Almanac

News - November 30, 2011

Friend of library wins state honors

by Sandy Brundage

If it were up to Bill Harris, his award from the state library association would bear at least 30 other names. "The award is the result of volunteers who have been working for years and putting in long hours without being paid," he said.

He recently received the California Association of Library Trustees and Commissioners award for his service as a board member of the Friends of the Menlo Park Library since 1987. For 19 of those years, he's served as board president.

The former construction contractor, who worked on projects as diverse as the Stanford Linear Accelerator and Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, found himself with time on his hands following retirement. "I showed up one day and they asked me to help set up tables for the book fair," Mr. Harris recalled, and said that he discovered a wonderful group of volunteers there. "I've enjoyed working with the people; I can't emphasize that enough. That was the reason I joined!"

The Friends of the Menlo Park Library, a nonprofit group established in 1952 to support the local library, processed more than 250,000 books this year. Some get sold at the annual book fair or at the group's bookstore or even online through Amazon.com; others wind up in the hands of book dealers, including an antiquarian dealer in San Francisco who handles books worth $1,000 or more.

Funds raised by the group go toward buying books and equipment for the library and the adult literacy training program, Project Read. They also chip in for special projects such as the stained glass window over the library's entrance.

The Friends have raised more than $2 million during the past decade, Mr. Harris said, and the public sees the benefit in the form of better equipment, author appearances, and story hours.

As a child growing up within walking distance of the San Francisco Public Library, he delved into H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and other classics. His tastes in books as an adult expanded into Civil War histories alongside fiction by James Michener and Tom Clancy. He still keeps three or four books going at a time.

Helping the Menlo Park Library ran in the family. After his wife Myrtle died about six years ago, he discovered that, unbeknownst to him, she'd also clocked hours at the library pricing books while their three sons were in school. He found out after a friend mentioned working with her.

Asked what he thinks about people who predict libraries will become obsolete, Mr. Harris laughed and smiled. "I think the libraries will outlive them," he said.

Still, that does bring to mind one of the challenges facing the library. "Are people going to keep contributing books to us? Or are they switching to Kindles?" he mused. But library donations continue to grow. "We're not recycling books; we're recirculating. So far we're doing good."

Donations are welcomed at the library's back door, where volunteers working in the basement — thus earning their nickname of Moles — sort and scan each item to determine its value. Any books that can't be sold are given away once a week.

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