Carol Duncan, the new president of the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library, has given of her time and energy as a volunteer to numerous community causes over the years.

Carol Duncan, the new president of the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library, has given of her time and energy as a volunteer to numerous community causes over the years.

by Carole Verona

Carol Duncan became the new president of the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library, the fourth most active branch in the Free Library of Philadelphia system, at a critical juncture in the organization’s history. Libraries are evolving from places that primarily store and circulate printed books, periodicals and media to warm, state-of-the art spaces where members of the community can not only search for, use and share digital information but can also get together to meet, chat, watch movies and engage in interesting discussions with other members of the community.

The Free Library is asking branches to reduce the number of books on the shelves in favor of adding community space and electronic equipment. “If a book hasn’t been checked out in two years, it’s gone,” said Carol, who is 60-ish. “One copy of those books, especially classics, will be kept in underground storage at the main library downtown. They’ll be harder to get.”

The Friends of the Chestnut Hill Free Library, founded in 1972, is a group of approximately 100 volunteers dedicated to keeping the library functioning at its best. They supplement the basic services provided by the Free Library through the purchase of books, CDs, DVDs and magazine and newspaper subscriptions. They also support many other library programs and events. Current board members are Nancy Baxter, head librarian Margaret Brunton (ex-officio), Lyn Buchheit, Terry Clark, Joanne Dhody, Phyllis Donahue, Michael F. Henry, Melanie Martin, Eleanor Murdoch, Beth Ounsworth and Renee Polsky.

“What we’re doing here in Chestnut Hill is exciting,” Carol said. “The largest project has been the ongoing conversion of the large meeting room at the rear of the library into a community center.”

With freshly painted walls and new artwork, the community center boasts four leisure chairs (more will be added), 65 other new chairs, power strips, a flat-screen TV and a large screen for showing movies. The library is already equipped with automatic Wi-Fi. “We’re also going to put desks around the side. We hope patrons will come in with their computers and hang out. Our community room can serve as an annex to Starbucks and the Chestnut Hill Coffee Company! When all the seats over there are taken, just come here and bring your coffee,” she said.

The weekly book sale is perhaps the Friends’ most visible fundraising activity. Many books, both fiction and non-fiction, are available for purchase in the community room every Monday from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Books are always available for sale in the middle room, where there’s a box for your money. “The prices can’t be beat, and new books are always coming in,” Carol said.

“Our only other fundraiser is the annual membership drive. Our members are people who love and support the library.” During the membership drive last month, the Friends conducted a survey to learn more about how the community is using the library and what they wish the library had. The board is most interested in knowing what the community thinks about the general policy of reducing the book collection at many branches. The survey asked, “What do you think about that policy for us in Chestnut Hill? How much should we reduce our collection, if at all?”

The Friends were also instrumental in completing the extensive 10-year garden project that is now professionally managed. They are also supporting the library’s independent film nights, when documentaries on thought-provoking topics are shown and then discussed. “Not every library branch has this much going on,” Carol stressed.

Carol moved to Chestnut Hill from Ohio three years ago and has been involved with the Friends for two years. She looks forward to bringing her organizational skills to the group. “There will be more regular meetings. Specific agendas for board meetings will be sent to members in advance so that they know what’s coming and they can think about it ahead of time. This will help make the meetings shorter with greater concentration on getting things done,” she said.

Carol brings decades of leadership experience to her position as president of the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library. A native of West Chester, PA, she graduated from William Smith College with a degree in English Literature. She then moved to Ohio to take over her grandfather’s real estate and car rental business, a job she stayed at for less than one year. She met and married, raised their two children and was involved in volunteer work with the Girl Scouts, church and school and other non-profits.

In 1988, she began working for ICAN Housing Solutions, a nonprofit based in Canton, Ohio, that develops permanent supportive housing for homeless people living with mental illness. She then joined and eventually became president of the Coalition for Homeless and Housing in Ohio.

After 45 years in Ohio, Carol moved to Chestnut Hill to be closer to her daughters after her husband died in 2009. Her oldest daughter, Christie Duncan Tessmer, who lives in Mt. Airy, is the general secretary of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends. Her other daughter, Kate Duncan, recently received a nursing degree and moved to Pittsburgh to work in the organ transplant unit at Allegheny General Hospital.

Carol is an ordained deacon at The Church of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields and co-chair of the Economic Dignity Through Fair Wages team of Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Power and Rebuild (POWER). She was appointed to a Philadelphia City Council committee to continue the work of implementing a living wage for subcontracted workers.

Carol can be reached at the Chestnut Hill Branch of the library at 215-685-9290 or at