graduate students, transfer students and international students. “The board is a really dedicated, smart group of students who are so enthusiastic and caring about the library system and about their peers,” she says.
Nate Allen ’22 has served on SLAB since fall 2020. “We are a conduit for the student body to speak to library matters,” says Allen. “I have been surprised and thankful for how much we’re actually able to do as a board and how receptive the departments are to hearing from us.”
“I don’t think there is any other university library that has a board like this,” says Westbrooks. “Students have the power to allocate hundreds of thousands of dollars in ways they think will help the student body. That’s deep engagement, making sure the resources are being used responsibly. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The newest Friends of the Library Board members, in their own words
The Board is a bridge from the Library as an institution and the living entity of learning with deep roots in communities all over the world. The Library system is so good at being in the fabric of learning. It needs our help to be identified and to be recognized as an essential element of learning, appreciating and remembering our history, while launching minds into our present and future, prepared to innovate solutions to our needs.
Kristy Woodson Harvey
I am an author and not only an avid reader but also an avid researcher. I have seen firsthand the power of libraries to offer glimpses into our past so that we can rewrite a better future. The resources we have at our disposal at the UNC-Chapel Hill libraries are extraordinary and need to be preserved.
Our libraries truly touch every single student. Few other organizations on campus can say that. (Maybe Kenan Stadium and the Dean Dome!) As a grad, I feel grateful every single day for the incredible foundation Chapel Hill gave me that has given me not only the skillset but also the confidence to chase my biggest dreams, and I couldn’t wish for anything more for current students. The libraries are the foundation upon which all of that is built.
I see the University Libraries as the heart of the University and as critical to supporting students, engaging with the community and holding in trust our precious special collections. I am looking forward to helping foster new friends to the board, aiding in connecting with potential donors and being an advocate and supporter of Elaine Westbrooks’ critical initiatives.
The Library is central to the public mission of the University of North Carolina—a school “of the people, for the people.” Each of us is a steward, in a way, to do what we can in our lifetime to preserve and expand this treasure for future generations.
B.A. ’95, J.D. ’02, M.B.A. ’02
I joined the Friends Board because I’ve long had a special, multi-faceted connection to the University Libraries: visiting the grand rooms of Wilson with my father as a kid, seeing my father direct his UNC gifts to the Library, enjoying studying and researching as a student, my first job as an assistant in the archives, serving as a student member of the Friends Board, using the libraries in my career as a lawyer (especially the School of Government and Law libraries), using the libraries for personal research projects (especially the North Carolina Collection and Southern Historical Collection), being a donor myself and introducing my own kids to the wonders of Wilson and Davis libraries. To me, the Library is the beating heart of the University.
The margin of excellence for a great library like our own comes from private support. Like all academic libraries, our library seeks to serve students, faculty and scholars, and it does so very well. The University Libraries is unusual and special in its commitment to serving a fourth group: the broader public. The Friends play a role in supporting the Library in service to all of these groups, and we can be especially helpful in fostering engagement with alumni and the people of North Carolina.
I joined the Friends Board to offer my support to the success and efficacy of the Library and my perspective as a person of color. The Friends Board is important in elevating the conversation about the impact of the Library on the future of UNC.
Carter Brown Williams
The Library has always been a place that is important and that supported my time at UNC. I was drawn to the mission of the Friends Board: to collaborate, consult and provide philanthropic support to the University Libraries. As we all know, the Library provides knowledge that is integral in student achievements.
Story by Michele Lynn, Illustration by Nicole Basile
This story originally appeared in the spring/summer 2021 issue of Windows, the magazine of the Friends of the Library at the University Libraries.