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Advocacy Defined

- What Is Advocacy?
- Why Is It Needed?
- Who Should Do Advocacy?
- Who Will Advocates Contact?
- When Should We Do Advocacy?
- How Should We Do Advocacy?
- We Can't Afford It!
- Keys To Successful Advocacy



Nailing down a definition of advocacy can sometimes be elusive -- not so much for the meaning of the term, but what it means when you try to put it into practice. The formal definition is a simple concept: "Public support for, or recommendation of, a particular cause or policy," or "The act of arguing on behalf of a particular issue, institution, idea or person." That's pretty straight-forward language, especially when we think in terms of "library advocacy." These pages will focus on the goal of getting people to voice their public support for public libraries.

Too often people assume that advocacy only means going to the State Capitol and talking to the governor or legislators. That sort of activity on behalf of libraries is really the payoff for conducting a thorough "grassroots" advocacy campaign. The goal is to build a base of supporters who are educated about your library and its needs. These people can then be available to make your case to local elected officials and residents, county officials, and state and national officials.

But it all starts by reaching out to people on a local level!


In a nutshell, "because the squeaky wheel gets the grease!"

Several years ago during a forum of candidates for the State Legislature, an incumbent representative explained how he might be contacted on his way out of church by snowmobilers interested in legislation related to that activity. He reminded the audience that there are finite resources available, and if libraries aren't making their case directly their needs will not be considered paramount. He used the "squeaky wheel" analogy.

The reasons for conducting a planned advocacy campaign are as numerous as the people who are willing to speak up for their library. Your library may need to garner support for a building project, bring people together to speak up for increased local library spending, fend off proposed budget cuts, or fund raise for a foundation or Friends project.

Your library may not even have an immediate need, which may in fact be an ideal time to begin building a broader base of support. Waiting until the need arises may put you behind the curve in terms of your ability to influence decision-makers. If you have people prepared in advance to speak up for your library, you can respond immediately.

Who Should Do Advocacy?

We often hear librarians say that it really isn't appropriate for them to contact local or state elected officials on behalf of libraries. The reality is, every other function of local government -- police and fire departments, parks, public works, etc. -- are making their cases before elected officials every day. If libraries fail to do the same they will be left out of the mix when the time comes to make decisions.

Librarians bring a unique perspective and knowledge to the discussion, but they should not be the only individuals making the case for libraries. The real strength in advocacy comes when there is a broad mix of individuals like trustees, Friends of the Library, residents who use the library, and local business and community leaders.

These are the people whose voices will have the greatest influence with elected officials and other decision-makers, and should therefore be the point people when it comes time to reach out. Librarians can fill in the details of how the library operates, explain the numbers and statistical trends, and share current research about the positive impact excellent libraries have on the communities they serve.

Some of your most important and influential allies will come from the business community. They possess some of the greatest potential as advocates, but they will do so only when they understand how important the library is to the overall success of their business. This requires that the library make some concerted efforts throughout the year to demonstrate that impact. Perhaps you can demonstrate some of the available databases that would be particularly beneficial to businesses, or educate them about a special collection you might have, or reach out and let them know that staff are available to help find reliable answers to difficult questions.

Once the library is a value to their business, you won't have to convince them to speak on your behalf. It will just happen!

Who Will Advocates Contact?

It all depends, and may in fact shift as time goes on, or vary day to day. That is the beauty of nurturing a base of support around your library's programs, staff, and resources. When you need them, regardless of the issue, these advocates will be there as a ready resource. That's why it's critical to begin building your base of support in advance of any identified or immediate need.

An important, and difficult, component of advocacy is education. If people are going to be effective advocates, they must be able to convey their opinions in an informed way.

When Should We Do Advocacy?

All the time! You should never miss an opportunity to sing the praises of your library, and you should create them whenever possible. As a starting point, your library should have a presence at community events where people gather. This might be annual festivals, parades, community celebrations, or back-to-school nights. You may also want to organize your own activities like fun runs/walks, bike rides, seminars/classes, etc.

Your presence at, or sponsorship of, these sorts of activities is a reminder to everyone that you're there and ready to serve. When possible, do something fun or goofy to break some of the old library stereotypes that many people still hold.

Use your budget as a time to educate residents. Bring in people as you begin to develop your budget and educate them about why you're requesting specific items, or certain levels of funding. Community budget are tight, but there always seems to be a way to find the funds to do the things that are deemed to be the most important. It's vital that you begin to build support of your budget early, and not wait until local elected officials are beginning to make cuts. They need to hear early in the process from your supporters about how important these library budget provisions are, and why they should support them.

You should also regularly invite elected officials to the library for tours, or offer to sponsor meetings. Reach out to individual elected officials and let them know that librarians are available to help answer questions that may arise in the course of their elective duties. These visits are also an opportunity to tell them about the online databases and other resources available that can help them find the information they need.

Invite them to come when you know the library will be busy. You won't have to say anything about how busy it is, but they will probably notice and ask you about it.

How Should We Do Advocacy?

Begin by making it a habit to collect the positive comments that library users share. These are the stories with the real power to move local decision-makers about the value of the library to the community. These stories can be used in newsletters, on your website, in reports to the city council or county board, and in annual reports. Staff should be taught to write down these comments, and to take the time to draw out more information from willing residents. There also may be times when it's appropriate for staff members to contact people they have helped and ask if the library can use their particular story. It never hurts to ask, and you never know who will be moved by a particular message.

The library should develop some messages that are jointly used by staff members, trustees, foundation members, and Friends of the Library. You know what image you want want to create, so its important that everyone who believes strongly in the value of the library uses the same messages. The key to effective advertising is seeing the same message over and over, and it's no less important with advocacy. Telling someone once isn't enough, and if you rely on that approach you are setting yourself up for failure.

As much as you need local elected officials to help the library, you need to help them by providing thorough and reliable information they can use to justify support. These elected officials have many difficult decisions to make, and if they are going to treat the library differently than other departments, or give special consideration to specific requests, then you must provide the information that allows them to justify their actions.

There are many degrees of advocacy, so before you begin you need to determine how involved you want to be, or can be. You can best determine this through the creation of an Advocacy Plan, which is discussed in more detail in Developing An Advocacy Plan.

We Can't Afford It!

You can't afford not to engage in an active advocacy campaign! In most cases there is little if any cost involved. Your greatest expenditure will be the time it takes to make the kinds of connections we've talked about here. To make the time commitment, you may need to look closely at your current activities and make difficult decisions about what might need to be eliminated.

Perhaps your library board or Friends group can form an advocacy committee to take the lead on some of this work.

Keys To Successful Advocacy

  • Be polite, be prepared, and be persistent.
  • Educate early -- if you wait until an issue arises it may be too late to garner the necessary support.
  • Make it part of your culture, and work at it daily. Every staff member needs to be involved.
  • Ensure your library is visible in the community.
  • Don’t stop doing advocacy because the answer to your request is no. It often takes time to get the desired results!
  • Be sure to say thank you, even if you don't get the answer or support you sought.
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