Library Advocacy at the Polls
by Brandi Scardilli
When libraries have initiatives on their local ballots, they depend on favorable reactions from voters for the initiatives to pass—but that means they have to get the voting public on their side before the election. Libraries that need guidance can turn to EveryLibrary, the first and only nonprofit library advocacy organization with the singular goal of securing funding for libraries by helping them achieve positive election outcomes. Founded in 2012 by John Chrastka, EveryLibrary collects donations that allow the organization to work on all types of libraries’ local ballot initiatives. According to its website (everylibrary.org), its commitment to political action involves providing “tactical and operational support” to voter awareness campaigns, giving “seed and sustaining monies” to ballot committees and political action committees (PACs), and conducting voter advocacy. “One of the core parts of our democracy is that people can get together and campaign for a candidate or for an issue. The library ballot initiative, the measures before the voters on Election Day, is certainly one of those things that the public can rally around,” says Chrastka.
There is infrastructure in place already for general library advocacy at the national, state, and local levels: the American Library Association (ALA), state library associations, Friends of Libraries groups, foundations, and other organizations. But Chrastka saw a need for assistance during elections, when votes can make or break a library. “The group of community supporters who rally around libraries for everyday advocacy are really well built-up, but there’s one day of the year, that weird day, when you’ve got to talk to voters,” he says. The “psychology of library love,” as Chrastka says, is different on Election Day. While general advocacy involves talking to the community about using the library, election-based advocacy is about the money at stake for libraries’ operations, collections, services, programs, and employment. No existing library organization could use 100% of its efforts for this purpose until the development of EveryLibrary, he says.
EveryLibrary uses political money, not charitable money, to help libraries reach out to voters. It is a 501(c)4 organization, which means that it does not have to disclose the names of its donors or the amounts of their contributions to the IRS. Charitable organizations have limits placed on them for how much election-based work they can do because the IRS wants to see their tax-deductible contributions go to charitable causes. EveryLibrary gets its money from a community of donors who know up front exactly what their contributions will be used for: supporting voter-awareness campaigns and helping library-ballot committees win funding on election days.
Chrastka is currently EveryLibrary’s only full-time employee, but as more donations come in, he plans to hire one or two more people for full-time jobs. He says the organization is currently at a break-even point, since the majority of its funding goes toward direct support of library campaigns. However, EveryLibrary uses “a portion of contributions to cover overhead, staffing, and development or acquisition of voter awareness tools and campaign materials. Contributions by individuals, corporations, foundations, and unions to EveryLibrary are not tax-deductible,” the site’s About Us page notes.
The EveryLibrary governing board consists of five volunteers who attend meetings, engage in public speaking, and do the political action work of the organization. Patrick Sweeney, the associate director of the Sunnyvale Public Library in California, and Erica Findley, the cataloging/metadata librarian at Multnomah County Library in Oregon, were the founding members, along with Chrastka, when they formed the board in December 2012. In January 2014, Peter Bromberg, the associate director for public services at the Salt Lake County Library in Utah; Lindsay Sarin, the M.L.S. program coordinator at the College of Information Studies (Maryland’s iSchool); and Mel Gooch, the learning and instruction coordinator for the San Francisco Public Library, joined the board.
An advisory board of 10 library and publishing professionals provides guidance when the governing board requests its advice. “Some of it’s tactical, some of it’s strategic, some of it’s networking, so the folks who are on there right now are not laborers as much as they are thoughtful supporters of what we’re doing at a high level,” says Chrastka. For example, Michele Cobb, the president of the Audio Publishers Association, is a useful resource for EveryLibrary. “She understands that the work that we do to help libraries win appropriations and Election Days helps with collection development. And telling that story to the broader community of audio publishers is something that we rely on her advice and wisdom about,” he says.
Chrastka notes that the organization is still building its brand awareness, so as it participates in more successful elections, he hopes libraries will take notice and think of EveryLibrary when they have an important election coming up and need help talking to voters. “The library community has been very receptive to what we’re doing. We’ve received good support from individual donors, which to us is a gauge for the interest folks have in seeing us succeed. We’ve also been building a nice community of corporate donors, vendor donors, as well, who have identified the work that we’re doing as being impactful in the library-funding ecosystem,” Chrastka says. “While some people are not necessarily politically minded, that doesn’t mean that they’re not necessarily hopeful for seeing something in the space like EveryLibrary, which helps move the political conversation forward.”
EveryLibrary helps libraries build voter support with three main pro bono activities: training library communities to run Information Only campaigns, working with Vote Yes committees to perform library-centric Get Out the Vote campaigns, and speaking directly to the public about the importance of libraries and librarians.
Libraries can create Information Only teams to talk to the public about their goals. Chrastka calls their focus Plan A. Plan A is the measure on the ballot that the library wants to pass, such as building a new facility, doing remodeling or repairs on an existing building, or increasing taxes in order to implement a new service. It has been decided on public time and with public funds and is up for approval on Election Day. Information Only teams also need to acknowledge Plan B, which is the consequence if Plan A fails; if Plan A is a building initiative, Plan B means that the library can’t build a new facility, and it will need to continue operating in a deficient building. Plan B shows the voting community the reason the library is asking for funding. EveryLibrary’s goal is to train the library staff, trustees, and high-level volunteers to talk to the public about the plan. They need to convey that Plan A has merit, that the voting public should agree to it, and that it will negatively impact the library community if it fails. Chrastka and his team talk to libraries via email, on the phone, and even in person to create “an engaged communications environment” to help ensure that Plan A passes.
EveryLibrary encourages local communities to form a Vote Yes committee for the library that can engage in neighbor-to-neighbor and voter-to-voter communications, as well as do Get Out the Vote activities such as knocking on doors, making phone calls, and working on social media promotion. Committee participants can include members of the library board, members of the local Friends group, and people in town who are politically minded. Vote Yes campaigns are less about direct training and instead require EveryLibrary to act as a consultant and advisor to the local committee to help it understand voter data and the techniques that provide the best voter-to-voter results. EveryLibrary also provides direct funding to the committee based on need (money for Facebook ads and pizza for volunteers, etc.).
EveryLibrary’s direct public speaking initiatives are “developing as we go along,” says Chrastka. His team has presented to small communities such as technology venture capitalists, although plans are underway to speak to the public on a larger scale about the relevance of libraries and librarianship in the civic and educational life of communities. Chrastka wants to get the word out that libraries can use their technology resources to support entrepreneurs. “[B]usiness reference is as common in libraries as story time but nobody knows it,” he says, which is why EveryLibrary aims to start a conversation with the public that will underline the fact that libraries need to be supported at the polls.
Sometimes, libraries face challenges that they can’t prepare for by doing voter outreach. Chrastka says that if an election is still a few months away, EveryLibrary’s coaching efforts are useful, but if a library finds out at the last minute that “some city council member is going to throw a shoe at the library budget because of something political, … the only way that you’re going to be able to galvanize and get out the grassroots action [before the vote] is by putting some money to work to communicate with the grass roots in your community,” he says. EveryLibrary has a Rapid Response Fund available “to put advertising, marketing, and outreach dollars to work very quickly for libraries that are facing a crisis.” Local advocates—from the library, the Friends group, or an ad hoc group—can mobilize to communicate with the city council. “We’re not setting the agenda, we’re not coming in and offering long-term, toolkit-based approaches to advocacy,” Chrastka says. Instead, EveryLibrary offers the resources necessary to get people to call the rest of the council, get fired up via social media, and make some noise about why slashing the library’s budget is a bad idea.
EveryLibrary is currently building up its Rapid Response Fund, and Chrastka aims to always have money in the fund because the organization needs to be ready to help during a time-sensitive crisis. “We haven’t done one yet. We’re going to find out about the first one when somebody posts about it on Facebook. … Somebody who doesn’t even know we exist yet is going to need our help to fix this problem in like a week and a half. And we’re hoping to be able to do that for them,” he says.
Election Day 2014
In 2013, EveryLibrary conducted seven library campaigns and won five, and so far in 2014, it’s helped with 21 initiatives. Chrastka notes that elections are spread throughout the year, because libraries are involved in primary and general elections. Six of those 21 library campaigns were up for a vote on Election Day 2014. They include a $3.5 million building initiative for the Eastern Shore Public Library in Virginia, which has a leaky roof and needs a bigger public meeting space, and Pomona Public Library (PPL) in California, which closed in 2012 after losing funding and is now run by volunteers with support from donations. EveryLibrary worked with PPL to get “Measure PPL” on the ballot so that on Election Day, it had the chance to get the money it needs to be restored to full operations.
“We don’t work on projects that are speculative, and the vast majority of library funding measures or building initiatives are not. They’re all based on public need somehow. It’s just a matter of whether or not we’ve told enough people how we got there and included people in the process of identifying that need prior to Election Day,” says Chrastka. The public generally shows a lot of support for libraries, even if many people aren’t library users. So EveryLibrary makes a point to connect with nonusers, because they can form the core of some communities’ voters. “On Election Day, I’m not concerned about whether they are library users or not; I’m not even particularly concerned if they love the library. I’m fine with them just kind of liking it, and having an opportunity to say yes to it as an institution.”
Chrastka says that 2013 was EveryLibrary’s proof-of-concept year, and 2014 was about working at scale. So far, EveryLibrary wins about 80% of the elections it works on. In 2015, Chrastka aims to work on the same number of campaigns and sustain that success rate. He also hopes to attract even more donors and positive responses from the library community. Contributions can be made at everylibrary.org/donate-now.