You are here

Making Your Case

You already understand the incredibly important role your library plays in your community, but do residents? That is the basic challenge of any advocacy effort, so informing your populace should be your priority. When people understand the contributions the library makes to the quality of life in your community, your job gets much easier.

This page provides an overview of how to make the case for your library, and thereby the support that is so critical to future success. More detailed information is available from the ALA's Introduction to Library Advocacy.



- Define Your Message
- Target Your Audience
- Message Worksheet
- Identify Communication Strategies
- Designate Spokespeople
- In Case of Controversy...
- Telling Your Story

Define Your Message

What is the most important thing you want others to know about your library? This key message is one that you should repeat over and over. To be effective, this message should be something you can say in conversation, in interviews or presentations to groups. It should be easy to remember and say -- no more than 15 words. It may be simple as: “Our community needs a new library.” Or, “There is no such thing as good education without good libraries.”

Your key message should be used consistently in news releases, letters-to-the editor and other communications. It may also be distilled into a pithy campaign slogan. You will also need three talking points, stories and examples that support your key message, and these may change based on the needs and interests of your audience.

Target Your Audiences

To identify your target audiences, think about who can help you achieve what you want.

Trying to reach everyone is a recipe for failure, so focus your efforts on those who can help you reach your goal. This approach will save time, energy and resources -- and is more likely to be successful.

In most cases, the focus of your advocacy efforts will be key decision-makers -- university or school administrators, board of education members, the city council or county commission, state and federal legislators and those who wield influence with these groups -- the media, other officials (e.g., the mayor, school superintendent), community/school/campus leaders, and voters.

In general, you will want to target those who are most likely to be supportive. For example, if your library enjoys strong support among senior citizens, they may be a key audience for a ballot initiative on funding. Be sure to start with your internal audiences, which include staff, trustees, volunteers and Friends.

External audiences include:

  • library users
  • donors and potential donors
  • elected officials
  • journalists
  • other librarians
  • school board members
  • civic/neighborhood associations
  • college students/alumni
  • professional associations
  • teachers/school administrators
  • students
  • faculty/administrators
  • seniors
  • business community

Message Worksheet

When developing your message, think first about your audience and what it is you want them to think, feel, or do? Feelings are what motivate people to act -- feelings of compassion, concern, anger or joy. One of your goals in delivering your message should be to spark a feeling, whether it’s pride, frustration or outrage.

To be effective, spend some time identifying answers to the following questions.

  • What is the goal?
  • What are your objectives? What do you want to have happen?
  • What is the key message (10–15 words)?
  • Who is the audience(s)?
  • Why is this important to them?

You should then identify:

  • Three supporting points



  • Examples/stories/facts that support this message



Identify Communication Strategies

How will you deliver the message? Selecting the right strategies can save time and money, as well as increase the reach and effectiveness of your message.

One-on-one communication is the most time-consuming, but it is also the most powerful. Think about it this way. What are you most likely to remember or trust? Something your neighbor tells you, or something you read in a newspaper ad or hear in a radio ad? This is why having a network of library advocates ready and willing to speak out is so valuable.

Mass media are most effective in reaching large numbers of people. Editorial endorsements, in particular, carry great weight with both legislators and the public.

Outreach to groups -- through speaking engagements, library tours or mailings -- is an effective way of reaching key audiences who share particular interests and concerns.

In addition to identifying strategies, your advocacy plan should include a schedule for the number of contacts -- the number and timing of telephone calls to key leaders, news releases and public service announcements, placement of op-ed pieces, radio and TV interviews and presentations to key groups.

Consider the following when deciding which strategies to use.

  • WHO is the audience?
  • WHAT is the best way to convey the information to the target audience—radio, TV, direct mail, other? What kind of image do you want to project? Will it be an effective part of your total communication effort?
  • WHEN is the deadline? Will your message be distributed in time to be effective?
  • HOW much will it cost? Is this the most effective use of available funds?
  • WHY is this the best strategy for this audience?

Designate Spokespeople

There should be a clear understanding of who speaks for the library and when.

The most effective spokespeople are dynamic and confident whether dealing with the media or speaking to the public. They know the message and are skilled at delivering it. They are able to answer the hard questions and give the quotable quotes, or “sound bites,” that reporters need for their stories, both in print and on the air. The best spokesperson may not be the person in charge.

While the library’s chief spokesperson on policy matters is generally the library director or board president, other spokespeople may be identified for a particular issue or campaign.

In general, librarians and other library staff are most effective when speaking as “expert witnesses” who know and understand the needs of library users. Trustees, Friends of the library, and users are especially effective when giving testimony before public officials or other groups.

Try to use your spokespeople where they feel most comfortable and can be most effective. Media/spokesperson training can help build their confidence and polish presentation skills. Who ever speaks for the library should feel prepared and enthusiastic about doing so.

In Case of Controversy . . .

It's important that you try to anticipate and prepare for organized opposition or other issues that might arise, whether it’s anti-tax, the library’s Internet policy, or other matters. All of the basic communications/advocacy strategies are critical when dealing with a crisis.

  • Make sure you have all the facts.
  • Respond quickly but don’t overreact.
  • Prepare a communication plan and work it.
  • Focus on the solution, not the problem. Explain how the library is addressing the issue or concern.
  • Let lawyers review any public statement on issues with legal implications, but avoid “legalese” that may muddle your message.
  • Use every opportunity to deliver your key message.
  • Make sure all library advocates -- and especially your chief spokespeople -- have the messages, training and information they need to support the library.
  • Above all, stick to the high road. Don’t criticize or get personal with your opponents. Don’t be defensive.

More information is available in the ALA document "Staying in Control."

Telling Your Story

The library story isn’t new, but it is one that is continually changing. Part of the challenge in building your case is to get people’s attention and convey the value that libraries deliver.

One way to get people’s attention is to surprise them with some impressive numbers. Figuring the dollar value of the service delivered in return for funds invested is one way to do this. For this purpose you can use the "Library Use & Return on Investment Value Calculator."

But numbers aren’t the whole story when it comes to getting your message out. Collecting and sharing library user success stories puts a face on the library and can warm the heart in a way that numbers alone can’t.

Here some quick points to remember as you gather information to tell your library's story.

  • Remember, a few good numbers are better than a long list, which most people won’t remember.
  • Ask library users to share their success stories. Put out a note book or sponsor a contest, possibly in connection with National Library Week in April or Library Lovers Month in February. The Kent District Library in Grand Rapids, MI, called its contest “Share a Memory.”
  • Encourage all library staff and advocates to report library success stories that they hear. and to record contact information.
  • Work with a high school or college journalism instructor to have students conduct interviews and report on how the library makes a difference.
  • Include a “Tell us how the library helps you/your family" question when conducting user surveys. Put a link on your library's website.
  • Save and quote from thank-you notes sent by library users.
  • Put your amazing numbers and library stories to work. Feature them in the annual report, newsletter, public service ads, press materials and on your website.
  • Be sure to ask permission to use names with stories. Stories often can be used without names, but having a name attached makes them more powerful.
For more information, contact: