Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Mary Wilonsky is seated at the mural on the first floor of J. Erik Jonsson Central Library, musing about how her first job involved the library. In second grade in Miami, she helped the media center run the projectors. Now she’s executive director of Friends of the Dallas Public Library, overseeing nearly $5 million net assets, according to the June 2017 audit. She takes her job seriously. “Millions of people come to the library to get things I take for granted,” she says. “I have WiFi at home. They don’t.” She and her family live in Sparkman Estates. Her husband, Robert, is city columnist at The Dallas Morning News. He recently announced that he has Stage IV kidney cancer, but she politely declined to discuss that, saying that his column captures everything the family wants to say publicly about the issue. Her son Harry, 15, is a sophomore at Hillcrest High School. 

Tell me about the mural:

The mural predates me. This was a public project. It was done in conjunction with Eyecon Studios and a few local artists. We like using it for book signings, events. One of the biggest engagements across the system is the homeless engagement initiative. They have Coffee & Conversation. This is where it started. They’d gather together, have coffee, bring in social service providers.

Why are so many homeless in the downtown library?

A few years ago, the staff decided to just welcome them. They’ve been getting people into permanent housing and jobs. The Bureau of Vital Statistics moved from City Hall to here, and it’s been great. It’s brought a lot of people to the library, and they get library cards. If the parents are stuck doing paperwork, the kids have story time and activities while their parents are getting birth and death certificates.

How did you get your job? 

My time with the library goes back to 2012. I was Mayor Rawlings’ appointee to the Municipal Library Board and was involved with my local branch, Park Forest. I was on the board there. I got involved with Friends of the Dallas Public Library through that. At that time, Harry was old enough to be at school. It was a one-and-a-half person department and I was the half. The previous executive director, Kate Park, had an opportunity and I was the half person left. Fortunately, I had a lot experiences in other areas so it just evolved into this role.

Tell me about your goals.

A big goal of mine is to help parts of the city understand what Friends of the Public Library is. We’re trying to communicate that to the citizens of Dallas and even groups supporting the different branches. Libraries have a multi-layer support system with no connection between the groups. There are communication lapses on what everyone is providing and has accomplished. The library and its 29 locations is a City of Dallas department, just like the parks, streets and police departments. The library has a director and is managed through City Hall. Their employees are city employees and their budget is what the city allocates to them. It’s never enough, and it doesn’t usually cover programming. It covers the materials, the buildings and the staff. Anything past that is private funding, partnerships, corporate grants and foundations. 

Friends of the Public Library started in 1950 with Stanley Marcus, Rabbi Levi Olin and Lon Tinkle. The story goes that the director at the time was Lillian Bradshaw’ and there was a push to ban some books. This group came together to support her and push back. This organization is non-partisan. I’ve never had anyone tell me they hate the library. 

How can people help?

We’re trying to build our membership. Funds and people are all important. We’re focused on meeting with council members to make sure they don’t forget about the library. It’s their vote that matters when it comes to budget time. We’ve advocated for library funds, staff and hours as well as raising our own funds to support English-language programs. 

What’s your typical day like?

Well, it’s a lot of coffee. We have 32 people on the board. We have our book sale. We have our fall dinner. We have a book festival. That’s been three years now with a much larger profile for our organization financially.

What’s your favorite book?

 Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.” She could take a child who was having serious issues, such as children who didn’t want to take a bath, and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle did so many things that were so inappropriate but acceptable.

What did you read to Harry when he was younger?

We read a ton of comic books.

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