By Kevin Redding
Middle Country Public Library stands as one of the busiest and most admired institutions not just on Long Island but in the country. A “dynamic community hub” that’s constantly offering up unique programs and services to benefit residents of all ages, the library also provides visitors with impressive decor and hallmarks, like the aquarium and outdoor “girl and cat” bench. This is all due in large part to the Friends of Middle Country Public Library, a noncommercial organization made up of loyal volunteers who strive to keep the library strong and the community happy — which they’ve been doing since they started more than 20 years ago.
Currently made up of 155 active members, the Friends serve as “ambassadors” to the library. Whether it’s getting the word out about programs or hosting fundraising events and membership drives to raise money for purchases that the library wouldn’t normally be able to afford as a taxpayer institution, the group utilizes its spirit and volunteerism to help enhance the library any way it can.
“Generally, we don’t raise money for a specific project,” said Kathryn Sekulo, a former president of the Friends of Middle Country Public Library, who takes care of group membership. “What we do is we raise money and really look for guidance from the library staff, like what they would like to see in the library. We have some really great support from the staff, so we work closely with them. We really bridge a gap between the library and the community and supply funding that they can’t.”
The Friends’ hard work has helped enrich the library’s overall appearance, contributing many things like a custom-made dollhouse to sit in its early childhood area, a Chase Waterfalls display to hang on the wall, matching dragonfly benches to adorn the outside fountain area and a Yamaha grand piano for the Centereach branch. Most recently, the group provided the library with a mural in the Heritage Area in Centereach, iPads for the children’s department, a new fish tank and iPods for the Music and Memory program — which helps patrons that have Alzheimer’s. A majority of its funds come from two book sales held in April and November of each year — which normally raises a combined $4,000 — and an annual garage sale that occurs on the first Saturday in August — which normally raises over $1,000.
With help from sponsors King Kullen and the Allstate Foundation, the Friends have also established and funded the Island Idol contest, a full-fledged music concert and competition that takes place every summer wherein local teens entertain a crowd of hundreds with their range of talents, get evaluated by a panel of judges and have the opportunity to go home with a $500 prize. On Oct. 16, in recognition of National Friends of Libraries Week, the Friends kicked off a series of activities with 13-year-old Robert Montano playing piano in the library’s lobby. Once a month, as part of the group’s Sunday Sounds events, the Friends reach out to local school districts in search of pianists, guitarists and singers looking for a venue in which to play. On Nov. 10, a fundraiser Laughter for a Cause will be held at McGuire’s Comedy Club in Bohemia and all proceeds will go toward the needs of the library.
“They’re very committed; they’re very loyal to the library and they really have the best of intentions,” said Sophia Serlis-McPhillips, the library’s director. “Their goal is to help us and to help provide and extend our services and our resources — and they really do that. They are like the true definition of a Friends group. We’re definitely grateful for the relationship that we have with them.”
Founded in 1994, the Friends were just a small group of local patrons who loved the library and came forward to help when it needed it most. According to group founder John Hoctor, there was a pack of angry residents at the time who were bent on reducing taxes and going after public institutions — complaining especially about the library — as taxes have always been its main source of income. They were extremely disruptive and resorted to picketing, Hoctor offered his help to Sandra Feinberg, the library’s director from 1991 to 2012. He had read up on Friends groups, which had existed within different libraries throughout the country, and worked to ensure that Middle Country Public Library had its own.
“[The library] has been very important to me. That’s why I’ve been involved all this time. It’s such a wonderful place, and I want to give back.”
“The library is such an important part of the Middle Country community,” said Hoctor, who currently serves as vice president of the library’s board of trustees. “We don’t really have a town hall or a village center, so the library became the community center of Centereach and Selden and the Middle Country district. It’s a way to share resources, whether it’s books, computers, video, DVDs … there are lots of outreach programs. The Friends group is there as a place for very positive encouragement to show that we have a strong library and the wherewithal to take care of all the patrons in the community.”
Donna Smosky, a former elementary school teacher who served as president of the Friends for many years, and currently helps develop their quarterly newsletter, feels great pride for what the group has accomplished as “cheerleaders” for the library. She says that Middle Country Public Library is a jewel and that not many people realize it’s received national recognition, with librarians coming from all over the country to learn about programs that have been developed there with hopes of replicating them elsewhere.
“[The library] has been very important to me,” she said. “That’s why I’ve been involved all this time. It’s such a wonderful place, and I want to give back. It was important to me when my children were small. Every single person here has a story about how this library has impacted their lives. In fact, I have a whole notebook of stories that members have written about why they love it. These people have become great friends over the years, as we share a love for the library. There’s something for everybody here.”
The Laughter for a cause event will take place at 8 p.m. on Nov. 10. Tickets are $20 per person, and you must be 18 or older to attend. The Friends’ fall book sale will take place on Nov. 4 and 5.