Even after they’ve heard all the talk about the importance of library advocacy and the role a library’s Friends group can play, there are still many Friends who just want to sell books.
This is not to say that book sales aren’t important. They raise funds so Friends can help underwrite important library programs and services. Actually, book sales are the first rung of library advocacy. They are staged with the subtle message that supporting the Friends means supporting the library, and supporting the library is a good thing.
However, in this day and age, with libraries forced to defend their funding either to the voters every election cycle or local municipal leaders every budget season, it is essential for Friends groups to climb the ladder of library advocacy and see themselves as citizens who stand up for their libraries. For some, this will be a natural transition; for others, it is a total redefinition of what it means to be a Friend.
For those who need to redefine, the first step for trustees or other library leaders who want to help is to bring their Friends group into budget advocacy discussions and talk about why speaking out is so critical. Trustees and leadership should provide their Friends with key points they can use in a variety of settings: “The library is an important community asset.” “Our library’s return on investment is greater than any other public service.” “Did you know that library funding amounts to just 1.5 percent of all the taxes we pay?”
Once the facts become second nature, standing up and speaking out for the library will be easier. Together with the library’s Board of Trustees and director, the Friends will develop concise, values-based, emotional messaging that can become the basis of an advocacy campaign, and will—with apologies to LBJ—grab citizens’ hearts, so their commitment and subsequent votes will follow.
Perhaps it’s not voters Friends need to convince but local municipal leaders who make funding decisions. After our organization, Communication Services, worked with the Friends of the Irondequoit Public Library (IPL) outside of Rochester, NY, the library’s Friends became advocates extraordinaire—in a quiet way. They got bright yellow T-shirts made that simply said, “I’m a Friend of the Irondequoit Public Library.” Then they sat together, up front, at every town board meeting. Sometimes they addressed the board, other times they just sat. They were there as a block of yellow graphically screaming support for IPL. The town board knew the Friends and the library were concerned and watching.
The library’s funding was stabilized and eventually, after a number of attempts, IPL’s two old branches were replaced with a new building on the town’s municipal campus. What started with a quiet Friends presence eventually gave town leaders the impetus they needed to protect the library’s funding and build a new state-of-the-art library, now a proud symbol of the community.
friends save the day
Let’s go back to the hearts of voters. Imagine a group of 70- and 80-year-old Jewish women—many of whom either worked at the library or in Mt. Vernon’s school district—coalescing with a number of professional women of color as well as dedicated library staffers who worked on the effort during their off hours. This was the Friends of the Mt. Vernon Public Library, NY.
In 2014, they came together to save the library, literally. Mt. Vernon is a city divided by railroad tracks. The people who live north of the tracks are middle-class homeowners. South of the tracks are renters and working poor. Mt. Vernon is populated with 100 different cultural groups and has a 14 percent poverty rate. The library is on the south side of the tracks.
In short, the library was going to lose its funding unless the public approved a $4.35 million budget—the first time the voters were asked for funding. Needless to say, these dynamic Friends took their responsibility as advocates quite seriously. They spearheaded one of the most successful campaigns I’ve ever seen. The Friends, who just used to organize book sales, worked with the library board to become a powerhouse that built support for the library, phone-banked for voter identification, did public presentations, and shepherded a successful effort to save a beautiful Carnegie facility in a community that needed its library.
Friends becoming advocates is about library boards giving them the information and support they need to change how they think of themselves. Friends can still sell books—but if they believe that every book sold is an opportunity to advocate about the importance of the library, they’ll be speaking in front of municipal leaders and running successful campaigns in no time. After all, if the Friends don’t stand up for the library, who will?