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Mobilising citizens to secure library funding

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Conference 2018: Mobilising citizens to secure library funding

Rob Green talks to CILIP Conference 2018 keynote speaker Patrick Sweeney about the revolutionary EveryLibrary programme that is helping libraries across the US secure funding through the ballot box.

EveryLibrary works by mobilising citizens during election campaigns, piling pressure on candidates by showing then how important libraries are to local communities. The aim is to win commitments to improve funding settlements for services.

Co-founders of EveryLibrary John Chrastka and Patrick Sweeney will be delivering a keynote on the opening day of this year’s CILIP Conference in Brighton. In the last five years, EveryLibrary has helped 62 services secure additional funding worth $220m.

Libraries in the US receive the vast majority of their funding from local taxes – often linked to property values. Around 90 per cent of funding is local, with between three and five per cent coming from Federal Government, and a similar amount from State Government. Patrick says: “In total about 98 per cent of all funding comes from these three very political sources and that means that librarians need to understand how to influence these environments through political action and political power building.”

Political environment

Patrick says that EveryLibrary came about because of the political environment surrounding library funding. Traditional library representatives, such as the American Library Association are restricted in how political they can be. Patrick says: “John, Erica Findley, and I were talking at a library conference and I was complaining that the American Library Association doesn’t do anything for local taxes when that is where all of the money comes from in order to run our libraries. John, who worked at ALA for about 10 years, explained that as a 501c3 (non-profit), ALA simply isn’t legally allowed to work on the majority of the funding issues in American Libraries. We talked about other legal structures that would allow this kind of work and John went home and did some research on it and found two significant issues.”

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Firstly he found that there was a legal class of organisation that could perform political advocacy (501c4), and secondly that no 501c4 organisations existed on a national level working on behalf of libraries. “That meant that nobody else was working on the library funding issues that needed to be addressed. So, John talked to Erica and I at another conference about starting one.”

The upshot of those conversations is EveryLibrary –“The first and only national organisation dedicated to building voter support for libraries”, with the aim to “promote public, school, and college libraries, including by advocating in support of public funding for libraries and building public awareness of public funding initiatives”.

Say yes to Spokane Libraries

Patrick explains that EveryLibrary’s first attempt at political advocacy took place in Spokane, Washington. Led by John, as Patrick was still working as a library administrator, it saw EveryLibrary contribute $4,000 towards a pro-library campaign. Voters were being asked to agree funding through a local levy of $1.6m. The “Say Yes to Spokane Libraries” campaign won 66 per cent of the vote and secured the funding. That was in February 2013, and since then EveryLibrary was worked with 79 communities, securing additional funding for 62 library services.

Digital campaigning

Patrick says: “Beyond this [funding] work, we have also built the nation’s most powerful digital action platform for public libraries at action.everylibrary.org and its sister site saveschoollibrarians.org which does the same thing, but for school libraries. Through these sites we’ve supported over 100 digital and on-the-ground campaigns to encourage people to take some action against bad legislation, library closures, and defunding issues or in support of good legislation for libraries.” Learning from each campaign helps EveryLibrary develop and become better at what it does. Looking at other organisations has also helped EveryLibrary to distil its methods. Patrick says that libraries and their supporters need to embrace the notion that they need to be “political”.

He said: “The biggest lesson that we’ve learned is how far libraries are from truly understanding, influencing, and navigating the political nature of their funding. This is mostly because before the turn of the century, libraries just didn’t have to be as political to ensure their funding. Essentially, libraries in the US could put an issue on the ballot and the community would vote in favour of it. That led to a significant level of complacency in the way that libraries engage their communities and their funding mechanisms. It also means that libraries never really built a strong political culture.”

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Changing the outlook

Changing that outlook is something ­EveryLibrary is attempting to do in the US and Patrick says it is increasingly important to combat a rise in anti-taxation groups that are fighting against public funding.

He says: “The lack of understanding of this environment has led to issues because there have been some major shifts since 2000. For example, we have seen major shifts in the ways that people access information beyond books. We have been through a recession that led to a significant anti-tax and anti-government climate and because American libraries are tax-funded government organisations, we are being ­attacked on both those issues. We have seen the rise of a number of other anti-tax and anti-government groups like the Tea Party, the Koch Brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity, the Hoover Institute, to some extent the National Rifle Association, and a number of online media organisations that push similar agendas.

 

“The biggest challenge in this arena is that all of these major issues have been ongoing for far longer than EveryLibrary has existed. That means that anti-tax and anti-government organisations have been building their campaigns for decades. They have huge databases of individuals who care about their cause, they’ve radicalised enough of the American public to take action on their behalf, they have hugely significant datasets about public sentiments and attitudes, and they’ve spent millions of dollars educating voters about their agenda. This is the universe that EveryLibrary is working in and we’re largely working in it on our own as the first and only Political Action Committee for libraries and the only organisation that is really legally allowed to work on the full scope of these issues.”

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Advocacy work

The situation in the UK may not be the same as in the US in terms of anti-tax groups, but after eight years of government austerity, there is still a need for political advocacy over here. Despite differences in political systems, the way libraries are funded and a generally more favourable view of public services in the UK, there is a place for political advocacy. He says: “I’m hopeful that the underlying theories of our work will be useful to other countries. Of course, many of the rules are different in other countries but the underlying theories remain the same.”

Patrick says that while a lot of advocacy work is aimed at boosting the reputation of libraries, the real game-changer is when this leads to increased funding. “When we started this project, we ­employed a lot of the same advocacy strategies as the ALA or other organisations that do some level of advocacy,” says Patrick. “This means things like Libraries Transform, or Geek the Library, or National ­Legislative Day, or teaching the story-telling method for advocacy. Each of these relies on a level of an outdated understanding of political organising and power building and leaves out a lot of the truly effective, important, measurable, and actionable work that needs to get done.”

In the US, where voters have a direct say in how much money is spent on library services, that failure to translate public goodwill into public willingness to spend on library services is a failure in advocacy, according to Patrick. He said: “If the measures of effective advocacy are that people generally like libraries as much as they did before, then our advocacy models are working. But if our measurement is if people are willing to pay for libraries so that they can continue to exist then our advocacy models are failing in a dramatic fashion.”

National database

That criticism is tempered with optimism, as EveryLibrary is demonstrating that there is a practical and effective model for advocacy. He said: “[There] has to be public pressure to support libraries. We aren’t in an era where politicians fund things simply because they think those things are good. They won’t add to a budget just because they heard a good story about libraries.

“If a politician can cut something and champion saving the public tax dollars without getting significant negative feedback then they’ll absolutely cut it no matter how important or impactful it really is to a community. It takes real community organising to put that pressure on governments or it takes significant money and libraries don’t have either… yet.”

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Building significant support, including a national database of names and contact information, underpins the work of EveryLibrary. Being able to capture this data allows EveryLibrary to communicate directly with library supporters, making mobilisation and action easier to organise.

Patrick adds: “The foundation of our work is that we are here to talk to the public about the importance of libraries, identify the ones who care, and then rally them to take action on behalf of libraries through applying pressure to our leaders. We do this through our national database of library supporters, volunteers, and donors. This information is given to political campaigns and put into practice for political actions.

“In order for this database to be effective against the organisations that are in opposition to taxes and government, we need about one million identified American library supporters. For us to take a pro-active approach to library activism, we need between 3-5 million Americans. We are designed to use this data and database to bring more money, power, and people to libraries, our partnered library associations, and library advocates. I just hope we can get to where we need to be before it’s too late.”

Hear about EveryLibrary at CILIP Conference

Join us in Brighton to hear John and Patrick’s inspiring keynote talk, and be a part of their Beyond Stories seminar on 5th July to specifically focus on building ladders of engagement and creating audience engagement maps to ensure you get the support and action you need to change the advocacy landscape. There is also a range of their resources here.

Book your delegate place for this year’s conference and find out more about the programme at CILIP Conference 2018.


Published: 13 June 2018

Related content: CILIP Conference 2018


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