Library Advocacy, Part 1: The Importance of the Right Message
Forward by Janet Nelson, Director of Library Engagement and Solutions at Demco, Inc.
We realize that library advocacy is a topic that has become more critical with each passing year. It is more challenging than ever to get community support for funding to drive everything from day-to-day operations to capital needs. To provide you with resources on this important issue, we enlisted the help of Patrick Sweeney from EveryLibrary. Using his perspective as a Library Administrator, as well as his experience as Executive Director of EveryLibrary California, he has created a 3-part blog series to give you the basics on how to create and share a strong message for your library.
And, now I’ll leave you to Patrick …
Creating the right message about your library is one of the most important aspects of library advocacy and one that libraries often do poorly. In most cases the lack of effective messaging isn’t entirely the library’s fault; it’s a symptom of how challenging it is to shift the public’s perception of libraries as libraries across the country are evolving and redefining their role and identity in their communities.
There are many factors that complicate the creation of an effective message for a local library. Most significantly, there is an identity crisis happening across the profession as we struggle with the question, “If our brand isn’t just about books then what is it?” Certainly, libraries are not just books anymore (if they ever were), as the proliferation of makerspaces, digital media labs, community led programming, online access to information and outreach and civic engagement initiatives clearly demonstrate.
Yet as William Gibson observed, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed,” many local community libraries have not evolved beyond the traditional model. This leads to a disconnect between the national message of libraries as transformational institutions of learning and community hubs, and the local reality of what the community library has to offer. So, how does your library go about creating a message that resonates with your community?
About EveryLibrary and why politics
Much of the information that I will be sharing comes from the research and practical on-the-ground consulting experience of EveryLibrary. EveryLibrary has a large body of experience in helping libraries to politically advocate for themselves and we collect and analyze data from actual library election messaging efforts. We are highly adept at analyzing local library political climates and recommending and training on practical techniques that the library can employ to effectively advocate and build real and demonstrable political support in their community. This experience gives us a specific knowledge base to inform how we create messages for libraries.
EveryLibrary was founded as a 501c(4) Political Action Committee to address the fact that 85% of public library funding comes through taxes raised by local elections and politics. This means that if libraries are to have a stable tax-supported funding stream, they need to learn to work effectively within their local political environment — a skill set that many libraries lack. Prior to the founding of EveryLibrary, there was no organization collecting and analyzing data on library elections and politics nor focused solely on teaching librarians how to politically advocate for themselves. The data that EveryLibrary has collected through 25 campaigns over the last 2 years is what informs our discussion and practice around a number of vital political activities, most importantly, messaging.
Why Are We Talking About the Right Message?
The most important instrument that libraries can arm themselves with is their message. This message is their guiding principle, it’s what will motivate voters to go to the polls or write to politicians on behalf of the library. Messages in political campaigns are developed through a process that ensures that it resonates with the largest percentage of the target demographic, and large-scale political campaigns may spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on message development before a campaign even begins. However, while big money politics can afford $100,000 slogans and messages, your library probably can’t. That’s OK, we are going to take what we’ve learned from national campaigns and local elections and boil it down to the basics for something you can use.
If someone were to ask you right now, “What is your library’s mission or vision statement?” would you be able to recite it? When we teach groups of librarians about political messaging, we always ask this question and very few librarians can recite these statements from memory. But don’t worry, we aren’t asking you to go back and memorize your mission or vision statements or even change them. The message of your library, while potentially informed by your mission or vision statement, is very different.
The mission or vision statements of your library are simply what your library is about, but your advocacy or political message is more like the elevator pitch that your staff can give. The pitch might relate back to these statements, but it is aimed at a different audience and serves its own purpose.
In a political campaign, you can see this play out as the difference between a theme and a message. In 2012 we saw Obama’s theme “Forward” play against Romney’s theme of “Believe in America.” The themes that were given by each candidate were backed by the campaign’s messages. In our case, the library’s theme is its vision or mission statement and the message is how we back that up.
One of the first things we are often asked in the onset of a campaign is, what should our library’s message be? In fact, when we were invited to pen this blog post we were asked what is the most effective message that libraries should be delivering to their communities. We only wish it were that simple — there is not one-size-fits-all answer because every community is unique. In local advocacy and politics, it’s the “local” that matters and every “local” is different and requires special attention. Because of this, in order to develop an effective library message, you need to start from scratch and focus on your own community and not on the cool new thing that libraries are doing three states over.
If you look at national political campaigns, you might notice the shift in messaging as the candidates move from location to location. The candidates generally want to have the largest effect on the largest segments of the population. So, while Obama was in Detroit, his message around his reelection theme of “Change” was about the shifting industries that challenged the city and while Romney was in Ohio he talked about the importance of small businesses and farmers to the American identity. Likewise, talking about issues that matter to the most people in your community will have the best effect on their attitude toward libraries.
While it seems that many libraries realize that they should have a clear and effective message, there is often a disconnect about the purpose of having a message. This is also something that is dependent on what is happening locally and what you want to accomplish. Before starting to formulate your message, you are going to need to know what goal you want your message to achieve.
- Are you looking to increase awareness?
- Are you trying to brand your library for the digital age?
- Do you want to increase cardholder rates or circulation or program attendance?
- Are you trying to increase literacy rates or decrease incarceration rates through public education?
- Or, is your library going to ask the voters for support in the coming years?
Once you know why you’re building a message, you’ll be able to understand who you will be directing that message towards and what your message will be.
Really … All of the Above?
If you answered the questions above with the answer we hear all the time, “I want to do all of those things,” then you don’t need a message, you need a miracle. If you’re trying to be everything to everyone, you will end up being nothing to anyone. What you need to remember is that your message is a very specific tool for your library and every tool has a very specific purpose. If you look deeper into what the multimillionaires are doing, you’ll see that this is true across the board. For example, Walmart knows it doesn’t cater to the 1%, Nike doesn’t market to non-athletes and conservatives don’t try to woo progressives for votes. So, pick a goal to help you determine your audience for each message you create.
Messaging can be one of the best tools your library has for outreach, advocacy and public education. A strong message will help you achieve your organization’s goals as well as help frame what your library is now and in the future. If developing and deploying that message correctly, you will win over the people who might have opposed funding the library, voted against it or just been indifferent to it.
Stay tuned … in our next blog post, we will talk about development and in our final post we will discuss strategically deploying your message in your community to maximize its effectiveness.