Change has come.
But Friendship Tea members at Terrace Heights Library are still boiling, while their counterparts in Moxee say the Grinch took their Christmas stockings.
Which raises a larger question: What purpose does a community library fill?
It’s clearly a facility for disseminating materials, offering literacy programs and providing research information, but is it also a gathering place? A spot for old friends to meet? Should it serve what local patrons say they want, or is it strictly for book-related business?
Yakima Valley Libraries, a group of 18 community libraries, is re-examining core services and refining policies. Kim Hixson, who has served as director for four years, explained that during the first few years of her tenure, staff focused on building infrastructure, upgrading technology and undertaking remodeling and building projects. That includes a major remodel of the downtown main library and the new library in West Valley on 72nd Avenue, which represents a 44 percent increase in space over the previously leased site in Chalet Place at 56th and Summitview avenues.
With those tasks completed, the library system looked at services at all 18 libraries and discovered that not all followed the same protocols and policies.
So there’s been a recent attempt to bring member libraries up to code, so to speak.
Which brings about change, and many of those changes aren’t sitting well with some ardent supporters of community libraries, specifically volunteers at Terrace Heights and Moxee.
“We value everyone’s support,” said Hixson, underscoring that volunteer groups have long given time and funds to their libraries. However, not all of their activities jibe with library policies. “We’re changing our internal structure, and unfortunately there is this gap. We’re finding that there are miscommunications,” Hixson said.
Conflict came to a head this fall between downtown management and the Terrace Heights group known as the Friendship Tea, whose members had met every Tuesday afternoon at their library for tea and conversation for the past 30 years. In August, word came from the central office that, for a short time, the group could no longer meet at the library.
Alicia Velazquez, who has been part of the group for 13 years, said members were given different reasons at different times for the prohibition on their meetings. First, she said they were told they couldn’t meet while an assistant librarian was being trained, then it was because the cookies they ate might contain nuts and cause an allergic reaction in a child. After that, Velazquez said, they were told space was insufficient and then the reason was that Friendship Tea wasn’t a sanctioned library group.
Realizing they were being permanently vacated, the group remained baffled by the whole episode.
“This is our library,” Velazquez said. “Why are they kicking us out? It’s kind of harsh.”
For now, they’re meeting in a community room in the same building as the library, where they have to pay for space.
“These are really thoughtful, kind people, and they’re not at all inflexible like some people have painted them,” noted Dale Hoech, whose mother has attended the Friendship Teas since their inception.
The Moxee Library League, too, is feeling displaced. Members say they’ve met at their library since 1980, raising money for the facility and coordinating community activities. According to Fern Delany, the group of six to 10 members was told it could no longer gather in the library’s main room because they were too noisy. That meant they had to keep juggling back and forth between rooms.
Darlene Sanderson became upset when league members were informed they could no longer fill Christmas stockings at the library to give to children at the city park because it wasn’t a library-related event. Sanderson is also perplexed that the group can no longer accept donated books and sell them at the library, even though the money goes to the library.
“It’s totally crazy. They want us to do stuff for them but not at the library,” Sanderson said. “It seems like they want us to disappear.”
That’s not so, said Hixson. She pointed out that the changes are part of shoring up policies and adhering to basic services.
“These people are wonderful library supporters. They work really hard for the district, but they don’t belong to the district. They’re separate,” she noted.
Part of the change involves lack of space, Hixson explained. Moxee and Terrace Heights are small facilities. Big groups meeting there might crowd out other patrons.
But members of both groups argue they meet at low density times, in early afternoon or early evening.
Sanderson chaffed that change has come from the top down, with no input from league members. She said her group might have accepted new rules more readily if they had been involved in the process of creating them.
“If they had just talked and let us ask questions, but instead it was, ‘This is how it is.’”
Nancy Heilman-Schott, accounting manager at the central library, did meet with the Moxee group in mid-November, but several members remained confused about what was expected of them. “I wish they would talk straight,” said Delany.
Hoech, whose mother attends the Terrace Heights teas, concurred: “The managers have talked out of both sides of their mouths.”
He argued that missteps at Moxee and Terrace Heights point to poor leadership from the trustees, whom he thinks should be replaced. “They’ve overstepped their authority.”
Jim Barnhill, the board of trustees president, doesn’t see it that way.
“I think the board and director have done a superb job,” said Barnhill, a former Yakima Herald-Republic publisher who retired in the mid-1990s. “We had some problems we inherited from the former director, but I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished. It’s the best damn board I’ve ever been on.”
Hixson said the central library staff is working on official guidelines for support organizations such as Friends of the Library groups, similar to the Moxee Library League, to make policies consistent. These groups are an integral part of the library, she said, but their activities can’t go outside the scope of library services. “Libraries provide access to information and promote literacy in general, they are not a social group.”
The same guidelines need to be followed when supporters raise money for the library. Since the library is a government entity, and most Friends groups operate as charitable organizations, monies raised must be kept separate, Hixson said.
For instance, the Moxee Library League has always taken books donated to their library, put them on a cart to sell and remitted the money to the Moxee library. But that practice commingles funds, especially if the librarian collects the money or if the donated books were meant to become part of the collection, Hixson explained.
There are legal ramifications if the two entities aren’t kept at arms length, she said. For now, book-selling carts have been removed at all libraries, pending creation of a new policy.
Hixson explained that libraries need to adhere to strict policies because the state audits Yakima Valley Libraries every two years. Some activities by the Moxee and Terrace Heights groups don’t fit into the scope of services the library provides, Hixson said, which might concern auditors.
If auditors discovered inconsistencies in the library’s relationships with Friends groups, that could raise concerns and put the library at risk, she noted.
Mindy Chambers of the State Auditor’s Office in Olympia said the agency encourages libraries and Friends groups to have an agreement in place that spells out the responsibilities of each. Chambers noted that it’s common for Friends groups to sort and sell donated books at libraries.
It’s not probable, however, that auditors would review what groups can meet at a library, Chambers said. “It’s highly unlikely we would look at whether or not they’re following policy on who can meet there. That’s not a financial issue.”
Velazquez, part of the Terrace Heights Friendship Tea group, feels that they should be able to meet in the library again. “Let us back in. We pay the taxes.”
She pointed out that group members have been loyal financial supporters of the facility. Last year, when longtime member Margaret Keys turned 100, she didn’t want presents at her party; instead, she asked her friends to donate money to the library in her honor. That effort raised several hundred dollars.
Acknowledging the long history of the Friendship Tea group, Barnhill said he holds no animosity toward the group and hopes they will continue to use the library and check out books. But, he emphasized that library policy precludes unaffiliated groups from holding regular meetings there. “There’s no way there can be any kind of tea party there. It’s impossible. Done. Complete.”
Hixson noted that the group could return to the library if they don’t make tea or eat, split up into smaller groups and participate in a reading group program under the purview of a professional librarian.
After speaking with a reporter in a telephone interview, she followed up with an email to the Yakima Herald-Republic: “We cannot exceed the scope of our authority without liability. Libraries must operate in an official and appropriate manner— we must be good stewards of the tax payer dollars. Unfortunately, that has meant making changes to the ways ‘things have always been done.’ I am sad about that, but once it has been discerned, it is my responsibility to make needed corrections.”
She hasn’t yet had time to meet with the Friendship Tea group but intends to, she said. “It breaks my heart to see this controversy,” she added.
Moxee Library League members would also like more clarification on what they can and can’t do in their library.
“I’m an old farm gal,” said Delany. “A library is for people. When you’ve got a good thing going, why louse it up?”
• Jane Gargas can be reached at 509-577-7690 or firstname.lastname@example.org.