Five Big Lessons from EveryLibrary Campaigns for Librarians

The library ecosystem already has a significant number of non-profits, charities, membership organizations, and foundations doing advocacy. EveryLibrary doesn’t do advocacy. We try and win elections for libraries.

EveryLibrary is the first national political action committee for libraries. We help build voter support for libraries when they are on the ballot. Each year, between 150 and 200 public libraries have to go out to the voters for bonds to build or remodel 21st Century libraries or operating funds to hire staff, do engaging programs and services, and maintain a collection for their public. These local tax elections account for over $300 million each year in library funding. By way of context, the entire federal appropriation for libraries hovers between $147 and $187 million. EveryLibrary is set up as the only organization dedicated exclusively to winning these local library funding elections. We are set up as a 501c4 political organization rather than as a 501c3 charitable organization for a key reason: 501c4 organizations can spend serious money to talk to voters about library elections.  

Since September 2012, and as of this writing, we’ve worked on 26 library elections across the country, winning 20 and helping to secure $46.2 million in stable tax funding for libraries.  In every case, we worked as pro-bono trainers and coaches for the staff and boards on planning and executing an effective Information Only campaign.  We also provide free advising and consulting to the local Vote Yes committee in our campaign communities, helping them do competent Get Out the Vote activity, neighbor to neighbor and voter to voter.  It is because we are set up as a 501c4 PAC that we can work with both the staff and the YES committee. 

Throughout these 26 campaigns, we’ve learned five huge things about voters and libraries. These five lessons are also generalizable to people when they are funders (donors), constituents, or advocates for libraries. These findings are supported by voter behavioral data from samples like OCLC’s “From Awareness to Funding” and local perception polling from many of our campaigns. Our insights are gleaned from on-the-ground work in small towns and big cities from coast to coast.  

  1. Voter behavior is driven by “belief in” and “nostalgia about” libraries. The use of the library doesn’t matter. Our colleagues at OCLC first identified this in 2008 with “From Awareness….”.  We need to put these facts to work for libraries by doing two things: update the nostalgia they have about libraries and librarians; and activate their belief in an American institution that is still staffed by competent, compassionate, effective librarians in the 21st Century. Many voters are not users and haven’t been since their own childhood. If we require them to love the library before they vote YES for the library, we set a very high bar. It’s perfectly OK for them not to use the library and still support it as a YES voter, a donor, or an advocate. 

  2. Voters look to the “passionate librarian” as much as the “effective institution”.  We have a long track record of advocacy statements, celebrations, and slogans in this industry that use the word ‘Library’. Unfortunately, the voter (or funder or advocate) also looks to see who is putting their money to work and want to see an engaged, passionate cadre of librarians doing life-changing work. We need to come out from behind the desks to talk about ourselves.  And if not ourselves, then at least of colleagues.  Start by saying “let me tell you about my co-workers”.  Your funding public wants to hear these librarian stories. 

  3. Voters are consumers. They respond to trends, stories, and news about libraries, publishing, information consumption habits, and new gadgets as much - if not more - than to stories about their own local library. They have the ability to generalize the need for libraries but have a hard time overcoming their own use patterns to see that not everyone in their communities behaves the same way, or has the same access or ability, as they do.  We need to help answer the “why do we need the library when it’s all on the internet” question for people who still will never use the library.

  4. Marketing works. We need to spend money on marketing our libraries - both our programs/services/events but also our worth and impact.  We need to share and show off our staff to our communities by crafting stories that talk about our people and buying eyeballs for those stories beyond the people we serve.  Your library needs a marketing budget for advertising, especially in social media, because we are in a crowded consumer landscape and need to tell our own stories.

  5. Opposition must be engaged. The time is over for library staff to weather criticisms in the community quietly or to wait for a champion to speak on our behalf.  We need to talk about the power of taxing for the common good to those who believe that any tax is a bad tax.  We need to speak clearly about the role of the profession in education, business development, and individual outcomes in the face of cost cutters and local watchdogs.  

We talk about ways to leverage the image of librarians and libraries for political and social outcomes in communities. The perception data about voters, funders, and constituents concerning our institutions and professionals is clear. You can do more than facilitate change at the library. You can convene it. EveryLibrary will expose and explore ways to harness your image as a librarian to activate activists for your agenda. 

If your library is going out for a vote in the next 36 - 48 months, call us. We can help you communicate effectively in your local community and convene the YES Committee you need to succeed.