Are you concerned about operating budgets, database funding, or enhancing (or maintaining) your community’s access to materials? How about copyright restrictions, recognition of school libraries in the education process, or cybersecurity? Maybe public safety? Or Internet access? Or simply having enough parking?
These issues have one thing in common: each is impacted by governmental decisions. In fact, if you work in a library, sell to a library, support a library, or have ever walked into a library, your life has been impacted by policymakers who often have no idea who you are or what you do for the community. Perhaps more important, they will continue to have no idea unless you tell them.
Yes, it must be you—the person reading this column—who speaks out, not only directly to decision makers, but to opinion leaders in your community as well. Personalized and thoughtful communications from citizens are some of the most effective ways to be heard—and agreed with—in any policy environment.
And if you’re not convinced that decision makers are paying attention, remember this: we are all in a fierce competition for time, attention, and resources. Others will be advocating loudly and adamantly for their pet concerns. Only those who show how they would use limited resources to directly and powerfully benefit their community will succeed.
So how can you do that? Glad you asked. Here are four effective strategies that anyone can use to make a positive difference—for your library, for your patrons, for the community and, who knows, maybe even the world!
Number One: Know What You Want
As a former Congressional staff person, I saw too many letters and emails from constituents saying such things as “we should support [insert name of issue, cause, or industry here] more.” In the library world, for example, it might be “we should be more supportive of libraries.” My first thought was always “What would ‘support’ for libraries look like? Do you want us to cosponsor a bill? Vote a certain way? Make a statement? Visit you in the district? What?” In other words, I always wanted to know what the person asking specifically wanted us to do—and I rarely got an answer. That always gave me a perfect reason to stop thinking about the issue and move on to the next.
In the political world, there are essentially two kinds of asks: relationship-building and policy-oriented.
Relationship-building asks help engage a policymaker or staff person in the issue. Some examples include:
- Will you make a public statement? (perhaps in support of National Library Week April 14-20 or a new service in your library)
- Will you attend an event? Many libraries have had success with “book dedication” ceremonies, where the favorite books of legislators are added to the stacks.
- Will you participate in a “Library Snapshot Day”?
- Will you speak at our conference?
- Will you write an article for our newsletter?
Policy asks are oriented around specific legislative or government initiatives such as asking a member to support continued funding for libraries in an appropriations bill or to co-sponsor legislation, such as a bill to increase student access to effective school library programs (both real issues).
The American Library Association’s Washington Office is a perfect resource for finding out more about both policy and relationship-building asks, particularly at the federal level.
Number Two: Know Your Audience
To be effective, you’ll want to know what gets the person you’re trying to influence up in the morning and what keeps them up at night. For policymakers, what gets them up is usually a policy interest they love—and what keeps them up is usually reelection. You can connect to these concerns by knowing two important things: who the decision maker represents and what bills he or she has introduced—even if not related to libraries.
You can answer the representation question at ALA’s Legislative Action Center by simply typing in your home or work address. To find the legislators for an entire state, select your state under the “search by state” menu. Elected officials represent distinct groups of people and devote their energy to the requests and needs of those individuals. This is why you must demonstrate some sort of connection to that area, whether you live or work there, or you serve people from there.
You can find out about their legislative interests by looking up bills they’ve introduced. These bills may not be connected in any way to library concerns, but it’s still good to know what they care about so you can frame your issue in a way that resonates with them. For example, if he or she has introduced legislation on small business issues, talking about how your library has helped people start small businesses would be a good way to attract the policymaker’s attention. And remember that libraries connect to everything. If necessary, you can always fall back on “we can help you research [insert legislator’s favorite issue here]” if necessary.
Finally, you might also want to know where they are on the political spectrum. A more fiscally conservative member of Congress, for example, will be more intrigued with arguments about economic development and job creation, while a member of Congress interested in civil rights issues might be more interested in access and equity concerns. Never feel as though you can’t talk to one party or the other. Library concerns are truly bipartisan.
Number Three: Know How to Talk to Them Using the SPIT Technique
What you bring to the policy table is a compelling story about the impact of policy issues on people that the member of Congress represents. Develop your story based on the “SPIT” technique, which stands for Specific, Personal, Informative, and Trustworthy.
The following questions should help:
- Specific: What do you want? Remember to ask them to engage: “come visit our library” is better than “our library provides valuable services.” Why would the elected official want that? What interests him or her and how does what you want connect to their interests?
- Personal: How have you improved people’s lives? Is there a good individual story you can tell (i.e., so-and-so learned to read through the reading to the dogs program).
- Information: How many people use the library? How many have you helped? What special services do you provide?
- Trustworthy: How specifically will you follow-up to build a long-term relationship? Why should they trust you?
Number Four: What Really Matters in Effective Influence
Because you will likely have very limited time in any interaction with an elected official or their staff person, it will simply not be possible to relay everything you want them to know in that very short period of time. Plus, they will likely have questions about the issues you raise that you will need to answer. Most advocates do not follow-up on these meetings, and then wonder why their representatives don’t do what they were asked to do. You can boost your chances of success through effective follow-up. Some strategies to consider include:
- Encouraging other supporters to connect with the office
- Asking to meet with a staff person in the local office
- Drafting and sending any public statements you’ve asked a policymaker to make
- Following relevant officials on social media (and commenting positively)
- Attending a town hall or community meeting
- Reinforcing your initial ask with polite and persistent follow-up
With hundreds of decisions to make in a given day, policymakers forget about things. Frequently. Without effective follow-up you run the risk of being lost in the noise.
Take Action. Now
You’re not in this alone. More details on every one of these techniques (and more) are available on the American Library Association’s website section on Advocacy & Legislation. Use the worksheets, checklists, webinar recordings, manuals and articles to help build your own effective advocacy plan.
In the end remember that no matter how wonderful your programs, no matter how many patrons, students, or professionals you serve, and no matter how many friends and trustees you have, your library will not get the attention it deserves if you don’t speak up. Policymakers need your insights to help them understand how the decisions they make play out in the real world. Through your advocacy efforts, you’ll also play a critical role in promoting an environment of civic engagement of benefit both to your community as well as democracy at large. And isn’t that what libraries are all about?