June 18, 2018

A Winning Story: Big Successes, with an Eye To Winds of Change | Editorial

A full 90 percent of all library referenda tracked by political action committee EveryLibrary and LJ passed in 2017. It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the astounding support that number represents as it encompasses results in both blue and red states, cities large and small. That number, and all the ballots that roll up to it, is fully documented in “Breaking Records at the Polls” by EveryLibrary’s John Chrastka and Erica Findley. We worry about library support all the time, as anticipating a wide range of scenarios is the responsible thing to do. [Editor’s note: This fact was driven home by the Trump administration’s recent FY19 budget request, which once again seeks to defund the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Innovative Approaches to Literacy grant program, and other agencies relevant to libraries.]

However, we should celebrate the good news here. We should consider all that it tells us about what is going right with regard to the bond between our institutions and the voters who turn out to support them. Then, we should put those findings into action to deepen the connection—for more interaction today and greater support in the future.

Referenda outcomes are just one part of the funding outlook, of course, and LJ’s Budgets & Funding package acknowledges the range of issues and pressures being brought to bear. You’ll also find the results of LJ’s latest budget survey, an in-depth look at “How To Win at the Ballot Box,” and something to dream on in “Found Money,” on making the most of a windfall gift.

“The immediate referenda story is a big win. We called it breaking records for a reason: it’s unprecedented on operating measures and very solid on buildings, with wins that were certain and strong,” says LJ executive editor Meredith Schwartz, who edited the articles. “The budget story is more flat—not bad, just stable.” One takeaway is that voters seem to be “willing to give money for new things, so they need to see the new.”

This positivity wavers, however, as we try to anticipate the impact of the new federal tax law and other forces on public spending. The overarching nervousness about the federal funding situation is based on uncertainty about what is unknown, what the effects of the new tax bill will actually be. Critical as well is the picture of state-level support, which provides a vital conduit to federal dollars and is still far from recovering from the large cuts brought by the recession, according to the recently released biennial State Library Administrative Agencies (SLAA) Survey, conducted in FY16 and released by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (see news coverage on p. 10). Such factors are essential to understand in the funding mix and integrate into planning as more is known. Says Schwartz, “There is only so much we can each do about our macro and micro political environment. You should know what it is, so you can respond, but put your efforts into what you can control.”

Wise. Regarding what is actionable today, a few tactics emerged from the feature package when it comes to success at the ballot box. Don’t start with a campaign, start with your relationship with the community. “The consistent strands are to launch your effort years ahead—and be embedded locally,” Schwartz says. She also calls out the importance of asking patrons whose lives have been changed by the library to tell their own stories to voters and elected officials and admits the possible value of being a downer in some messaging. “Don’t be afraid to spell out the negative outcomes of failure…talk about the positives, of course, but talking about the negatives can help a lot.” [Schwartz has also been developing a new online workshop on getting to yes on your funding from voters and elected officials alike (find more info at learn.libraryjournal.com).]

“Beyond just getting funded, which is big,” notes Schwartz, “there’s a bonding effect of people voting for the library. Once you have the commitment via the ballot, the relationship with the yes voter is something on which to build.”

This resonates for me. It’s important to remember that even with major disruption on the immediate horizon, we are in a long engagement with the people who need what libraries provide and all the stakeholders involved. That creates its own source of energy to build more wins and manage the unpredictability that lies ahead.

This article was published in Library Journal's February 15, 2018 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller (miller@mediasourceinc.com) is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.

Fund Your Library: Tools and Tactics for Getting to Yes!
Whether you’re going to voters, city councils, school boards, college board of directors, or any other funder, the fundamental issues are the same: how do you convince the stewards of a limited budget that the library is their best investment?
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