November 17, 2017

The Librarian as Candidate | EveryLibrarian

ljx160301webChrastka2You and your colleagues are the answer
to “Who is spending my money?”


At EveryLibrary, we know from nearly 50 library campaigns, as well as surveys of libraries nationwide, that the perception of librarians matters as much as the perception of the library itself in how voters act on Election Day.

Voters are interested in having their perceptions of the institution refreshed. They ask such questions as, “Why do we need libraries when everything is on the Internet?” They deserve answers about our rapidly changing institutions. Yet our advocacy vocabulary is limited to only one noun: libraries. We are not having a conversation that rejuvenates the nonuser’s image of librarians. We are lucky there is an image of librarians that is still active among voters at all. Suspicious voters can be informed and persuaded about taxes when they have a response to their other key question: “Who is spending my money?” At EveryLibrary, we see pride and love of library work by staff at each library with which we work. We need to share that excitement with the electorate before their nostalgia for us disappears.

What do we know about voters?

In “From Awareness to Funding,” OCLC told us that 35 percent to 40 percent of American voters are “believers” in the library and will vote yes for a library tax measure. They may or may not be library users, but they believe in the work done at the library and the people who work there. Librarians, regardless of degree or title, are the human face of transformational institutions. When we are advancing to the ballot, or making a big ask of municipal funding partners, we have to activate that belief.

Another 17 percent to 22 percent of American voters will vote against the library, also as a matter of belief, in this case about the role of taxes in civic life. These voters are sometimes wary of people on the government payroll. How do we use the brand of librarian to protect us from their concern that any tax is a bad tax, and you are the tax man?

For library funding conversations to succeed, the remaining 35 percent to 40 percent need to join believers as yes voters. They want to ask—and have answered—questions about where their taxes are going and who is spending their money. The questioning and suspicious voter alike can have their institutional perceptions informed by a legitimate building or strategic plan. But to be truly successful, we need to engage and update their understanding of the “who” in “Who is spending my money?”

The big question

Are we willing to let the public view us enough to say yes to us and not just the institution? If we don’t allow ourselves to be perceived, we will be in trouble at the ballot box. If a current perception of the librarian is limited to power users, we are in trouble whenever nonuser funders (voters or governmental partners) want an answer to “Who is spending our money?”

In every campaign, there is an incumbent, even if that incumbent isn’t running. The incumbent in library tax measures is the library’s own record. “Vote Yes and we’ll do more good things for the community!” and “Vote Yes and we will fix problems with our services or building!” are both viable approaches. You either run as the incumbent or against yourself.

Each campaign, though, also has a candidate. And in library tax referenda, it isn’t the institution; it’s the librarians. Whether you want to be the candidate or not, you and your colleagues are the answer to, “Who is spending my money?” For patrons who know you, the candidate is you. For nonusers, it is the brand of librarian.

Good librarian-candidates own their brand locally and embody it. But in many communities, the brand may be stuck in a perception last informed by the voters’ childhoods. What is in your control is to go out and introduce yourself to the voters: to campaign.

The librarian as candidate

Candidates run, ideally, because they have a vision that they want to share. But a good idea isn’t enough to get elected. Candidates need more than conviction; they need a campaign organization. We would never send candidates door-to-door without training them as to how to think on their feet.

EveryLibrary wants to help you be prepared for your (perhaps unintentional and unwelcome) candidacy. In 2016, we are starting a series of LJ columns to teach the library community how candidates get noticed, tell their stories, garner endorsements, build coalitions, and talk to voters. This will, we hope, impact your future success when asking for tax money and lay the groundwork for a possible national campaign in 2017–18 creating a “Year of the Librarian.”

EveryLibrary wants to support a new national awareness among the public about the people who work in libraries. The librarian brand hasn’t had an update in a long time. Something like a Year of the Librarian is needed to get that done.

This is the first installment of a new monthly column in which EveryLibrary staff will outline how political candidates succeed—and why librarians need to take a leaf from their book

John Chrastka About John Chrastka

John Chrastka, a 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker, is Founder and Executive Director of EveryLibrary, a nonprofit organization that advocates for local library ballot initiatives.

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Comments

  1. What a welcome addition to LJ!
    All library employees need to be better-prepared to build personal and professional brands and to explain their value — especially when they need to win votes. Kudos to EveryLibrary for another great initiative!

  2. Chris Hemingway says:

    I am thinking of running for local town council and I am a librarian. Can a librarian run for political office?