INTRODUCTION: The Friends of Johnson Branch Library Inc., is a support group for an inner city library branch in St. Petersburg, Florida. The branch is named for James Weldon Johnson, a famous African American educator.
The Friends grew from a group of citizens who were concerned enough to sign petitions in an effort to stop city hall from closing the branch for budget cuts. Their efforts were rewarded by the reconsideration of the city council.
At that time, the Johnson Branch Library was only a large room inside the Enoch Davis Community Center. To ensure its future survival and growth, several citizens formed the Friends of the Johnson Branch Library, Inc., in 1991. UPSer Ernie L. Coney is one of its founding members.
The group’s mission is to support, promote, develop and assist the staff in the future growth and use of the James Weldon Johnson Branch of the Library. This group first set out to increase the patronage of the library through numerous tactics. They held a “Walk for Reading”, which was a march through the neighborhood; children and adults carried signs, sang songs, handed out flyers and pamphlets to promote the library. This drew media attention from various news outlets. The Friends also started a Reading Mobile that would go out to several recreation centers during the summer and read books to the children and give out books and prizes. Another event was “Reading with the Mayor”, he would read a story to the children then ask questions and give out prizes. The children loved all of these efforts, so much so that the library use went way up. They also provided the first typewriter, printer and computers for public use at the branch.
Friends of Johnson Branch Library took a fact finding tour to South Florida’s Broward County Library system to see how they were successful in running their inner city branch’s outreach programs. The key question was “What formula did they use to attract and keep teen involvement in the library.”
The Friends group has put on spaghetti dinners and various other fund raising events. The group has invited numerous speakers to come in and enlighten the community in areas of education and social empowerment.
A civil disturbance in St. Petersburg in the late 90’s prompted the city to join forces with a newly formed citizens group that was already planning growth in the community. This group was called the Enoch Davis Expansion Committee. The committee was chaired by Ernie L. Coney, who was also the president of the Friends group. The committee’s task was to come up with a plan that would expand the current Enoch Davis Center, build a new free standing library, and if funds were found, build a 300 – 400 seat performing arts theatre. This would involve land acquisitions, owner and renter relocations, plus construction.
The expansion committee was awarded a $300,000 grant through the state of Florida, $100,000 grant from the Pinellas County Library Cooperative and 1.7 million dollars from a new county tax referendum.
With Mr. Coney, as director of this multi -part play, the 2 million dollar plus project broke ground in August 2001. It was complete in September of 2002 with much fanfare. The Johnson Branch, which had been the stepchild of the library system, now stands as its brightest star.
Fast forwarding to 2009, the Friends group developed and sponsored a county wide high school portrait scholarship contest. The winner was to capture and paint the best likeness of James Weldon Johnson. Our winner was a high school senior who was awarded a $1,000 scholarship which she will use toward her college tuition at Ringling School of the Arts in Sarasota, Florida. The Friends group has also just finished the sponsorship of the first Annual James Weldon Johnson Summer Spelling Bee
Our Friends group is very much appreciated and respected in our community. Over the years, we have won the “Most Outstanding Volunteer Organization Award” – 4 times. This award is given out by City Hall.
Now the Friends are working on a major dilemma that’s plaguing Pinellas County Schools, the widening gap in education of lower income students; FCAT scores. Pinellas county school children’s scores are among the lowest in the state. The Friends are adopting and applying an old African saying “it takes a village to raise a child.” The group is working to put together a network whereby students that have tutorial needs will be linked with tutoring programs in the community which best fit their need. This will be done through a tutorial referral service (clearing house) called Friends Helping Neighbors.