February 16, 2018

Library Referenda 2010: Vote of Confidence

By Beth Dempsey

Despite tough antitax sentiment, libraries win 87% of operating and 55% of building referenda

Amid a bitter political climate, punctuated by the rise of a virulent antitax group, voters overwhelmingly entrusted their libraries with their tax dollars in referenda held between December 1, 2009, and November 30, 2010. Operating revenue measures passed at a spectacular rate of 87%—up slightly from last year’s 84% and continuing a ten-year upswing. Building referenda held steady, with 55% of measures passing, similar to the 2009 figure, but the average size of the projects, $9,037,308, rose measurably from last year’s average of $4,102,000.

Notable winners of operating referenda include the Baldwinsville Public Library, NY, where the operating levy passed by 89%. In Montana, the North Lake County Public Library District was established through the passage of an operating levy that Director Marilyn Trosper says will “stabilize our library’s patchwork system of funding and provide secure library services into the future.” In Damascus, OR, a group of hardworking citizens on a shoestring budget led a campaign to get the city to fund membership in the Library District of Clackamus County. It passed, restoring library service to the community—the first since 2008.

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Bigger building requests did well in 2010. In 2009, the largest building measure was $17 million for the Snake River School District and Community Library in Blackfoot, ID, while in 2010, the Forsyth County Public Library in Winston-­Salem, NC, was awarded $40 million for a major project that will replace several branches. In Lawrence, KS, a successful $18 million building measure will renovate and expand the Lawrence Public Library, and the Deerfield Public Library, IL, was awarded just short of $12 million to upgrade its 40-year-old central facility.

These wins and the overall high passage rate are cold comfort for those libraries whose measures went down to defeat…and there were some crushing losses. In Michigan, the Troy Public Library’s operating levy was defeated by fewer than 700 votes, allocating the library no funding at all. The library’s last day of service is May 1, leaving this Detroit suburb of 80,000 with a Neiman-Marcus and a Saks department store but no public library. A few counties over, TEA Party activists mounted a campaign against Hartland’s popular Cromaine District Library (CDL), contributing to the defeat of CDL’s building referendum (its operating levy passed). The TEA Party’s impact may be even more widespread: the first two-thirds of the year (through August 2010) saw more successful ballots. Pass rates for operating measures slipped from 93%–94% in the January–August time period to 80% in the September–December time period, just as the antitax gro
up was getting the most media coverage.

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The credible librarian

Slipped to 80%? Not a bad problem to have. The percent of operating levies passing nationwide has been steadily climbing for a decade. Martín Gómez, director of the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL), attributes the growth to a combination of things. “Public library leaders are becoming politically more astute, but what I’m seeing here is also a reflection of the ‘value proposition,’ ” he says. “In these tough economic times, people believe they are getting real value from their libraries…they are a visible, tangible, local (in virtually every neighborhood) service that delivers!” Gómez feels that the value is amplified by the “general skepticism” voters have regarding “government and elected officials at all levels. Libraries and, as our polls have shown here, librarians have credibility.”

Indeed, polls conducted by LAPL as it prepared to go to its voters last month show that librarians are trusted sources of information with exceptional credibility. Richard Bernard of political consulting firm FM3 led telephone interviews with hundreds of registered voters in L.A. to explore perceptions of the library. The library’s approval ratings are nothing short of breathtaking—85% approved, 9% disapproved, and 6% were unable to offer an opinion. But there’s an even more compelling statistic: nearly 85% of L.A. City voters said librarians are believable when they speak about the library’s just voted on Measure L. “This total ‘believable’ rating was higher than any of the other 20 organizations or individuals asked about,” says Bernard. Measure L passed, securing stability for the library for years to come.

Libraries around the country are recognizing and respecting this level of trust. For example, California’s Marin County Free Library in San Rafael went to voters for a new operating levy to cover a $1.5 million budget shortfall. Ballot language was carefully crafted to include an important voter message: all funds would be controlled locally and oversight committee review would ensure funds were used effectively and as promised. The levy passed with 75% of the vote. The Josephine-Louise Public Library reinforces trust in the library by placing its referenda in the “off” years of Walden, NY, local elections. Director Virginia Neidermier says it keeps the funding “isolated from other agendas.”

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Know the right things to say

L.A.’s poll points to a weighty responsibility: if librarians are that believable, it makes what they say all the more powerful. Anyone speaking for the library must be armed with consistent messages that not only tell the library’s story but packages it in a way that resonates with voters. A consistent theme from winning libraries in the LJ survey was thorough pulse-taking before the campaign that provided clear understanding of what voters value in their library. This is reliable fodder for building messages, often distinctly different from what libraries feel their communities should value about their library. Many winning libraries chalked up success to their use of pros—communications specialists, political consultants, and market researchers—to help guide the process of culling and using the results but also to provide an outside, impartial voice.

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Marin County Free Library, CA, feels strongly about the impact of professional market research on its library’s success. “Professional polling is well worth the cost. Initial results reveal whether the ballot measure is even feasible. Once it appeared likely that we could pass a measure, we made every effort to reinforce messages that resonated with voters,” reports Alysanne Taylor, an administrative services associate for the library.

Winning referenda had higher campaign committee budgets backing them—averaging about $18,000 vs. just over $8500 for losing referenda. But a small budget isn’t a death rattle: very small libraries—with very limited resources—researched their community’s perceptions and values on their own. Small libraries tell of starting early, engaging the community repeatedly over the course of months with simple questions: What’s important to you? What would you miss most if we had to cut services? Is the library worth funding? The Deerfield Public Library, IL, worked with a communications pro but saved some campaign dollars by using a “Citizen Information Group” to solicit, organize, and analyze community feedback for the market research foundation.

A county library in the upper Northwest warns of the dangers of skipping the homework. The library went to voters with a building measure during a contentious gubernatorial race, with antitax sentiment running high. Yet, the library director blames the measure’s defeat on a pivotal piece of information that might have been uncovered with some extra time spent on research and addressed with the right message. “Our county is divided geographically, north and south, and sometimes suffers from an ‘us’ [vs.] ‘them’ mentality. Voters in both parts of the county did not want their taxes to pay for the other library. Our failure was to recognize how much of an issue this is for our voters and to communicate that, based on property values in the different service areas, everyone would be paying for their own library.”

Focus on the impact

Consistent with past years, winning libraries responding to the LJ survey overwhelmingly cite the support of outside groups and individuals in campaigning. Opinion leaders such as mayors and council members are essential partners in delivering a clear, consistent message to voters. In North Carolina, Forsyth County Public Library director Mary McAfee feels the bipartisan support they had for their building referendum overcame the challenges of the economic downturn along with a very short window for campaigning. “We were proud to have our ‘Support the Library Bond’ yard signs displayed right beside signs for candidates of both parties,” she says. Conversely, in Troy, MI, infighting on the city council about how to pay for the library led to voter confusion, tipping the scales just enough to defeat the library’s operating levy (see above, p. 46).

A variety of successful small-budget campaigns made connecting with city/county/village leaders and newspaper editors the number one priority. These can be the constituents who are the most difficult to persuade. Data like circulation and numbers of kids signed up for summer reading—even when the numbers are growing—can leave them unimpressed. However, connecting these figures to community impact tells a far more powerful story. Consider the difference between a statement like “Our summer reading programs are used by 12,000 community kids” and its translation in terms of impact: “Our summer programs kept the reading skills of 12,000 kids from slipping during summer vacation, strengthening our schools’ standardized test scores and their reputation in the area. That benefits not only the kids and the schools but the property values in our community.”

An impact message that resonates with a mayor’s or council’s agenda can garner strong support for elections and also position the library as an important team player in advancing the community. Further, impact messages are less easily shaken when attacked by opponents to library measures—a point to consider when looking at the TEA Party’s possible influence in the closing third of 2010.

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You gotta have friends

Grassroots campaigning with friends, foundations, schools, and other community groups—the nuts and bolts of local politics—was again the key for the dissemination of library messages to voters. Blythe Shubert, director of the Kate Love Simpson Morgan County Library, McConnelsville, OH, tells of the library’s “Quiet Campaign,” which rallied supporters in the breadth of the community, driving its operating measure to success. The library’s simple, consistent messages of fiscal responsibility and community impact were boiled down on flyers (and the occasional poster) that appeared throughout the community: on pizza delivery boxes, in letters to the editor of the local newspapers, in the windows of neighborhood beauty shops, stores, and Laundromats, and in teacher’s lounges and church bulletins…in short, “Anywhere people would allow us to put them,” says Shuber
t. “We also used these sheets for handouts when talking to groups.” (Groups included seniors, Rotary Clubs, 4H Clubs, Boy Scouts, and more.)

That is good old-fashioned campaigning, but use of social media is increasing rapidly—up from 21% in 2009 to 50% in 2010. Twitter was considered handy for reminding people to vote, but Facebook clearly dominates. As Facebook gets into a broader spectrum of users—well beyond just younger audiences—it’s a handy place to relate the library’s story. Carleton Sears, director of the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County, OH, notes the ability of the library to reach and update nearly 2000 users at once through Facebook.

If they love you, let ’em show it

LAPL’s Peter Persic notes that as Americans become more politically active and involved, capturing supporters is ever more crucial. He feels library supporters are becoming “much more vocal, empowered, and technologically savvy.” He adds that many “policymakers are surprised by the intense love and loyalty that people have for their libraries—and the push back they encounter when libraries are threatened. After last year’s budget cut to the library, lawmakers said they received a landslide of complaints, more in fact than for any other department.”

It makes the importance of connecting with the community, giving them reasons to love and trust the library, a vital endeavor, but it can take plenty of patience and, often, forgiveness. In 2008, LJ reported on the challenges facing the Des Plaines Valley Public Library District in suburban Chicago. The area had become a magnet for senior housing developments filled with residents with little connection to the community and little reason to fund the library. Without the seniors’ support, the library’s 2008 referenda failed, preventing expansion and improvement. Rather than disconnect, library director Scott Pointon tuned up the engagement, sending librarians to the developments with books to create minilibraries in activity buildings, initiating relationships, learning about users’ needs, and telling the library’s story. Pointon says they didn’t win over all the seniors, but they won enough to put a 2010 building refe
renda of $23 million in the “passed” ­column.

Give me some more 2010

Despite the TEA Party’s pot-stirring in 2010 and a continuing weak economy, libraries showed they’re trusted to deliver a real service for tax dollars. It’s good news, yes, but in an era of mistrust of government officials, maintaining a solid, honest relationship with citizens can be a slippery proposition. Libraries need to make sure that the promises they make are kept—and show results. Staying in touch, keeping on point, and growing the number of library supporters is a nonstop job—it’s about engagement, as always, with the community. Ceci Marlow, director of the Cromaine District Library, says it’s worth it whether referenda pass or not. “We’re all in it together,” she says, “and we’ll do our best to be open and ready to serve with what folks want to have in their library, for as long and as fully as we can.”

Author Information
Beth Dempsey (beth@bethdempsey.com) is Principal of Dempsey Communications Group, a firm specializing in strategic communications for knowledge organizations