Attention librarians: This is not a drill. The emergency is real and the danger imminent. Libraries, especially in rural areas, are at great risk. Due to a combination of cash-strapped local communities that depend on municipal budgets to stay open, vocal anti-government sentiment in rural areas, and a basic misunderstanding of what libraries do, there’s some rough sailing ahead for your friendly neighborhood librarian.
Fortunately, there are beacons in the fog for libraries, so they don’t have to feel they are navigating these waters alone. Among them is EveryLibrary, which helps libraries inform local voters as to just how valuable their library services are. They’re here to help with local campaigns, and one of EveryLibrary’s captains is Patrick Sweeney, a political strategist and administrative librarian for the Sunnyvale, California, Public Library.
When he’s not making waves for local libraries, you can also find Patrick spending time out at sea. How are boats and books similar? We’ll let him answer that.
From the United Kingdom to the United States, libraries are being threatened by political leaders who don’t read books, and who assume others don’t read, either. How do you fight this perception?
Wow! Big first question. There are a lot of strategies to fight this perception. We have opportunities at the local level and at the national level. The broadest way to wage the fight is simply better marketing and advertising for libraries. Libraries spend almost nothing as a percentage of their budget for marketing the broad spectrum services that libraries provide to their communities. There are a lot of reasons for that, but I always find it incredibly surprising considering we have all the marketing research in our databases and the books about marketing on our shelves. We really have no excuse for not telling people about what libraries do beyond providing books. The politicians are absolutely right to think that libraries are all about books and that nobody reads because so few people have told them otherwise.
The other side of this is to get away from the advocacy world and get serious about politics in libraries. It’s not necessarily about the perception of libraries, but also about our lack of political savvy. Libraries simply need to be political and learn how to manipulate the political machine. Our big problem is that libraries were so well supported that until the Great Recession they didn’t have to be political, so that left us with a profession with no culture of political organizing. We need to bring that back and build out the tools we’ve been missing for the last fifty years and EveryLibrary is working really hard to do that.
What do you think of ALA’s Libraries Transform public awareness campaign? Is it enough to tip the scales when it comes to public perception of libraries?
I think it’s just fine. I have my complaints, but I think it’s a good start. It’s definitely not enough to tip the scales or make a significant impact in the long run but it wasn’t designed for that anyway. I do love some of their sound bites and talking points because they are really effective simple messages that anyone can understand. I think those can be used very effectively and I’ve seen them shared across social media in a big way.
My biggest criticism is that the ALA doesn’t get any data back from the campaign. They put out these great messages, but there is no mechanism to collect data about them. I also don’t see any billboards or commercials or ads out in the public sphere. I mostly see librarians sharing these messages in the librarian echo chamber. Unless it gets out into the public in a way that cuts through the noise of everyone else vying for the public’s attention, I don’t see it ever being enough to tip the scales. But maybe that part is being built and since I’m not involved I just don’t know the full scope of the plans. Basically, I like the campaign overall and I’m cautiously optimistic.
EveryLibrary deals with issues on the local level for local libraries. Is there a national strategy, as well?
We have been talking about our national strategy more and more. We’ve worked on thirty-five campaigns across the country and helped libraries win over $100 million in funding. Our national strategy is about building data and databases around library supporters and identifying ways to activate them to fight for libraries. Imagine if we could activate a few thousand ravenous local supporters whenever there is a bad piece of legislation and have them fight it on our behalf? This is basically what highly effective political organizations like the NRA or Sierra Club can do. Helping libraries locally will always be our priority, but as a c4 organization we have the ability to do a lot of things that our advocacy c3s can’t do. I think we have an obligation to do those things.
Your two passions are books and boats. You combined them both a few years ago with the Story Sailboat. How did that go?
The Story Sailboat was a really fun project and I got a lot of support for it. It was an early advocacy project of mine and honestly there were no measureable results from it. But it was fun and it felt good to give out books by boat to advocate for literacy and libraries. I think my more important project is the Great Librarian Write-Out. I’ve been doing it for four to five years and it’s a contest where librarians are encouraged to write about libraries in nonlibrarian platforms and the best writing can win $250 of my own money. It’s so important that we talk to the public about libraries and librarians and this was one of those projects. It’s going on right now and the next judging will be January at ALA midwinter 2017.
What is more difficult? Navigating a boat or navigating local politics?
I’d say there are actually a lot of similarities. Navigating a boat safely is all about local knowledge. I know how a boat sails and I know the mechanics of how to get it to go wherever I want, but if I don’t know that there’s a reef, or the local tide tables and currents, I’m still in trouble. Likewise, I know how a campaign works and I know the mechanics of winning a campaign, but if I don’t know the local political geography—like who specifically supports or opposes libraries and why—then I’m still in trouble. The big difference is that if I crash a boat I might die, so I’d say a boat is more difficult.
Local librarians, in some areas, are also de facto daycare providers, employment counselors, and social service workers. Does there need to be a change in the way librarians are trained in order to deal with nonbook-related issues?
Yes. This is a huge ongoing discussion in librarianship. How much of what we learn in library school prepares us for our day-to-day jobs and what is the educational responsibility of our MLIS programs? I don’t have an answer to that but I firmly believe that all librarians need candidate training and I answer that more fully below.
How can a small rural library use the services of EveryLibrary to aid in an election with very local issues.
Just give us a call or send us an e-mail, tweet, FB message, etc. Our bread and butter is small campaigns. The larger city libraries can afford an expensive campaign consultant, which is great, but small library campaigns typically can’t. I also think it’s far more important for small libraries to succeed since I feel like people are far more dependent on them for their services and it takes so little to close them. They just don’t have the resources that libraries in big cities can reach into to make ends meet.
If the local John Deere plant closes, the economy collapses and the money is gone for a library at the time when people would need libraries the most to find a new job or gain new skills. In big cities, the funding is usually pretty diversified and one thing changing doesn’t typically lead to complete devastation and there’s a lot of partnership opportunities too. That being said, we also work on large campaigns (like our recent one with New Orleans) and lend our resources to those bigger campaigns as much as possible.
So we especially love working on rural campaigns. We help these campaigns with on the ground training, voter ID, government, etc. Everything they need except the day-to-day management of the campaign. For example, we can help them plan what their volunteers will do, but we can’t manage their volunteers for them.
What was your toughest library funding fight?
Right now we are working on a campaign in Kern County, California, that is one of the worst funded libraries I have ever seen. The economy is based in oil and oil prices have plummeted. Even when oil prices were high, the county had no money for its libraries. Besides that, they are facing talk of privatization, which is far more costly than what they spend now, but it’s alluring to certain demographics of the population.
There is also an anti-government union contingent and no money for the campaign. The local union is barely getting involved even though they have the most to lose. But the people working the campaign are really smart and dedicated people, the library polled fairly well, and they have a very savvy local consultant who is volunteering. I’m fairly optimistic about their chances even in the face of all of that.
What’s the best book to read on a boat and the best book about a boat?
For some reason I really got into westerns lately. There’s a lot of similarities between sailing culture and cowboy culture. The cowboys have to traverse the open range and sailors have to traverse the open sea. Cowboys have a strong connection to their horse and sailors to their boat, both have a sense of independence and adventure, and there’s a lot of sense of duty and honor in both cultures, which I really enjoy.
So I would say, if you want to escape, read cowboy books on the ocean and sailing books on the range. The best sailing book is The Long Way, by Bernard Moitessier. He was a real savage about sailing and so tough and strong and smart.
What does the EveryLibrarian look like?
A political candidate. I think every librarian needs to go through candidate training. There is so much valuable information there like how to speak in a way that politicians and the public will respond to, how to dress, how to fundraiser, how to create messages with good data, and how to get the messages into the minds of the public. When our funding is based on the will of the voters and the will of the local politics, like it or not, the reality is that librarians are politicians. And if you look at some of the best best funded libraries in the country, they really run their library like a political organization or a cause.
What will libraries look like 100 years from now?
Who knows!? We honestly have no idea what will be invented by then. In the last hundred years we developed everything from nuclear power to ballpoint pens. The Internet was a huge change in the last thirty. I don’t know what we’ll have in the next five to ten years!
Howard Lovy is executive editor at Foreword Reviews. You can follow him on Twitter @Howard_Lovy