April 19, 2018

Tools You Can Use | Federal Advocacy

At ALA’s recent annual conference, ALA’s Washington Office (WO) reported to Council that the 2017 National Legislative Day was the biggest ever. But if you missed it, fear not—WO and ALA as a whole also have many tips for how local librarians on the front lines can get involved with the fight for federal funding from their hometown without traveling to DC. For more tools and tips, see ALA’s Fight for Libraries! Campaign Tools.

Visit your representatives. Call the congressional office nearest you and ask to meet with your legislator (or a senior staffer. While the chief of staff may be as hard to see as the elected official, legislative aides can be both great influencers and solid sources of information about where things are going and what is on the docket, according to Christian Zabriskie, executive director of Urban Libraries Unite, while Constituent Services staffers’ main job is to listen to people like you). Let them know who will be attending and what you want to discuss. To prepare, collect stories and statistics and frame your message in a way that helps them understand how the issue impacts their constituents. To decide whom to bring, identify other people who can help get that message across, whether that’s a coworker or a member of the community who relies on your library, such as a business owner, social worker, parent,
or teacher.

Invite legislators to your library. Especially if they have a chance to speak, meet voters, or get on the local news, elected officials are usually happy to show up and be associated with feel-good events in their district. Invite them to cut ribbons for groundbreakings, present awards, or just speak on topics of timely interest. While they’re there, a library tour can help show them what a modern library does. (For bonus points, connect to their staffers to offer research help.)

Attend a town hall meeting. Many legislators hold town hall meetings, especially during congressional recesses. Use them as opportunities to help them understand the value of your library. You won’t get as much time to talk as you would one-on-one, but you get the bonus of making your point to all the other attendees as well.

Write a letter to your representatives. Can’t get there in person? Phones jammed? Contact your local reps through ALA’s Legislative Action Center. Or increase your impact by hosting a postcard writing campaign (ALA offers graphics for the postcards).

Write a letter to the editor. A letter to the editor of your local paper is an easy way to amplify your message and build support. Keep it short, submit it in the body of your email, and, if it gets published, make sure to email it to your elected officials. Recruit local authors and library supporters to do the same—especially if they’re also involved in electoral politics.

Forge new partnerships. Working with other governmental agencies, such as the Small Business Administration, helps demonstrate the value of libraries and educates those partners who become new advocates.

Use social media. Premade photo frames and cover art offer an easy way to make a statement; tagging IMLS or using hashtag #saveIMLS to share your impact story and tagging your representative to make sure they hear it gets the word out.

Ask for money. Believe it or not, this counts as advocacy. Keeping up both the quality and the quantity of grant applications to IMLS helps demonstrate how critical this revenue stream is to libraries, noted ALA Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) director Alan S. Inouye.

Framing your Message

When deciding how to make your case, two crucial aspects to confront are the myth of obsolescence—that libraries have been replaced by the Internet—and related confusion about purpose. If libraries aren’t the book place, what are we? It’s sometimes a hard question to answer in an elevator pitch, because libraries “do not…have one dominant specific function. Most entities that are viewed as essential have one dominant activity (e.g., schools educate and hospitals heal),” OITP says in materials developed with ALA’s Public Policy Advisory Council (PPAC).

To overcome this, PPAC suggests adding “organizational framework messaging” to connect the dots between general, aspirational messages (such as “Libraries Transform”) and those that focus on a specific attribute of library service that illustrates direct impact on the community. One such example is “The E’s of Libraries/What’s Your E?” which was developed to advocate for E-rate. The original “E”s suggested were Entrepreneurship, Empowerment, Engagement, Employment, and Education, but others include Early learning, Exploration, Everyone, Everywhere, Expertise, and Equity.

It remains to be seen whether the E’s of Libraries will retain their ease of use outside the E-rate context, but the underlying reasoning applies. Organizational framework messaging, says PPAC, should be memorable, actionable, and perception-changing. If it succeeds at presenting the many things libraries do in a way that is easy to understand and remember, PPAC says, it “can turn what would otherwise be a negative when it comes to messaging—the lack of one dominant activity—into a positive.”


This article was published in Library Journal's August 1, 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Executive Editor of Library Journal.



  1. Here’s another tool that might be useful–this article from Marketing Library Services newsletter:

    During my work in library marketing, I’ve noticed that most people have a hard time boiling things down into a brief elevator speech. So when I was giving training sessions on that topic, I wrote this article and posted it, free, to help others who needed it.

    Good luck to everyone! All of us need to be able to deliver short, effective messages. Our funding and future might depend on it.

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