May 22, 2018

Reversing the Slide in Voter Support | BackTalk

We need a significant shift in our tactics to turn around voter attitudes about the core work of libraries

The 2018 “From Awareness to Funding” study should inspire deep reflection within the library community about how we have been doing public outreach, voter engagement, and everyday advocacy over this past decade.

As a founder and executive director of EveryLibrary, the only national political action committee for libraries, I am deeply concerned by the top-line loss of voter support for libraries. To see the drop from 73% “possible yes” voters in OCLC’s 2008 report of the same name to the new reality of 2018’s 58% was crushing. At EveryLibrary, we have seen the erosion of voter support and respect for libraries in polls and surveys from dozens of towns, cities, and counties over our short time working on library campaigns. We have worked on 77 election days since early 2013. In some places, the old 73% held, and the library had a smooth drive. But in several areas, campaigns crashed.

Not External factors

There are a dozen different kinds of spin that we can put on this. It would be easy to explain it away by appealing to the conventional wisdom about post-Obama America, or by citing the rise of the Tea Party, the Trump voter, or a general decline in civic participation. But I don’t think that a 16% drop can be blamed on external political factors when there are also 9–20% declines in voter perception of the library as an institution and librarians as professionals. It’s not an outside meta-political or cultural movement driving this decline, but rather our approach to advocacy and storytelling that has ceded the formerly high poll numbers we once enjoyed. Unless we change our behavior and do it right, we will not be able to arrest this downturn.

I am most deeply troubled by the declining perception about the core work of libraries and core competencies of librarians. When there is a nine point drop in the perception about libraries offering “Free access to books and technology that some people may not be able to afford,” how do we recapture that narrative? Today, 20% fewer voters agree that “the library is an excellent resource for kids to get help with their homework” than ten years ago (71% then, 51% now). How is that possible when every story we tell is about a kid learning to read in order to succeed later in life? How do we fight a hostile city hall or recalcitrant county commission when the feeling that “having an excellent public library is a source of pride” is only shared by 53% of voters (20% fewer than in the 2008 report)? When only a bare majority think that having a library is important, how can we talk to voters about new taxes?

Despite this, libraries won ballot measures at a record rate in 2017. How do we reconcile a 15% loss in aggregate support for libraries when there was a 90% win rate for libraries last year? As my colleague Erica Findley and I suggested in our coverage of the 2017 campaigns (LJ 2/15/18, p. 16–20; ow.ly/X8YI30jBmkq), voters in 2017 were voting for “progressive issues” and against their perception of President Trump’s value system. Those values not only carried a lot of libraries over the finish line, they also tipped elections nationwide against incumbent mayors and regular Republicans and for a number of traditionally progressive issues. Voters in Denver; Kansas City, MO; Dallas; and Houston all approved massive public infrastructure bonds. Maine voters approved a Medicare expansion framed as an endorsement of the Affordable Care Act. Voters across numerous local districts in Arizona approved new school funding. Our institutions and their values happened to have lined up in 2017. We can’t count on that continuing.

Changing our strategy

The problem may lie in the notion that our best advocates are not stakeholders. We have been taught that if we tell enough impact stories the public will speak on our behalf. But the data in “From Awareness to Funding 2018” shows that this approach is misguided and ineffective. Voter perception of librarians as “Friendly and approachable” has fallen from 67% to 53%. Perception of librarians as “True advocate[s] for lifelong learning” has dropped from 56% to 46%. The feeling that librarians are “Knowledgeable about my community” fell from 54% to 42%. I hope we have found the bottom at 31% of voters (down from 40% ten years ago) who think that librarians are “Well known in the community.”

Our core messaging and value propositions have taken a massive hit. This decline cannot persist if we expect libraries to be funded through taxpayer support. Ten years ago, three-quarters of voters thought that libraries were important for youth. Today, it is down to just two-thirds. What have we been doing that made us lose this kind of ground? In 2018, only 55% of Americans think that “if the library were to shut down, something essential would be lost.” It was 71% ten years ago.

This is a loss of something basic. Let us have the professional courage to acknowledge that more than a decade of public-facing advocacy campaigns and trainings and toolkits have failed. As an industry, we have placed a tremendous amount of hope in American voters who understand the transformational nature of the central aspects of libraries.

I do take heart in one data point in the 2018 report: the “Super Supporters” are still embedded in the electorate and largely unchanged. As the report cautions, “[t]his segment’s loyalty should not be taken for granted, but rather nurtured and protected.” This is why EveryLibrary has been working on identifying, cultivating, and empowering super supporters through our One Million Americans for Libraries campaign (ow.ly/88iY30jBn5O). We have attracted over 264,000 library supporters, but we must identify millions more. The library community should be more than alarmed. We need a significant shift in our tactics to turn around voter attitudes about the core work of libraries and update perceptions of the people who work there. We need to work on building back what we have lost.

John Chrastka is Executive Director of the political action committee EveryLibrary and a 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker

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

John Chrastka About John Chrastka

John Chrastka, a 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker, is Founder and Executive Director of EveryLibrary, a nonprofit organization that advocates for local library ballot initiatives.

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Comments

  1. anonymous coward says:

    What if, and I’m just thinking aloud, the problem isn’t the message at all, but actual changes in the library? What if libraries ARE no longer as good a resource for kids to get help with their homework? What if there have been changes in our mission that have negatively impacted the way people use and view us?

    The stats show that the number of annual visits by people who go to libraries “just for fun” has dropped by more than half in 10 years. THIS MEANS PEOPLE WHO USED TO FIND JOY IN GOING TO THE LIBRARY NO LONGER FIND THAT JOY. Why is that?

    This is not a messaging problem alone. In my opinion there is the possibility that we have lost our way. It is a problem with what we do and how we do it, too, not just how we talk about it.

    • anonymous coward says:

      Sorry, in reading that I’m not sure I hit the right notes. I’m not discounting the great work EveryLibrary does around the country- more meditating on the fact that things that should be treated as loss leaders to the things people always loved and supported about libraries are now becoming the main event, and I think that is having an impact.

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