Creating community at the Rochester Public Library

Support organization enhances area book lovers’ reading experiences
Friendsofthelibrary 001
Michael Hanlon
FFRPL executive director Ned Davis; Rebecca Fuss, director of advancement; and Susan Chekow Lusignan, director of marketing & program development

In 1956, Rochester Public Library director Harold Hacker knew that it took an average of twelve minutes for people working downtown to reach the Central Library. So when the Friends of the Rochester Public Library started their book review program “Books Sandwiched In” in October of that year, Hacker scheduled the events to begin precisely at 12:12 p.m. This allowed them time to clock out, grab their packed lunch (or pick up a preordered one from Sibley’s), and find a seat at the library in time for the program. 

Even though a Sibley’s lunch isn’t offered anymore, patrons can still bring their own to the 12:12 p.m. Books Sandwiched In program. If they aren’t able to leave their desks, they can live-stream the program on Facebook. Times and technology may have changed, but the quality of the program has not, and each event brings an average of sixty-five attendees to the Central Library.

The Friends of the Rochester Public Library merged with the Rundel Library Foundation, Inc. in 2013, creating the Friends and Foundation of the Rochester Public Library (FFRPL). Today it is the not-for-profit fundraising organization that supports the Rochester Public Library. Its members also provide programming and support special library projects. 

“We would not be able to do even half of what we are doing without them,” says Patricia Uttaro, director of the Rochester Public Library and Monroe County Library System. “Their capacity for fundraising to help the library produce new programs and support programs is unparalleled. Their support for us is fantastic.”

Between July 2016 and June 2017, the FFRPL transferred more than $950,000 to the library so it could purchase books and basic materials as well as enhance and develop programming. The funds also went toward capital improvements and grant support. But the FFRPL doesn’t just find the money and hand it over; its staff helps with organization, outreach, and development as well. 

“It’s not just writing a check,” says Uttaro. “They are involved from A to Z with everything they touch, and we are better for it.”

The FFRPL was integral to the organization and funding of last spring’s Jennifer Pharr Davis author talk. The renowned author, hiker, and 2012 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year lectured and signed books at the Central Library. They also purchased six Empire Passes for the Central Library in honor of her visit, and now patrons can check out a pass and gain free entry to a variety of New York State Parks. This community gift touched Pharr Davis, and she is grateful for FFRPL’s support. “Public trails and public libraries are both invaluable resources and catalysts of inspiration and wellbeing within our communities,” she says. “I was honored to share my love for trails and stories from The Pursuit of Endurance with the patrons of the Rochester Public Library. The highlight of the event was the unveiling of the new Empire Pass check-out program. This valuable new addition to the library’s diverse catalogue will serve to inspire adventure, health, and conservation within the community—and throughout New York!” 

The FFRPL also funds the well-loved Writers & Books Rochester Reads author visit to the Central Library every year. Last year Reyna Grande spoke in the Kate Gleason Auditorium and more than 1,700 patrons downloaded her book, The Distance Between Us. Writer Omar El Akkad, author of American War, will speak at the Central Library in March 2019. 

Writers & Books coordinator of community reading programs Karen vanMeenen appreciates the aligned goals of the FFRPL and Writers & Books. “Writers & Books shares a mission with the FFRPL: to encourage lifelong literary activity in our community,” says vanMeenen. “As such, the ideological support of the FFRPL is an important element of the literary landscape in this city. And their financial support is crucial to the success of such community-based programs as Writers & Books’ Rochester Reads program, which every year offers several opportunities for local readers to meet world-class authors with no admission fees. We—not only as programmers but also as readers ourselves—are grateful to the FFRPL for this continued commitment to the cultural life of Rochester.”

But the FFRPL’s reach goes beyond author visits and book signings. By funding the local arm of the national “Raising a Reader” program at the Rochester Public Library, their efforts support a lifelong love of reading among even the youngest in the community. They provide books, materials, and staff support for the project. Each week about 450 area children take home high-quality books to share with their families to encourage and support literacy at home. Rebecca Fuss, the FFRPL director of advancement, notes that the program also goes a long way toward supporting those in multilingual homes by providing books in various languages as well as picture books with no words: “It’s not just a way to teach children to read but of teaching families to read together. You can do that in your own language. Raising a Reader supports everyone succeeding.” 

The FFRPL’s work at the Rochester Public Library also enhances other libraries in Monroe County. Its Empire Pass purchase inspired six other branch libraries to follow suit, and its stewardship of the Harold Hacker Fund for the Advancement of Libraries provides support for professional development for area librarians as well as new library projects and programs.

It also supports the Out Alliance’s Rainbow Dialogues, the RocBookDrop project, Tuesday Topics, the Sokol High School Literary Awards, and Libraries After Dark. Susan Chekow Lusignan, director of marketing and program development for the FFRPL, says, “I have not had a single day where I haven’t learned something new the FFRPL and the libraries are doing.”

The library is about so much more than books. It’s a community hub and a place where residents can enhance their lives in a vast number of ways. The FFRPL is there to support the library in its quest to create a strong community.

“People still want the books and the magazines and all the things they are used to from their library,” FFRPL executive director Ned Davis explains. “But they also want all these other connections to their community and neighbors. It’s quite a challenge for the library to negotiate, but that is where the FFRPL gets to step in and help bring all of those additional things to life.”  


Christine Green is a freelance writer in Brockport.

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