27th Annual Membership Libraries Group Meeting

Monday, December 11, 2017
Whether you call us Head Librarian, Executive Director, Library Director, or Keeper, collectively, we comprise a unique group. We are the directors of the 18 remaining membership libraries in the country, and as the keepers of 18th- and 19th-century institutions, we have distinct challenges in the 21st century. And every year, we meet at one of our own institutions to swap stories, share successes and future plans, and, yes, socialize.  
The Membership Libraries Group (MLG) was founded in 1991 as a support group for our unique institutions, with the mandate that the group would meet each fall at a different member institution, and that only directors could participate in the meetings. The Portsmouth Athenaeum (celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2017) and its Keeper, Tom Hardiman, were our hosts this year over the weekend of October 21-22. At a reception on the evening we arrived in Portsmouth, my fellow library directors and I had an opportunity to meet many of the Athenaeum’s Board of Trustees and shareholders (who all have their own key to their beautiful building on Market Square!), and tour the library, along with its exhibition gallery and archives. The majority of the remaining membership libraries are clustered here in the northeast, so we took the opportunity for a field trip to the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association (MCMA) Library in Portland (founded 1820, the same year as Maine). MCMA Librarian Pat Larabee gave us a tour of the building and history of the library, featuring a collection of 30,000 volumes including general and popular works, Maine history, and maker arts. Nearby, we had an opportunity to take in the Maine Historical Society’s terrific new exhibit on Trade Banners and the Crafts that Built Maine (see it! It's on through Feb 3) and a guided tour of the Wadsworth-Longfellow House and Gardens, as well as a behind the scenes look at the University of Southern Maine’s impressive Osher Map Library. I should not fail to mention the delicious lobster roll lunch provided by the Board of the MCMA! 
On Sunday, we got down to business, and our round-table discussions are always illuminating. Our libraries vary greatly in size – from the tiny Lanier Library in Tryon, NC (founded 1890) and its staff of one to the Boston Athenaeum (founded 1807) with a staff of nearly sixty. But we all face similar challenges, from raising money to support our operations, to increasing memberships, and raising public awareness of our programs and services. Our 18th- and 19th-century names – Mechanics’ Institute, Mercantile Library, Society Library – can be confusing to outsiders and obscure our relevancy in the current day and age. So we discuss the ways we are changing our narratives and communicating who we are – turning mechanics into makers, and in our case, turning back the clock to reclaim the word “society” as it was known in 1754: as a community of people with similar interests. We use these meetings to share our successes and source new ideas for fundraising and revenue generation (like the pig roast at the Institute Library of New Haven and exam proctoring at the Mechanics’ Institute Library & Chess Room), innovative programming and member services (Providence Athenaeum’s popular Friday night Salon series; Mercantile Library of Cincinnati’s Words & Music lecture featuring the singer, songwriter and author Josh Ritter), as well as discuss plans and strategies for selecting vendors and managing our myriad technology and building projects. 
While the 2017 MLG meeting is now in the books (and in fact, there is an actual book about the first 26 meetings of the group), we will all be looking forward to seeing each other again in person at our 28th meeting next fall, at the Charleston Library Society (founded 1748). 

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