February 16, 2018

It’s Time To Fix Library Advocacy, Now! | Blatant Berry

Compared to other public sector warriors, librarians are invisible

The library profession’s advocacy efforts have had very little impact. Why we have not addressed this obvious problem more aggressively is a mystery. Of course, there have been some successes, especially at the local level. They have been good enough to show us that the great reservoir of public support for public libraries is still full and can be tapped. Still, the profession simply has not found a way to tap that public support to influence the political process.

The leaders of the American Library Association (ALA), including most ALA presidents for more than a decade, enthusiastically endorsed and supported ALA advocacy efforts and initiated many new ones. While some of these have drawn on that public support, most of them have apparently fallen on deaf ears, especially the deaf ears of politicians and the popular media.

Sure, there have been occasional articles and reports aired on television and published in the big nationally prominent magazines and newspapers. Yet compared to the teachers, postal workers, candidates for public office, and other public sector warriors with a media agenda, librarians are invisible and silent.

When libraries get mentioned on local editorial pages, they are “framed” in a language quite different from that used by librarians and their leaders and publicists. This is based on research by Amy Phillips, who just defended her draft doctoral dissertation (Framing the Public Library: The Public Perception of the Public Library in the Media) at Dominican University in River Forest, IL. Phillips’s work suggests that the public, or at least the editorial writers, haven’t caught up with the profession’s vision of what a public library is or ought to be. What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Many library leaders have discovered that if they go directly to the public ballot for funding, the library will do much better than if they have to go through the political and budgeting processes of local, state, and federal government. Libraries don’t do well no matter the position of a politician on the political spectrum. Governors with views as disparate as those of Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, and Jerry Brown, the Democratic governor of California, have savaged state funding for their libraries. Mayors Michael Bloomberg (New York City), Michael Nutter (Philadelphia), Thomas Menino (Boston), and Rahm Emanuel (Chicago) have all targeted the public library budget in their cities. The decades of energy and money invested in library advocacy have simply not reached most politicians, nor have they triggered a public response strong enough to get their attention.

This tells us that our years of advocacy and investment haven’t worked. We need immediate action to reframe the library message and the investment to garner it the media attention and public interest that will reach elected officials. We need a militant message tied to an aggressive media campaign to tell those who govern that the pittance of tax money they allocate to libraries is the wrong target for budget cutters. We must be far more aggressive as we deliver that message. We must dedicate our resources, even some of that $35 million endowment ALA has in the bank, not only to redrafting our message in terms that convince both the public and our representatives but also to paying for its delivery in the public airwaves. It has been done by those who work in many other public institutions, from schools and colleges to the post office.

We’ve been told that we are saving our money for that “rainy day” when the needs of libraries demand urgent attention. Look outside at library support, and you will see that it has been raining for a long time. The flood is headed for ­libraries!



John N. Berry III, Editor-at-Large

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III (jberry@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.

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  1. Joanne King says:

    Delivering a militant advocacy message on the local level would be pure political suicide. However much we ache to do it — and it will probably yield results in the short term — we must frame the message in terms that will not offend or burn bridges with people who will be deciding our fiscal fates going forward. That means demonstrating value, etc., yes, the soft sell that is deservedly frustrating the esteemed editor. We have to live to fight another day.

  2. From my perspective, most of the library advocacy efforts out of ALA have been misguided. It’s always the “libraries are threatened, SAVE them!” thing. The problems with this: 1) it makes us sound pathetic, not effective. 2) It assumes that the audience thinks libraries are worth saving, rather than selling them on our value. 3) it puts the focus on the libraries’ needs, and not the end users’ needs.

    One of the first things I was taught in grant writing is that people give to an organization that can succeed in making a difference. If the chorus is always poor us, poor us, poor us, it does not communicate that message. I was also taught that the organization seeking the money has NO needs whatsoever — PEOPLE have needs, and with funds, this particular organization can meet those needs.

    We also have to remember that we are already convinced of the value of libraries, while our audience might not be. No one wants to “save” something they don’t see value in saving. And you can ignore those surveys where 96% of people say libraries add value to their community. Of course they say that. It’s like asking if they approve of Mom, the flag and apple pie.

    • KSOL, I think you are absolutely right. Twice in the last 6 months I’ve been introduced to people at parties and gotten the question, “How does it feel to be part of a dying profession?”
      People really do not know how libraries benefit the community and democracy in general. They truly think that everything is available (for free) on the Internet — easy to find and always credible.
      We need better framing and messaging!

  3. Hey John,

    Some of us are trying to encourage people to do the advocacy work as well. There are things like the Great Librarian Write-out to encourage librarians to take charge of the conversations being had about libraries in the printed media. This award is up to $800 this year!! All personally funded by people who are interested in seeing libraries get more attention. If ALA wants to kick over some of that 35 million to support this award as well, I’m all in of course :-)


  4. John, we look forward to building EveryLibrary, the first nation-wide PAC for libraries (www.everlibrary.org) to support local libraries at the ballot box. If more libraries are turning to the public at election time to secure the funds we need to run, or if the library must go out for authority to float a bond or change a tax rate, then we need concerted, cooperative political action to support these institutions. EveryLibrary is out raising funds right now to do that. Thanks to your colleagues for covering this story at http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2012/09/organizations/library-pac-will-back-local-ballot-questions/ We hope to be up and running for the 2013 election cycle.

  5. The message is not the issue. Relationships are the issue. For whatever reason, library leaders seem not to have relationships with decision-makers and funders. And the relationship is the message. Successful efforts in other not-for-profit sectors point to the importance of reciprocity (tit-for-tat), consistency and commitment (appealing to values), liking (they need to know you to like you), social proof or validation (what are my colleagues doing), scarcity (difficult when you are positioning yourself to be “free”) and authority (what does my leader or respected experts say). Same old, same old, but louder and snappier won’t cut it.

  6. Punch Jackson says:

    The library community MUST realize it is living in a competitive environment and to successfully compete you must build relationships (Ken Haycock).
    Competing is not built on a base of the unsuccessful or “poor us”. It is not built from an entitilement position or starting from the position that you have a God Given Right to resources.
    Libraries are not a “cause” they are a public service! Figure out a game plan to be the best public service at providing service, the best at telling your story and the best at competing for resources!!

  7. Punch Jackson says:

    …and another thing. The Library Community must understand what it wants from the political process. IF political policy folks follow libraries they would be overwhelmed with what people are writing about. There must be a clear sense of priority items, a common set of messages heard by ALL politicians and clear plans for achieving outcomes if support were to be provided. Are libraries in sync with the priorities of the President? How are libraries supporting the economic crisis? Prove it and sell it!! Gain the confidence of politicians, be focused and be strategic……never whine!!

  8. Pat Schuman says:

    John you are absolutely right. And our advocacy efforts started TWO decades ago, not one–when Dick Dougherty and I launched the Library Champions, the Libraries are Worth It and the Say Yes to Your Right To Know campaigns during our ALA Presidential terms. These successful campaigns ( ie budgets were restored) was followed by major initiatives like the LAN (LibraryAdvocacy Now! ) Inititative and the @ your library Campaign. While there has been lip service to advocacy ever since ( before Dick and I the word was verboten) –and we now even have a small Advicacy office, there have been no national media campaigns to counteract the budget cuts — nor the public image of who we are and what we do. I am mystified as to why ALA has not launched a major , well- funded public awareness effort, in conjunction with state and local groups, in more than a decade. Frankly I dont understand the lack of action when we KNOW what works. By now it shouldn’t just be up to the ALA President to push– it should be a major part of our budgetary and staff commitment.

  9. “We need a militant message tied to an aggressive media campaign…”

    Really? No, we really don’t.

    Believe it or not, it’s not 1969. I know ALA supports the Occupy Wall Street morons in their misguided endeavors, but should we be a little brighter and more realistic than a bunch of children pretending to be homeless, Tweeting about the evil of American corporate culture on their iPad 3’s?

    This is why ALA is becoming irrelevant: It’s supposed to a professional organization, but it seems to think it’s the SEIU or some other union or “community advocacy” group. Well, it’s not.

    Here’s an idea, ALA: How about thinking our profession, best practices, and other things relevant to everyday people in their everyday jobs, rather than focusing on some ridiculous idea of “advocacy”?

    And, if libraries are so hard-up for attention, then maybe – just maybe – libraries really have become passe and their golden years are behind them?

    Articles like this are why I canceled my ALA membership. Thanks for confirming that I made the right decision!

  10. Tony Lucarelli says:

    Librarians as a group need to become more proactive in reaching out to those that hold the purse strings. And by librarians I don’t only mean those that are in directorship or management positions. And don’t wait until getting prodding from an association you belong to.

    I recall an Illinois Library Association conference that I attended that was being held in Springfield, IL – the state capitol – a few years back. The legislature happened to be in session at the time, and I took the opportunity to visit the capitol and the legislative offices of my local legislators to speak about some relevant issues facing Illinois libraries at the time.

    Out of the hundreds of librarians that attended that conference, including many from libraries near to mine, none of my local legislators that I spoke with said they were visited by any other librarians. I don’t think even one other librarian took the time to do what I did – visit their local legislator to speak about library issues, even though the state conference was taking place only blocks away from the capitol building.

    It is all well and good when we attend legislative days that our various associations put together, but we need to do more than that at local, state and national levels. Make the time to do this without any prodding from your associations. If you find yourself in the state capitol, carve out an hour or two to visit the offices of your local state representatives and state senators. If you find yourself in Washington, DC, stop into the offices of your local House member. Heck, stop by your Senators’ offices too. If you can’t speak with them because they aren’t there or are in another meeting, leave a business card. Follow up with a letter a week or so later, either thanking them for listening to you or, if you didn’t have the opportunity to speak with them, outline the reasons why you stopped in to see them.

    As someone that worked in a previous life in a government and public affairs capacity, I can tell you that these one-on-one interactions make more of an impression than organized legislative undertakings or form letter campaigns. It makes an impression that we are out there and we care about the issues – we care enough to take our own time to visit and speak with those that represent us about these important issues.

  11. There are soooo many things that our industry needs to do differently in order to get better support, that a blog comment won’t do — I could write a whole book about it. (Oh wait, I have: The Accidental Library Marketer, but even that just scratches the surface.)

    First, “advocacy” is more true, and more effective, when it comes from library supporters, not from librarians. We need to get other people doing this on our behalf.

    Second, advocacy is a tiny part of the challenge. I always encourage people to use True Marketing, which begins with studying customers (and potential customers!) to understand what they want and need. Without that, irrelevance is just a matter of time.

    So there’s lots of work to be done before even worrying about the media message part (tho I agree, that needs work!). One of the most frustrating things about our field is that, overall (not all libraries, but as a whole), it moves at the pace of molassas while much of the rest of the world moves at the pace of digital business.

    And I fully agree with John Berry in wondering why ALA hasn’t ever done a serious, far-reaching media campaign. The best thing I’ve seen lately is John Chrastka’s budding EveryLibrary PAC (which I quickly supported). Politics aren’t pretty, and neither is mass-media work, but if we aren’t even playing the game that other orgs are playing, it puts us in a perilous position.