Advocating for Libraries

Tips for talking to your legislators

December 7, 2017

Idaho State Librarian Ann Joslin (left) first got to know Idaho State Representative Mike Moyle by sharing a children's book with him in the rotunda of the state capitol building. Moyle is now the Idaho House Majority Leader.
Idaho State Librarian Ann Joslin (left) first got to know Idaho State Representative Mike Moyle by sharing a children's book with him in the rotunda of the state capitol building. Moyle is now the Idaho House Majority Leader.

Few legislators will go on record saying they don’t like libraries, so enlisting legislative support should be simple, right? But engaging with elected officials doesn’t always equate to consistent support for libraries and library issues. With members of Congress heading back to their districts soon for the holiday break, what are the most effective ways to talk with them about libraries?

I have been Idaho’s state librarian since 2005 and held several positions in the state library agency for 26 years before that. The Idaho Commission for Libraries—the state’s library development agency—relies on a mixture of state and federal funding to execute its mission of assisting the more than 850 public, school, academic, and special libraries in Idaho. And with Idaho libraries being as varied as the state’s landscape in terms of size, remoteness, and relevance in their community, creating effective statewide library programs and services remains challenging.

Speaking to Idaho’s legislators was not easy or comfortable at first, but through repetition and years of practice, I’ve learned some things that have increased my effectiveness:

Don’t overestimate what legislators know (or understand) about your cause. Be ready to educate them each legislative session, and do so in engaging ways. Legislators are busy people who get a lot of information thrown at them, often about unfamiliar subjects and issues. Make it simple for legislators to absorb—and remember—your library’s story and why it’s important to their constituents and your state. For example, we have created eye-catching brochures and infographics that clearly illustrate facts, statistics, and issues in a way that is easy to understand and retain. And these materials can be customized with data about a legislator’s district or a particular part of the state.

Research your legislators. Focus your efforts on senators and representatives whose stated goals and interests align the best with the library mission. For example, one of our agency’s strategic goals concerns workforce development, which is also a stated priority for one of our key legislators. In our correspondence with this legislator, we demonstrate specific library and agency programs, services, and assistance that the community uses to spur workforce and economic development. We also include a success story that highlights the issue and the effect the agency and library have on the topic and the community. The story personalizes the subject and makes it more relevant and memorable. And we customize a version of a brochure or infographic to reinforce the topic.

Tailor your message. Find out what messages might resonate with the people who have control over the purse strings and tailor a pitch to each one. This can go a long way toward securing the funding you’re looking for. And be prepared to share that targeted message—anywhere. If you unexpectedly encounter a legislator—maybe in line at your favorite coffee place—introduce yourself and bring up the library.

In Idaho, we are working to get the library message out in new and different ways, such as through direct, consistent follow-up with each of our senators and representatives throughout the year. In addition, we conduct personalized outreach to them arising from specific opportunities, like media coverage of a member of Congress reading to school children.

We are also helping a group of library directors to be more effective spokespeople in a variety of settings, from speaking in front of the Rotary Club to doing a live TV interview. In our next training session, we plan to include library staff members, because one thing we learned is that the director is not always the best choice to represent the library. A young staff member who is passionate about social media might be the right person to handle those duties—as long as clear guidelines, responsibilities, and expectations have been established in advance.

Advocacy, engagement, outreach, public relations, and good, old-fashioned schmoozing are all components of disseminating the library message to the appropriate audience. And they are ongoing and ever-changing. So be persistent in your efforts and unafraid to alter your course. Don’t let the “because we’ll never get his or her support” mentality limit your future achievements.