Why You Need to Turn Your Library Advocates into Library Activists

WomanSignMy first job in public librarianship was coordinating the opening of a brand-new library facility. Honestly, as a recent graduate from SLIS, I really had no business coordinating the opening of this building, and I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

I began the job in 2007, and by 2008, I was lucky enough to hire all of my own staff and build an amazing library team.

After spending 6 months training staff and assigning roles, the Great Recession began and I had to lay off half of my brand-new and well-trained staff!

It was one of the most traumatic experiences in my career. But it truly opened my eyes to a lot of the things that I didn’t know about library management. I knew that my paycheck and my employees’ paychecks came from taxes, but I had no idea how that system worked or how taxes were directly tied to the economy and to the will of local politics.


“Over 90% of library funding comes from the will of the local voters and the local politicians.”

What I’ve Learned About Library Funding

EveryLibrary1What I’ve learned since that first library job is that over 90% of library funding comes from the will of the local voters and the local politicians!

If voters decide to defund a library, then the money is just gone.

Likewise, if a mayor or county commission decides to remove the money allocated to the library from the general fund, then the money is gone.

Just 10% of library funding comes from other sources of funding, such as state or federal contributions and other donations. That means that we have to understand who we need to influence in order to have a significant impact on local politics and the largest piece of the library-funding model.

Many of our marketing and advocacy efforts are directed at bringing in more library users, but in the study “From Awareness to Funding” by OCLC and the Gates Foundation, they found that there is no connection between library use and library funding.

So, if we’re truly trying to secure more library funding, then library use doesn’t matter.

In fact, we find this to be true through our work at EveryLibrary, where we work with libraries that have huge percentages of the public using their services, but very few people voting or taking action to ensure more funding. Conversely, I’ve worked in a library with very few users, but the community was so highly supportive of the library that they passionately ensured the funding of a new Platinum LEED building that spared no expense.

So, if it’s not use, then what matters for library funding?

The answer lies in activism.

The Difference Between Advocacy and Activism

If the goal is long-term library funding, then libraries need to look beyond current marketing and advocacy models. Instead, libraries need to look at models of activism and community organizing and build networks of supporters who will take action to support the library.

The difference between activism and advocacy is subtle, but very important.

For example, The Story Sailboat and the Great Librarian Write-Out were two of my first big projects, and both were simple, basic advocacy. In these projects we talked about how important libraries were, we told people that they should love libraries, we explained how libraries are changing and developing, and we let people know that libraries are the cornerstone of a strong community. We did all of this through fun tactics like book-seeding, writing articles and guerrilla storytimes.

I’m sure that someone — or maybe a few people — learned something about libraries that they didn’t know through these advocacy campaigns. I don’t doubt that these projects had some impact on people’s beliefs about libraries, and, of course, that’s a good thing.

But something very important was missing.

And that something was action.


This is the difference between activism and advocacy. In activism, tactics are used to identify supporters and then convince them to take a specific and meaningful action with measurable outcomes, such as the following:

  • Voting “yes” for a library measure for the library
  • Petitioning the local government
  • Writing letters to the editor

Learn More About Activism to Benefit Your Library

In her blog, Jenn T. Grace describes the most widely accepted difference between advocacy and activism:

An activist is a person who makes an intentional action to bring about social or political change.

Example: Rosa Parks was a civil rights activist who challenged racial segregation in 1955 by refusing to give up her seat on a bus for a white man.

An advocate is one who speaks on behalf of another person or group.

Example: As a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador (UNHCR), Angela Jolie is an advocate for refugees.

The theory behind activism is a wide and deep subject. Check out the following links for additional reading and training about how you can take tactics from activism, community organizing and political organizations and use them to bolster support for your library to improve your funding.


Patrick Sweeney

Patrick Sweeney

Patrick "P.C." Sweeney is a tireless and innovative advocate for libraries. A 2007 graduate of the San Jose School of Library and Information Sciences, P.C. is a former Administrative Librarian of the Sunnyvale (CA) Public Library and Executive Director of EveryLibrary California, a statewide ballot committee to support library propositions in California. He is currently the Political Director for EveryLibrary, the nation's first and only political action committee for libraries. He blogs at pcsweeney.com and he is a sought-after speaker and presenter, as well as a lecturer on politics and libraries at the San Jose School of Information Science.