Stop telling people to love libraries

4 better ways for librarians to dominate library advocacy

Rebecca Stavick

A common complaint I’ve heard among librarians is that some people, especially community leaders and elected officials, just don’t get libraries. They don’t understand the value of public libraries… or what resources libraries offer… or what librarians actually do for a living.

Librarians get frustrated because if only these tragically uninformed people knew about our amazing resources, they would fall in love with libraries, and support libraries at every opportunity.

The problem with this attitude is that it puts the responsibility of understanding libraries on the community rather than on the library itself. It’s the responsibility of librarians to communicate the value of libraries, and if people don’t get it, then we need to try a different approach. Here are a few tips on how to crush it when talking to key stakeholders.

1) Talk about why libraries exist, not what they offer

If you’re looking to create real library advocates — people who will take action and get vocal about supporting the library — then stop talking about your library resources. No one wants to hear about your library’s databases.

Instead, talk about why America needs libraries to protect our democracy.

America needs public libraries to protect our citizens’ freedom of information, and freedom of thought.

Everyone can stand behind these fundamental democratic values, in part because the above statement evokes a real emotional response. This is important because people make decisions based on their feelings and emotions, not on facts.

If you can give your stakeholders an opportunity to become emotionally invested in your library's success, you’ll have a higher likelihood that they will help you in a real way when you need it.

2) Your best marketing tool? Rock-solid operations

GET OUTSIDE THE LINES! Yells one library marketing campaign. LIBRARIES TRANSFORM!!! Screams another. Omg staaap.

Talk is cheap. Let’s take our limited resources and dedicate them to actual innovative projects in libraries rather than trying to convince everyone that we’re cool.

But here’s the thing — libraries can’t come close to “innovation” until their basic operations are under control. Does your library offer the community a safe, clean, comfortable space, with friendly staff, and programs and services that your community cares about?

If your answer is yes, then you’re well on your way to the Holy Grail of marketing: word of mouth. If we create awesome experiences for our people, they will fall in love with libraries — organically — and they’ll tell all their friends and family.

If your library hasn’t achieved all of the above, focus on getting operations under control. We’ve gotta have the basics covered before we can become innovative organizations. In other words, fix the broken-ass toilet paper holder in your women’s restroom before you buy a 3D printer.

3) Measure the crap out of everything

Sometimes, the value of libraries is lost on people because they haven’t heard you drop those sweet, sweet stats.

Don’t be shy — brag about your stats hardcore when you talk to community leaders and elected officials. “Yeah, we have 90,000 users, it’s kinda a big deal, cause we’re the most visited organization in the city.” Etc.

Use stats to correct people who erroneously believe that libraries are not relevant. “Who uses libraries anymore?” “Uhhhh, well someone does, cause we check out over a million books every year.”

Dropping stats like this isn’t just about providing evidence of your library’s performance. What really matters is feeding people memorable phrases they will repeat to others. Tell a high level leader that your library is the most visited organization in the city, and you better believe they’ll adopt that as one of their own talking points.

4) Set a vision for the future

So what if your library has suffered from budget cuts and weak leadership for decades, and you don’t have strong talking points?

First, don’t complain about your situation to your stakeholders. Making people feel bad for you is not an effective way to get their buy-in.

Instead, craft a vision for the future. Constantly pull conversations into a discussion of what the library could be. Specifically identify real community problems the library could solve.

Put yourselves in the shoes of your key stakeholders. Ask yourself, how can the library be a tool to solve the problems they are worried about?

Your leadership should have a clear vision for the future of your library. If they don’t, create one they can adopt. Crafting a vision is a vital leadership skill, and never forget, you can lead at any level.

Rebecca Stavick

Written by

executive director. techie. librarian. metalhead. hacker. humanist. ENTJ. personal account. views are my own.

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