Public libraries and advocacy: why we shouldn’t be doing it ourselves

I did my first keynote in Wellington a few weeks ago, and have to thank my library colleagues in the region for offering me the opportunity to try my hand at a new venture. The topic was advocacy for school libraries – why would we, and how might we begin?

Essentially, my message was that successful advocacy rests largely on our ability to persuade our (learning) community that we add value, and that we are indispensable. The subtext is that we cannot accomplish this overnight, and it needs to be deeply embedded in the psyche of the community long before the budget-cutting knives come out. If our community value us, they will fight tooth and nail for our survival. Better still, if our wider community knows our value, the knives won’t even leave the scabbard.

So how does this idea sit if we apply it to the public library sector? Yes, we can and should strive for excellence and consciously build customer loyalty. We are, however, limited by what we can say in the public arena, as our first loyalty as employees must, rightly, be to our employers and funding bodies, our local councils. Our ability to advocate, openly, for the survival of libraries in the political context is severely limited.

Enter the library manager, one of whose primary duties it is to spend ratepayer money wisely, to make savings and create efficiencies wherever possible. Will Manley’s excellent post places this role in a context that shows how difficult it is for our managers to advocate successfully while meeting the success criteria within their position descriptions. Will argues that successful advocacy comes from the community – in the New Zealand context, that would be the ratepayers, the readers, the raving fans.

Can we afford to leave this to chance, hoping that the community will rise up if we need them? I’m far too fond of strategic planning to willingly don the blinkers and ear-muffs needed to walk that path!

So how do we go about setting up this kind of community advocacy? Do you have a model that you can share with the library community? A ‘Board of Trustees’, or a strong ‘Friends of the Library’ group?  Is advocacy structured into your strategic planning?

Share your thoughts, muse aloud. Mutual musings may just spark some really good ideas and conversations. These are conversations we must have, because our survival may depend on it.



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9 Responses to Public libraries and advocacy: why we shouldn’t be doing it ourselves

  1. Sally says:

    Hi Donna,

    I’ve also been trying to find a way to get members of the public involved in library advocacy BEFORE such advocacy is needed. As we’ve seen in the UK, continued funding for public libraries is not guaranteed and so I’d like to find a way for public libraries to reduce their reliance on such funding whilst still maintaining free core services.

    This suggests better marketing of our services and partnering with others who do this well (and have better advocacy connections). It’s not going to be easy, and it’s something that libraries haven’t focused on much, but remaining viable and sustainable in today’s economy suggests that we need to do things differently.

    At the moment I’m leaning towards utilising a framework like “Friends of the library” groups on an international scale to become involved in philanthropic and marketing activities. I haven’t explored much further than this but would love to meet others with similar thoughts and ideas.

    I posted this idea in response to a blog post from Jan Holmquist because I also think this is something that would benefit from international collaboration and remove the restrictions placed on public libraries to comment in a public arena.

    • I love that idea – especially as international advocacy allows us to preserve good employer-employee relationships while doing our bit. I’m also very interested in the idea of crowd-sourcing. I follow Venessa Meimis‘ blog – you might like to check her out. A futurist with some very interesting ideas about future economies.

      • janholmquist says:

        How do we begin an international campaign for libraries? Maybe by putting together some of the work already being done?

        I was inspired by the movember movement ( that I learned about on twitter via @vaveros. I think it began in Australia and now there are even a Danish webpage. It communicates very clearly that there is an important issue to raise awareness to. If we could find a way to communicate the importance of libraries just as simple and world wide – we could add on “Local firends fo the library” groups and much more – making the important work in our communities match the world wide campaign.

        By the way – I will be growing a moustache this November 🙂

      • Great ideas, Jan. I really believe that one of the simplest ways we can move this forward is to use social media – the power of tools like Twitter is amazing. But it does need to be co-ordinated and strategised, I believe. And I believe it comes down to telling stories – talking about the real ways that we change lives. Story resonates on a level that numbers don’t. Getting people to think about what they do every day in this way is the trick… Who have you helped this week, and what difference did it make? What would have happened if you had not been there to help? Coming from a school background, in a poor part of town, my role was as much social as informational – there are so many stories!
        Where do we start? Should we set up something on a blog – easier to do, and free! And just start the conversation? I think the first step would be to brainstorm the perfect hashtag for Twitter, and a campaign statement… love to hear your thoughts.

  2. bob farwell says:

    Advocacy is essential to the future success of libraries, and yes it starts before the crisis is at hand. It is essential that a variety of voices are part of the chorus. Patrons and Friends, but also institutions. In our case we called on major economic drivers-banks and hospitals for example-to add their voices, predicated on the belief that education and quality of life are essential factors in making our community a vibrant and desirable place to live. Once the advocacy succeeds, it is also essential that whatever governing body makes the decision on municipal funding is reminded and acknowledged for having the wisdom to see the importance of libraries to the common weal. We erected a huge “book” in our atrium to celebrate the end of two years of summer furlough. Patrons signed the “pages” thanking the city council for adding the funding necessary to keep the library open. Those pages, with over 500 notes of thanks from the public were presented to the council at the beginning of their meeting. A great way to thank the council, and remind them that library patrons care and vote!

    • Great ideas, Bob, and I particularly agree with the importance of a visible thank you and acknowledgement to the funding body. I wonder, in these times of seeming mass cut backs in the school library sector, how much advocacy would be available from the education world? Then again, asking the question might prompt a bit of hard thinking in those quarters, too!

  3. Ian Anstice says:

    I do Public Libraries News from the UK reporting on the cuts and closures ( Well, it’s what i do in the evenings anyway. In the day I manage a library. Two years ago I saw the storm coming and set up a Friends Group which has been a wonderful experience, although hard work. I recommend you all set up such groups, whether you are under threat or not. They provide a real user voice to decisions – and money and help.

    But they’re not the key. Only one group is the key. And it’s not who you deal with every day. Oh no.

    It’s your councillors you need to work on. Get them to come to every great event you have. Tailor things to them. The public is NOT your true customer in a public library. They’re nice and wonderful but they’re not the customer – the true customer is your Councillors. Keep them happy and you have no problems. Ignore them and it doesn’t matter what you do, they can close you down in an instant. The public may protest but that is all they can do.

    It’s the Councillors, Stupid.

    • A agree, Ian. We ignore that aspect of advocacy at our peril. The thing is, we’re not that used to being political! So we have to learn to do that… we certainly encourage our school librarians to do the equivalent – get onside with your Board, show them who you are, get them in, and show them where there money goes. Become a personality, not just an expense on the end-of-year accounts. I’m so glad the friends group worked for you!

  4. Sally says:

    Lovin’ the ideas and suggestions. I agree that we need to get more political and target councillors. Perhaps we could do this in conjunction with a “Friends Group” that consists of major economic drivers such as banks and hospitals. And publicise it in a similar way to Movember?

    I really like the simplicity, visibility and engagement of Movember – growing a moustache to raise funds and awareness for men’s health. It’s a big event in NZ too.

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