Keeping Our Message Simple

Here's the fundamentally different approach to advocacy we need to adopt—yesterday.

May 31, 2011


concerned about the future of my organization that I started reading much more widely and deeply. Many of the books were about brain research. Most focused on how and why we come to believe things, both as individuals and as communities. A couple of those books dug into how difficult it is for us to admit we’ve been wrong—and to change our views.

The problem is plain: Over the past 10–15 years, even before the recession and our current funding crisis, fewer libraries made it to the ballot, or won when they did. This is in sharp opposition to the long trend of rising library use.

I do not contend that every library, in every community, is worthy of increased funding. Some cases are better than others, and some communities may justly conclude that their libraries are not the current priority. I do contend that our social environment at this moment in history works against all libraries. We need to change that. And we can.

Brutal facts

It is time for the library profession to come to grips with some harsh realities. The first is that use has nothing to do with support. The storytime mom who checks out 40 books a week and loves her library doesn’t necessarily vote for it. Why? Because she thinks her taxes are too high. The 84-year-old man who drags his friends to his public library once a week to brag about its marvels may not even have a library card. But he votes for the library in every election, because he thinks a community that doesn’t support libraries is pathetic.

The second reality further underscores the first: Demographics have nothing to do with library support. It simply isn’t the case that we can reliably predict that moms, or senior citizens, or the poor, or the wealthy will vote either for or against us. We can’t solve our funding dilemmas by promoting our services or marketing more vigorously to our traditional demographics.

I’ll pose a third, and even more brutal hypothesis: Library performance has nothing to do with fiscal support. I’ve seen very poor-performing libraries get consistently strong local financial support, and I know some very good ones (including mine) that are consistently punished at the polls. It’s not about who we are or what we do. It’s about what our communities feel and believe about us.

So what does generate library support?

I believe there are three essential factors:

1. The frame.

2. The story.

3. The repeated message.

The frame is something well articulated by George Lakoff (Don’t Think of an Elephant) and appears again in the work of Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational). Humans make meaning; they strive constantly to make sense of the world, to predict the future from the past. If it rains the first two times you visit Chicago, you think, “It always rains in Chicago!” Once you think that, you don’t notice that the sun was shining the last three times you were there. You’ve got a frame, and you simply don’t see what doesn’t fit.

The frame that most affects library funding today is the result of 50 long years of conservative framing. It can be summed up in two words: “tax burden.”

If you accept that frame, then any investment in your social infrastructure isn’t seen as what it is—a cooperative purchasing agreement, often brilliantly cost-effective—but as a terrible weight, barely to be borne. There is only “tax burden” and “tax relief.”

Frames are quickly established and, once adopted, prove very hard to break out of. Recently, I did an exercise with a room full of elected county officials. I asked them to write on a note card no more than 3–5 words or phrases that captured what they thought their neighbors felt about local government. It wasn’t flattering.

I gathered the words and dropped them into Wordle to make it clear what a word cloud looks like. The big words (the most frequently repeated) were as follows: Taxes. Bloated. Inefficient. Bureaucratic. Parasitical.

Then I asked those officials to flip over the note card and write 3–5 more words or phrases that captured why they had run for elected office.

This time, the big words were rather different: Community. Giving back. Quality of life. Pride. Sustainability.

Pointing to the first exercise, I said, “Use these words and you undercut everything you hoped to accomplish.” Then I pointed to the second word cloud and told them: “Use these words.” I can’t say that it worked, at least not for more than a day or two. It doesn’t even work reliably with librarians.

Far too often, we are complicit in our own demise. When we adopt the words, the language, the frames of those who seek to destroy us, there is little difference to be perceived between us.

The story is something librarians really ought to understand—but don’t. Last year, I worked with a cadre of passionate librarians around Colorado to launch what we called “BHAG: The Colorado Public Library Advocacy Initiative.” BHAG, of course, stands for Big Hairy Audacious Goal. We were fighting a trio of state ballot issues that would have gutted the funding of libraries (and most other public-sector institutions).

The idea of BHAG was simple: All of our communities have good speakers, well-respected and well-connected. Why not find them, arm them with a short, compelling, even powerful little talk, and send them out into the community on our behalf?

There have been many library advocacy efforts over the years. Often, they begin with the attempt to train librarians to speak up. These advocacy efforts are based on the premise that librarians advocating for increased use will result in increased support. OCLC’s 2008 study From Awareness to Funding disproved that premise.

Not all librarians are good speakers. Nor are they all well-respected or connected. Nor, even if they are, will simple promotion of library services build a community that is willing to pay for them.

Let me be blunt: Library advocacy as we have done it for the past 20 years doesn’t work. We need a fundamentally different approach.

The BHAG approach was this: Let’s just give a vivid script to passionate library supporters who already love to talk to their community, and whose communities are liable to listen. Let’s book these speakers for five talks apiece to different kinds of groups (business, faith-based, nonprofit, civic, etc.). And let’s have them talk not about services, but about value.

This effort didn’t really cost anything. The script, the methodology, even YouTube training videos, were all right there on our project website. The talk itself, which was designed to take about 12 minutes, is a template for statewide and even national library advocacy. Use of this talk is freely offered to all. You have only two responsibilities: Use it, and make it better.

I won’t go into great detail here about what you can find on our website, but the talk has four main components—and should have had one more.

  1. A gimmick. The talk begins by asking for $1 from the audience “for the library.” Why becomes clear later.
  2. A cost-setting exercise. The speaker asks the audience how much they pay per month for internet access at home, satellite or cable TV, cellphones, and Netflix. It asks why people pay for those things, and what good they do the community. Then it contrasts those costs with the average monthly cost for libraries. The idea is to reset the mental frame regarding both the cost and the value of libraries.
  3. Stories. This, I think, is the heart of the talk. A successful library story follows a simple narrative structure.
    • Who: “Caiden was a smart 3-year-old boy.”
    • The Problem: “Like a lot of smart little boys, he started to stutter.”
    • Library intervention: “Our Read to Dogs program marked a tipping point for him.”
    • Happy Ending: “Caiden doesn’t stutter anymore.”
    • Moral: “Libraries change lives.”

    The talk had three stories, each with a distinct final message. While the stories changed—each library was encouraged to come up with a local story of its own—the messages did not.

  4. A close. That $1 bill was returned to the first donor. Then that person got $4 more, each accompanied by a little illustration demonstrating the return on investment of libraries.

What was missing? We should have had a stronger call to action. Not “Vote for the library,” because that pitch tends to happen only in election years and appears blatantly self-serving. Rather, it should have been something like, “So the next time you hear someone say, ‘My taxes are too high,’ remember Caiden. Libraries change lives. Stand up for the library!”

Repetition of a concise message is another thing librarians have trouble with. We can’t just tell people three things and leave. We have to give them six brochures, nine bookmarks, four fliers, describe three new services, and highlight one research study. We so overwhelm people with information that we communicate nothing.

We need to keep things simple. We should have no more than four stories and messages, we should make them human and memorable, and we should keep saying them, over and over and over and over, not just in Colorado, but all around the country, and for years. Just like the folks who speak against public-sector funding.

What next?

I’m pleased to report that the three ballot measures were soundly defeated in Colorado. Over 3,000 people heard our talks, and about 20% of our public libraries “got it.” That’s not bad for the first year. We made many important new allies.

But I can’t emphasize enough that advocacy is not the work of a season. It is the duty of a generation of librarians. Turning our situation around—our persistent loss of public mindshare and support—cannot be fixed by librarians talking to each other.

We need to recruit and position nonlibrarians to talk to other nonlibrarians, presenting the smartest and most compelling thinking and presentations our research and experience can assemble.

Now would be a good time to start.

The four messages of the Colorado Public Library Advocacy Initiative were these:

1. Libraries change lives.

2. Libraries mean business.

3. Libraries build community.

4. Libraries are a smart investment.

Please note that the longest message has only five words.

JAMES (JAMIE) LARUE is director of the Douglas County (Colo.) Libraries. A frequent speaker at conferences and workshops, he can be reached at jlarue[at]


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