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Stand Up for Libraries

By Thomas J. Hennen Jr. in the June/July 2005 American Libraries



ALA President Carol Brey-Casiano suggested the theme of this issue.  She has also organized delegations to Salinas, California, and Bedford, Texas, to try to restore library services that have been discontinued.  She and other ALA leaders recognize as critical as the federal level is, it cannot be our only area of advocacy.   The strategy must focus on state and local issues as well.  The Campaign to Save America’s Libraries, initiated two years ago by then President Mitch Freedman, is becoming more critical by the day.  Increasingly, the battle to save libraries is not in Washington, but in state capitals and city halls around the nation.  In this article, I will provide some suggestions on strategy and indicate tactics that have worked well in Wisconsin and elsewhere. 

 The news at the state and local level is grim.  Consider just a few recent highlights:

  • Ohio, the state with some of the best-supported and best-used libraries in the nation, is drastically cutting budgets. 
  • Colorado libraries are reeling from years of budget stringency brought on by “TABOR” (the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights), a constitutional amendment that limits state spending. 
  • Salinas, California, and Bedford, Texas, closed their public libraries completely in 2005.
  • There was a threatened closure of all 52 libraries in Buffalo & Erie County, N.Y. in December 2004. At the last moment, the Erie County legislature agreed to share part of a one-cent sales tax increase with municipalities - keeping branches open, but devastating the library system budget. 
  • Branch closings or sharp reductions in open hours have become so common that they are barely newsworthy anymore.
  • Calls for consolidation of multiple libraries into wider units are heard with increasing frequency across the country.  Economic circumstances have forced many elected officials to consider trading autonomy for perceived lower costs.  (See the Price of Library Governance, LJ ____).


Motivation Matters

Three things motivate elected officials; they are, in order of increasing motivation: 

  • good public policy,
  • political or economic advantage, and
  • the potential wrath of voters or other politicians. 

 Nearly everyone agrees that libraries are good public policy.  We fall short on the next two motivations.  We have little political influence because we rarely offer much fundraising advantage to politicians.  Politicians do not usually risk the wrath of voters by shortchanging libraries because very few single-issue voters make library support their litmus test. 

 Our long suit, good public policy, is the weakest motivator for most elected officials.  The next section indicates advocacy tools that can help shore up the other two. 


Some Advocacy Tools

I am certain that other state associations and ALA would benefit from the button/bumper sticker, conduit, and e-mail database, tactics that we are using in the Wisconsin Library Association.  We are working on several fronts:

  • The Alliance for Public Libraries "conduit"
  • The "I Love Libraries and I Vote" campaign
  • An e-mail database of library supporters

 The “I Love Libraries and I Vote” campaign includes buttons and bumper stickers with that slogan.  The project provides materials at cost to libraries and friends groups. Good visibility for local and state meetings is one of the major results.  See: http://www.wla.lib.wi.us/legis/lovelibs/index.htm

 We have currently embarked on a campaign to get tens of thousands of individuals to sign up to be part of an e-mail network that is organized by WLA according to legislative district.  This will allow us to target legislators on key committees, education, finance, and so forth.  We will ask for quick responses to targeted issues heard by specific committees.   That coupled with the carefully targeted conduit funds (explained below) and the buttons and bumper stickers will deliver our message. 

Sarah Long at NSLS has initiated a similar program with wristbands similar to the popular Lance Armstrong wrist bands.  These read: “Libraries Matter,” and are proving immensely popular.  See:


The Ohio Library Council has a very extensive and effective web site that provides extensive background and advice on legislative issues. 



ALF, the Alliance for Libraries Fund

ALF, the Alliance for Libraries Fund, buys us a place at the state legislative table.  We have created a campaign conduit fund to allow library supporters to contribute to statewide legislative campaigns in the name of the Alliance for Libraries Fund (ALF). See: http://www.wla.lib.wi.us/legis/conduit.htm

WLA members and others contribute to ALF. WLA maintains the accounts of each contributor. WLA can only release funds with the permission of the contributor at the time the contribution is needed. Contributors may contact WLA when they want their funds to be released to one or more candidates,  or WLA may alert ALF contributors that opportunities exist to contribute to specific candidates.

For a conduit like this, the organization must receive explicit authorization to release funds to a specific candidate or candidates; it may NOT direct contributions without authorization from the individual contributor as would be the case for a Political Action Committee.

 In a PAC the organization collects the money from the membership on a per capita basis as part of membership dues. The leadership decides how much to charge the members.  It further decides which candidates to give money to regardless of membership wishes.  In a conduit, members must choose to give and choose whom to donate money to. 

Many potential contributors will have one or two legislators that they cannot support under any circumstances even though the organization needs their support in the legislature for the legislative program to be successful.  The conduit lets the member decide.  A PAC only lets the leadership decide. 

A check from the Alliance for Libraries Fund, listing each individual conduit contributor, is presented to the candidate. He or she may report the contributions as individual contributions. However, the candidate is aware that library supporters are among his or her contributors, and that is the key to the whole thing.

 I believe that ALA should establish a library conduit and should urge state library associations to establish them where state laws allow.  However, the issue of tax status is critical.  In order to operate as a conduit, an association must be organized as a 501(C)6 organization under federal rules.  That means that dues paid to the organization are not tax deductible.  The Allied Professional Organization, for instance, is organized as a 501(C) 6 entity, while ALA is a 501(C)3 organization, allowing tax deductibility.  The rules for the types of lobbying activities that association staff can engage in change substantially with this change so the change, is not to be undertaken lightly.  I believe that the positives outweigh the negatives. 



A major part of effective library advocacy is setting the right agenda.  This includes defining model legislation for each state.  The ALA tendency is to deal with model legislation regarding copyright, intellectual freedom, and privacy rights.  There is nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes,  but libraries have to exist to make these issues critical.  We need model legislation that will help keep libraries viable so they can do battle with censors and privacy invaders. That means developing model legislation that makes public libraries more viable.  I have argued elsewhere[1] for the need for model legislation on Impact Fees, Standards, and Library Districts.  In the current economic and political environment, the need becomes even more critical.  ALA should develop model legislation that will help ensure viable and vibrant public libraries.  The ALA Council Committee on Legislation’s charge is “to consider all matters involving legislative or governmental action affecting libraries, and to represent the Association in legislative or governmental hearings and negotiations.” The Committee on Legislation should  develop model legislation that will help ensure public library support in each state. 


Sidebar: 10 Rules for Effective Lobbying

1.          Stay with the state library association program. 

·         We must appear united and strong.  The time to oppose issues and legislation is when it is being developed by the state library and the state library association, not when it has gotten to the legislature.  If you oppose, follow the rule your mother taught you, and if you cannot say anything nice, say nothing at all.    If you choose to advocate a library-related position not agreed on by the library association, be sure to make clear that you are speaking for yourself as an individual. 

2.          Having library board endorsement on key issues and bills is crucial.

Legislators know that trustees are not looking to feather their own nests, but rightly or wrongly, they must always suspect librarians of doing so.  When you say "I feel that…" their eyes glaze over some.  When you say the "Library Board has endorsed…" you get a more favorable hearing. 

3.          Deal with one issue per contact - whether orally or in writing.

·         Focus your attention on the key issue, and the legislator or aid can do so as well.  Jump around to various topics and you give the legislator the chance to pick the easiest one, not the most important one.

4.          Oppose with grace and good humor -  

·         Threats inspire revenge. Legislators, on the other hand, respect principled opposition.  It is their daily routine. We can agree to disagree.  If you cannot persuade a legislator on an issue, let him or her know that you hope to be able to work together on other issues.   

5.          Know the difference between "I support you on this" and "I will vote as you want!"

·         Legislators want to keep everyone happy.  They will often glad had you and seem to be agreeing when in fact they are merely being polite and agreeable.  It is often necessary to press them with the question "how will you vote?"

6.          Say thank you!

·         Years ago, I listened to a speech by the Secretary of State in Minnesota.  She surprised me by saying that in over a decade of public service innumerable individuals had asked for help but that she could count on the fingers of one hand those who had said thank you!  And she could remember all of their names!

7.          When testifying on bills :

·         Keep it short

·         Stick to the point

·         Never threaten.

8.          Communication is critical.

·         If your library web site includes legislative data, it should be informational rather than partisan. Hand written letters from constituents that the legislator knows are better than mass produced post cards or e-mails.  Phone calls are often the most effective because they allow two-way communication.  Better yet are visits, of course.  Best of all is a quiet chat with the legislator at a fund raiser, of course. 

9.          If there is controversy, warn legislators and try to provide arguments if possible. 

  • Legislators want to know whether what you are proposing is universally agreeable to the library community or has some potential opponents.

8.          Don't be disappointed if you speak to staff rather than legislators. 

  • Frequently they will listen more carefully and research things more completely.  They will communicate your case to their legislators. 

10.      Meetings with legislators and/or staff -

·         Have an appointment, don’t just drop in.  Summarize.  If there are more than two of you, have a lead speaker, bring printed material that staff can read later.  Include a short pitch for the library or system- i.e., new buildings, Internet access, new record circulation, quick brochures, and so forth.  But keep the commercial interruption brief, and focus it on the services you are providing to the legislator's voting constituents.  


Advocacy Web Sites

You cannot search the web for library advocacy for long without running across Friends groups everywhere fighting for libraries. 

Organization Description URL
ALA Best Practices Web site lists by state types of advocacy that have worked http://www.ala.org/ala/issues/bestpracticessite/bestpractices.htm

Campaign to Save America’s Libraries 



The Advocacy Institute held workshops at Midwinter and Annual to help participants develop an action plan.

Ohio Library Council OLC Protect Library Funding site was launched in reaction to threats to state funding in this state that has the highest level of state funding in the nation.  http://www.olc.org/protectlibraryfunding.asp
St. Paul (MN) Public Library Friends The St. Paul Public Library item is a nice example of an advocacy piece.  Two page flier with specific needs.  http://www.thefriends.org/advocacy_paoer.pdf
Wisconsin Library Association Designed to encourage library users to vote and remind those running for public office that many voters care deeply about libraries of all kinds. http://www.wla.lib.wi.us/legis/lovelibs/index.htm
Wisconsin Library Association Alliance for Libraries fund. http://www.wla.lib.wi.us/legis/conduit.htm
Waukesha County Federated Library System Page on the author’s library system web site for local advocates.  http://www.wcfls.lib.wi.us/advocacy/index.htm
Hennen’s Library Consulting Pages by the author of this article that expand on the information found in it. http://www.haplr-index.com/advocacy


Rules for local and state advocacy.


1.          Consistent message.  Candidates for office know that it is critical to “stay on message.”  Library advocates must do no less.  Don’t dilute your message by offering several at once.  That lets the legislator pick the easy one. 

2.          Close the deal.  Don’t get sidetracked by a legislator’s “happy talk.”  Don’t let the legislator just “feel your pain.”  Insist on knowing how he or she will vote.  That is what counts. 

3.          Count votes.  Nothing succeeds like success, so stay successful.  Make a strategic retreat if it is clear that your initiative cannot win.  Ask repeatedly until you get an answer. 

4.          Get involved. Build relationships with legislators by being active in the community and the legislative process. 

5.          Choose enemies carefully.  It is far more important to choose your enemies carefully than to choose your friends carefully.  Beware of strategic relationships with other groups on legislative issues.  Legislators may dismiss your call because of the company you keep, or worse, put you on an enemies list for that shared position your organization took. 



[1]Are Impact Fees the Right Thing” in Public Libraries, May/June 2005.  “The Challenge of Wider Library Units," in Library Journal.  September 15, 2004.  Pg. 36-38.   Available on the web at: http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA452290?  "Are Wider Library Units Wiser?" in American Libraries.  June/July 2002, pg. 65+   “Why We Should Establish a National System of Standards,” in American Libraries, March 2000.  Page 43+


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