November 28, 2015

The Kinds of Stories About Libraries That Influence Political Leaders | ALA Annual 2011

The #askObama event and Alexia Hudson’s response to my blog post about it pointed me back to my ALA notebook, specifically notes from the Urban Libraries Council‘s excellent panel on Influencing Leaders with Stories (part of its annual conference held in tandem with ALA). Two city officials and ICMA‘s Ron Carlee were frank about what they need to hear about libraries.

Key takeaways revolve around relevance. That is, influential stories help local leaders help the library by tying the library to the goals, the core mission, of city or local government.

“We’re trying to provide services that build a great community,” said Carlee. We have to do it through through partnerships and connections; “no one institution is going to do that.”

So, what tells a good story? “In part it depends on the audience,” said Rashad Young, city manager of the City of Greensboro, but generally, he noted, he wants to hear about outcomes, strategies, and the work plan.

A story works best, he said, “when the library tells me how the resources we spend helps us build jobs and community.” That means strategic analysis of data in showing what the library does, and personal stories that show the practical impact on community members.

One way to help get the message across is to get leaders into the libraries to see for themselves, stressed Carlee. “Seeing people get what they need is more powerful than hearing any story.”

Overall, though, the panel seemed to agree, libraries need to describe their contribution more broadly. “If your brand is a book, it might as well be a buggy whip,” Carlee said. “The product is not the book, it is the consequence of the book… knowledge is a core service.”

Indeed, agreed Sacramento Public Library’s Rivkah Sass (and LJ‘s 2006 Librarian of the Year) in the audience afterward. The most basic contribution libraries make should never be taken as a given in the stories we tell, she said, an insight delivered to her by an MBA student who got passionate about libraries after hearing her talk about them. “There is something to be said,” she noted, “for remembering to talk about the innate public good our institutions provide to civil society.”

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller ( is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.

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