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Feature Article: Let's Get Political
Spring 2010

Across the Board | Spring 2010| Topic: Let's Get Political
The Mid-Hudson Library System's Quarterly Newsletter for Public Library Trustees

Trustees may not be politicians but they do need to be political. Advocacy is one of the major trustee roles - speaking up for the library at the right time, in the right place with the right message. But how do you know what to say and who to say it to?

Has this ever happened to you? You're on the golf course and you spot your state Senator… You're at a local restaurant and your county legislator is at the next table over…. You notice a town councilmember in line behind you at the grocery store… What do you do? Do you ignore them because they probably don't know who you are? But maybe you've met them before, do you say "Hi, crazy weather we've been having." Or do you seize the opportunity to make an impression and remind them that you represent the library and can help them see how the library is an asset to their constituents.

If not you, then who?

Trustees have a unique role in the library organization in that you are not paid to do the work you do on behalf of the library. You are there of your own free will and do not receive any financial compensation for the work you do. People want to hear from you, their neighbors. They want to know why the library is important, how the library makes lives better in the community and why they should support the growth of the library.

Here are 7 steps to help you help other recognize the value of the library:

Step 1: Know Thy Library...Understand what your library, and all libraries, have to offer in the community. The 2010 advocacy campaign from the New York Library Association (NYLA) helpfully explains why libraries are essential

Check out http://www.protectnylibraries.org/ to read about each of these four essentials and arm yourself with knowledge.

Create talking points. Ask your director for a tour of the library and its website. The more you know about specific services and programs available at the library, the more likely you will be able to pull the right tidbit out of your hat at the right moment. For example, maybe you have the opportunity to talk to your state assemblyperson who lives locally and commutes up to Albany, let them know about downloadable audiobooks they could listen to in their car. Maybe your local town councilman has the grandkids coming for a visit and he's looking for something to do with them, connect him with the library's calendar of events and invite them in to a children's program. Helping decision-makers see how the library has something relevant to their lives will help them understand how there is virtually something for everyone.

Step 2: Build your network. Not everyone knows their state senator personally, but there is a good chance you "know someone who knows someone" that could help you connect with decision-makers and political leaders. Other trustees, members of the Friends Group, staff at the library and your personal friends may have connections that present you with the opportunity to talk to those with political power. If all else fails just walk up and introduce yourself, you are a library trustee - a member of the community working to make things better for everyone. You are important and your words matter.

Step 3: Get on their radar. Many libraries make the mistake of only talking to decision-makers when it is budget time or they are in the midst of a construction project. Consciously take the time to reach out to leaders - at all levels, local, county, state and federal - on a regular basis. Be sure they are all on the library's mailing list to receive the library's newsletter and annual report to the community. Invite them in to see the library, read to kids or interact with their constituents at the library. Use every opportunity to say hello to legislators.

Step 4: At events, have something to say. Practice an elevator speech - an elevator speech is a brief description of why the library is valuable that you could say in the time it takes to ride in an elevator to the next floor. Be concise and to the point and tell the person how they could help you, how their previous actions have played a role in providing quality library service for the community or how the library could help them reach their goals.

Here are some examples:

Mr. Senator? Just wanted to introduce myself, I'm a trustee at the Public Library. Did you know that more than 60% of residents of our town have a library card? We've seen a big jump in library usage since the recession, people really rely on libraries. We would love to have you visit the library, would you like to host office hours at the library to talk to your constituents at the library next month?

Mrs. Mayor, so nice to see you. Thanks again for supporting our budget increase, we've been able to offer homework help after school and purchase a computer dedicated to job searching. Did you know most employers require people to apply for jobs online now? Makes things pretty hard for people who don't have a computer at home. The Library could be a great partner for your workforce development initiative, could I have your card so our director could get in touch with you about that?

Mr. County Legislator, we met at the budget hearing last month, I'm a trustee at the Public Library. Library patrons are counting on you to restore library funding this year, the funds the county provides support our summer reading program. The program is so important, studies show that kids retain their reading levels over the summer if they read for fun, that helps them do better at school in September. I hope you will be able to come and read to the kids this summer.

Be prepared to answer questions that frequently come up:

Q: What does a trustee do?
A: A trustee helps to ensure the library is there for the people when they need it - to help kids with their homework, provide an internet connection for job seekers and affordable entertainment for families.

Q: Why does the library need more money anyway?
A: The library provides essential services in the community, we are the number one point of Internet access for those that don't have it at home and provide critical education support for kids when schools are closed and provide families with access to affordable education and entertainment. Our costs increase just like businesses' do.

Q: Everyone uses the internet, why do we need libraries anymore?
A: Actually, the internet has caused business to boom at our library! More people than ever come in to ask for help with research, to use our computers and download content.

Q: I hear all books will be digital in the future, guess we won't need the library anymore?
A: Hardly! People will still need access to books and information in all formats and the library has always been the place to go for access. Plus many people use the library for other purposes - to attend a program or meeting, use the library's internet access or to borrow a movie. There's a lot more to libraries than just books.

Tip from the Public Library Association's Advocacy Toolkit, "Libraries Prosper with Passion, Purpose, and Persuasion!": Every story you tell should link somehow to this theme: "The library helps create vital, stable, livable communities."

Step 5: Stay in Touch: Library advocacy needs to happen all year round and can take many forms - letter writing (to politicians and to your local newspapers), phone calls, signs on lawns, Facebook pages - even good customer service at the front desk of the library and clean bathrooms could be considered advocacy because each of these things makes an impression. But nothing makes a bigger impression than taking the time to talk to someone face-to-face. Building relationships with decision-makers and people with political power strengthens the library's place in the community and positions the library strategically in times of need.

We have seen amazing things happen in member libraries thanks to relationships built over time with public officials and other influential people in local communities. Libraries have achieved sustainable funding and built new libraries thanks to the help they have received through legislators that were kept apprised of the libraries plans and needs.

Step Six: Make the Ask: Recognize that you are not asking for anything for yourself, you are asking on behalf of your neighbors who rely on the library and rely on you, the library trustee, to grow the library to meet their needs. Don't be self-conscious about the library's budget increase or the need to expand the library, those choices were made to benefit the community-at-large, not the board or staff. Library trustees are altruistic, putting the community's needs above their own - this is a valiant thing, not something to be shy about.

When the budget time is near, make an appointment with your officials to talk about library funding. Get a group together and prepare your arguments. By now you should have built a good relationship with your officials and they recognize you as a library supporter.

Step Seven: Optional - Take it to the Next Level: Attend a fundraiser for your favorite officials. If a legislator has been a good library supporter consider personally supporting their efforts to stay in office. This is how the New York Library Association (NYLA) has broadened support for libraries in the NYS Legislature, the New Yorkers for Better Libraries Public Action Committee provides funding for the NYLA Executive Director to attend campaign fundraisers of key legislators that are in a position to impact library funding and policy that impacts libraries. If we're asking legislators to put their money where their mouth is, we can model that behavior by supporting them.

 

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