Let No Crisis Go To Waste
Many people don’t realize that we’re slowly losing the war for American libraries through inaction and failing to take advantage of the opportunities available in a crisis.
I’m sure you’ve seen all the terrible library and literacy bills that come out every year at the state level. This year is no different. We’ve seen bills targeting LGBT materials in libraries, threatening to imprison librarians, and baselessly attacking the databases that are provided in school and public libraries.
But what if I told you that passing these bills isn’t the point? What if there was something else happening and the bills themselves were simply a tool for organizations, special interest groups, and campaigns to accomplish a bigger and more frightening strategy?
Sadly, this is what’s happening with the recent bills like we’ve seen in Missouri, Florida, and Utah. Many people don’t realize that we’re slowly losing the war for American libraries through inaction and failing to take advantage of every one of these crisis.
Some of these bills seem so ridiculous and over the top that they would never pass. In fact, most of them never make it to a vote. It’s also probably true that many of the ones that we’re seeing this year would never even make it into committee. Because of this, it might seem like fighting bills like these is a pointless exercise since they’ll never actually pass. In fact, I continuously hear that libraries shouldn’t take action on frivolous and pointless bills like these. But not taking action or not taking advantage of the opportunities presented by these bills is one of the most dangerous strategies that we can take as an industry.
So let’s take a look behind the scenes at many of these bills because they are strategically placed and they do accomplish a lot more than you might realize - even if they never make it into law.
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First, let’s talk about political power. Political power only comes from two real sources and that is People and Money. If an organization, cause, or candidate wants political power they have to accumulate at least one of those two resources. For example, with enough supporters they can rally people to put pressure on legislators to take a favorable action. Of course, with enough money they can make campaign contributions, buy ad space, etc… And, with enough of both - money and people - an organization can move just about any agenda forward.
So how do these bills help an organization, cause, or candidate build political power?
Let’s look at the terrible bill in Missouri that would imprison librarians for checking out books. This bill, HB 2044 (2020) was submitted by Representative Ben Baker and will most likely never make it out of committee. But, Representative Baker didn’t write this bill himself. It was written and put on his desk by an organization called the Personhood Alliance. This isn’t a particularly large or politically powerful organization, but they are undoubtedly attempting to get bigger and more powerful and they are doing it through frivolous bills and laws that engage their community of supporters and give them an opportunity to both fundraise and identify supporters.
But how does that actually work in practice?
If an organization wants to raise money or identify supporters then they have to create some sense of urgency, crisis, or opportunity. That’s because very few people take action when there isn’t a good “reason” to take action, or a crisis point to rally around. People don’t often make donations or sign up for anything unless there is a sense of urgency. In order to create that urgency, a cause like the “Personhood Alliance” can submit a wild bill that they know won’t pass. They need it to be bold enough or even outlandish enough that news and media agencies will take notice and pick it up and do the work of informing the public about it for them so they don’t have to spend their own resources on informing the public. Then after submitting the bill and the public knows about it (thanks largely to the media and social media outrage), they launch a public petition campaign and they encourage their followers and supporters to rally friends and family to sign the petition. Once someone signs the petition, the cause adds them to their central database. Then, they can send an email or contact that known supporter to ask for contributions to help fight for the bill. In fact, for many of these kinds of organizations, that petition is highly profitable and they wind up earning far more money than they spend on pushing for that bill. In this way they’ve done three things. First, they’ve informed the public about their existence. Second, they’ve added supporters to their cause (people). And finally, they’ve raised the funding they need (money) to increase their political power and the outrage on the internet through the media did the hard and expensive work of informing the public about it.
The big issue for libraries is that sophisticated and well-connected organizations introduce bills like these all over the country. Then, they follow that process of backing that bill with a petition and asking the signers of that petition to make a contribution. By doing this over and over and over across the country, adding all of those people to their central list of supporters and raising that money, they will have accumulated and increased their own political power. In that way, every petition is an opportunity to add more supporters and funders. Petitions signers from previous petitions can be also contacted and used to amplify the next petition and increase its effectiveness. As we’re seeing in the HB2044 the petition, they currently have over 27,000 signatures or identified supporters added to their database.
The creation of these databases is common practice for sophisticated political organizations. Once in the database, additional information about supporters can be appended from third-party datasets and cross checked with the national voter file. Then, those supporters can be targeted with more personalized messages to further radicalize them for the cause and convert that support into votes. That means that the databases can be used in ballot initiatives, candidate campaigns, and other political actions to reduce the cost of voter identification and fundraising and to help ensure the election of candidates who are even more favorable to legislation that would imprison librarians (for example) and eventually these bills could be passed with a new congress through demonstrated pubic support and campaign contributions.
This process is also simply an attempt to move the so-called “Overton Window”. The Overton Window is the range of policies that are politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time. It is also known as the window of discourse. The term is named after Joseph P. Overton, who stated that an idea's political viability depends mainly on whether it falls within this range, rather than on politicians' individual preferences. According to Overton, the window frames the range of policies that a politician can recommend without appearing too extreme to gain or keep public office given the climate of public opinion at that time. By continuously and repeatedly identifying supporters of extreme views and raising funding for voter and public education through these kinds of petitions, they can then begin the process of moving the Overton Window until these kinds of bills become more mainstream and acceptable.
But how do libraries fight back?
At EveryLibrary, we have been fighting back for the last four years. I’m sure you’ve seen us chasing down some of these wild and outlandish bills across the country. By doing this, we’ve been building the nation’s first and only national database of hundreds of thousands of library supporters. We’re invested in using these terrible bills to drive our counter petitions that we use to identify library supporters and rally them to take continuous action on behalf of libraries. We’ve identified hundreds of thousands of library supporters, voters, donors, and volunteers across the country through this process. Our primary interest is lending this accumulated power to our partner organizations, associations, libraries, and campaigns at absolutely no cost to those partners.
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For example, when we work with a local ballot initiative, one of the most useful tools we offer is a list of known library supporters, donors, and even people who have expressed an interest in volunteering. By taking advantage of these early identified supporters, campaigns can get started earlier, raise more money, and accomplish more. By building this national network of libraries supporters, we are also able to make each petition more successful than the last by re-engaging previous petition signers to take further action. In this way, we’ve built significant political power for libraries.
This work is especially critical considering that libraries have lost nearly 20% of voter support in the last 10 years according to the latest Awareness to Funding report (if you haven't read this report, please do!). Also in that report was a key recommendation to cultivate and empower super supporters. However, there is no way to cultivate and empower super supporters if we first haven’t identified who they are. This petition process is key to cultivating and empowering library super supporters because it is what identifies our supporters in the first place. Then we are able to use our resources to cultivate and empower them through a ladder of engagement and audience engagement roadmap process. That way, when a library is in crisis, we have the political power as an industry to fight back.
Ultimately, EveryLibrary exists to give the library industry things for free. If your library is in crisis, if you need help, if there is bad legislation, if there is an opportunity to work together, all you have to do is ask us to work with you. We’ll be happy to provide pro-bono training and consulting, data, tools, funding, and resources to your campaign. All that political power that we’ve been accumulating over the last four years, belongs to the library industry and we are proud to use that power to ensure the future funding success for your library or library organization.