Fanbase to the Rescue: A Massachusetts Tale

How social media mustered a groundswell that saved cooperative library service

May 31, 2011

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While much has been written recently about using Facebook as a promotional tool for libraries and librarians, opinions vary widely on Facebook’s effectiveness in reaching library users. It’s indisputable, though, that Facebook can successfully promote advocacy on behalf of library-related issues, based on the creation of a Facebook Page that generated community awareness in western Massachusetts last year about a controversial impending merger of a half-dozen local library systems that caused a great deal of anxiety for both librarians and patrons. The “We Love Western Mass Libraries” Facebook page, which was launched in spring 2010, was able to unite both groups to promote positive advocacy in response to the proposal.

For the last 12 years, the state-funded Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) has funded six individual regional library systems to serve librarians and patrons in all geographic areas. These systems are responsible for delivery of materials, interlibrary loan, cooperative purchasing, continuing education and training for librarians, and a host of other support services. Because of tremendous cutbacks in the state budget for regional library services, it was clear that these highly successful systems would have to be restructured to create a financially sustainable model for the future.

Representatives from the six regions met in December 2009 to identify core services that should be preserved and determine what the new system(s) would look like. Five of the six regions voted for one centralized statewide structure with small satellite offices. But representatives of the 50-year-old Western Massachusetts Regional Library System (WMRLS), with the smallest and most remote libraries in the state, favored a model that consolidated the six existing regions into three. WMRLS feared that the formation of a single centralized entity would provide a disproportionate level of service to the more populous eastern part of the state; the remotely located western Massachusetts libraries rely heavily on regional services.

A transition team with representatives from each of the six existing regions was formed to create the working structure of the new centralized entity, ultimately dubbed the Massachusetts Library System, or MLS. Rob Maier, executive director of the MBLC—who was most instrumental in forming a consolidation plan—participated in the group’s meetings in a leadership role.

The MBLC required transition-team members to sign a confidentiality agreement because of the sensitive nature of some of the information that was being exchanged. Over the next three months, under a news blackout, the team crafted a budget, wrote bylaws, and made recommendations for the formation of MLS that were to be reported to MBLC at an April 1, 2010, meeting. Although Maier had pledged to post updates regularly on the commission website about the team’s progress, this information was provided only once. Speculation ran high that the group’s report would dismantle the western region.

The Facebook revolt

Meanwhile, in mid-March, Liz Castro, a library patron, author, and homeschooling mother, created We Love Western Mass Libraries. The page, which began with no stated agenda or focus, swelled to over 1,000 fans in about 2 ½ weeks and became a forum for area librarians, patrons, and supporters to vent their frustration about the reorganization process and to organize and advocate for the preservation of WMRLS.

Through the Facebook page, library users and staff across the western part of the state launched a letter-writing campaign that—almost overnight—inundated MBLC with the grave concerns of many library users who had had no voice in the process. In an attempt to dispel their fears, MBLC Chairman George Comeau quickly “friended” the We Love Western Mass Libraries page and began contributing regularly to the discussions. Many western-region state senators and representatives joined the page as well in support of the cause of the local librarians and to stay apprised of the issues these libraries were facing.

Organized demonstrations were also promoted via the page, traditional media began to pick up on the story of an outraged library community, and local television station WWLP covered the April 1 MBLC meeting, which was moved to Chicopee Public Library in response to the public outcry from the west. The report, presented at the meeting, confirmed the fears of western Massachusetts library supporters: It recommended that MLS headquarters be located in the heart of the Boston area. The public comment portion of the proceedings, spurred by Facebook, lasted several hours, as countless users and librarians from the western region condemned the proposal.

Eleven days later, Gov. Deval Patrick, whose budget had drastically cut library funding, coincidentally kicked off his reelection campaign in the Berkshires, the westernmost part of the state. He was stunned to discover that the majority of attendees were concerned library advocates who were imploring him to restore funding to the regional library systems—another public showing that was rapidly organized via Facebook. Caught off-guard, Gov. Patrick asked them where they believed that he should make cuts instead—a less-than-popular response.

Using the We Love Western Mass Libraries page as the primary catalyst for contacting and organizing people, Lisa Wenner, director of the Meekins Library in tiny rural Williamsburg, drafted a letter to Gov. Patrick, members of the Massachusetts State Senate and House of Representatives, and members of the MBLC. The letter, cosigned by 142 directors of area public, school, academic, and special libraries, made a clear and passionate case for maintaining the current regional library system, imploring officials to look past the “one size fits all” model.

On April 29, the state House of Representatives released an amendment calling for maintaining two regional library systems—one to serve the western half of the state and one to serve the eastern half.

Funding: the root problem

However, the amendment did not address the cuts in the governor’s budget that had originally prompted the consolidation. Because lack of funding made it nearly impossible for the western region to maintain its core services, the amendment setting up a two-region system was ultimately dropped. However, a Senate compromise assured a satellite MLS office in western Massachusetts for training, delivery, and professional development. That put to rest the fears of western librarians for the time being, even though the area’s library community was hurt badly by the loss of its own regional system. Given the dire fiscal reality, the end result was the best-case scenario.

The vast usage of the We Love Western Mass Libraries Facebook page over a six-week period is an exemplary model of grassroots organizing and advocacy The episode can serve as an example to librarians throughout the nation of how social media can raise awareness and spark advocacy on behalf of crucial issues surrounding our libraries.

ERIC T. POULIN is coordinator of library services at Greenfield (Mass.) Community College.