EveryLibrary’s John Chrastka Talks Midterms Aftermath
by Dave Shumaker
John Chrastka is the founder and executive director of EveryLibrary. I recently spoke with him about EveryLibrary, the state of library advocacy in light of the recent midterm elections, and the road ahead for library advocates. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Dave Shumaker: John, thanks for your time today. For starters, could you briefly explain what EveryLibrary is and what it does?
John Chrastka: It’s the first national super PAC for libraries. Like other super PACs, it raises and expends money to advance a special interest—but our special interest is libraries. We work on the political conversation around library funding. We called the organization Every- Library because any library funding opportunity for any library anywhere should matter to every library everywhere. We partner with other library organizations that are 501(c)3s, but we’re different from them because we were established as a 501(c)4 organization. That allows us to focus on voters and the political process. Since the organization was founded, we’ve had an 80% win rate in the votes we’ve worked on and helped to secure $320 million in funding for libraries per annum, or a total of $1.8 billion in funding over the life of the initiatives.
Shumaker: Is all of your work on behalf of public libraries?
Chrastka: Currently, working on behalf of public libraries is about 70%, and advocating on behalf of school libraries is almost all the rest. We have a dedicated website, saveschoollibrarians.org, for our school library initiatives. There’s also a small amount of work on behalf of publicly funded academic libraries. The politics of funding academic libraries is entirely different, yet there’s still a need to explain the mission and value of the library to the decision makers. Eventually, as we grow, I’m confident that we’ll expand our work with academics, and eventually, I can imagine our efforts being one-third devoted to each of the three sectors.
Shumaker: In the run-up to the November election, you orchestrated a Vote Libraries campaign, encouraging supporters to pledge to vote for libraries and then share their commitment on social media. Was this the first time you’ve done that, and how did it go?
Chrastka: We ran the campaign first in the 2016 primaries and general election. This year, we ran it only in the 6 weeks before the November election, not during primary season. We were very pleased with the results. Overall, the campaign resulted in an average of 450 to 500 tweets a week and a total of 12.7 million impressions. In addition to our individual supporters, our state library association partners and corporate sponsors also supported the campaign. For example, OverDrive displayed the message while downloading patrons’ ebook requests. So the campaign really demonstrated the interest in talking directly to voters about the value of libraries.
Shumaker: It seems like your work focuses on ballot initiatives for library funding. But in my community, there wasn’t an initiative about libraries this year. So how would I “Vote Libraries”? How would I know which candidates are the ones favorable to libraries?
Chrastka: I’d recommend looking at a candidate’s platform. Does it address education? Civic and social welfare? Economic development? Workforce readiness? We must ask candidates what they think about the role of libraries and librarians in each of those areas. If we don’t ask and they don’t volunteer, we have no intelligence about whether they’re going to support us. It’s up to us library supporters to ask the questions, and they haven’t been asked enough.
To develop this point, EveryLibrary is working on a project that will focus first on school boards—because we need to restore school librarians. We’re pulling together an expert panel to deploy a model school board candidate questionnaire about school librarians and school library programs, from both an educational policy perspective and a budgetary perspective. We want to ask candidates what they think about the library profession and the impact of librarians.
This year, there were 941 school board seats up for election around the country. That’s actually not very many. Most of these positions are elected in the off years. So our goal is that by using the questionnaire, library supporters can have a big impact on school board elections.
Shumaker: Let’s move on to the recent election. In your analysis, you note that the results were not as favorable as last year, and you also refer to the new study “From Awareness to Funding” (oclc.org/research/aware ness-to-funding-2018.html) by OCLC and ALA that found some slippage in public support for libraries. What would you say are key takeaways from the election?
Chrastka: First of all, the red state/blue state issues are not driving voter support for libraries, and they never have. The conventional wisdom that a regular Republican voter will not support libraries needs to be dismissed. The library community needs to talk to voters not in terms of “features”—like “we need more hours” or “more books.” Features don’t mean anything. We need to talk about our work in concrete terms, with librarians front and center. We need to express the value system behind librarianship and talk to different communities in ways that resonate with them. If we’re talking to a more progressive community, we can talk about librarianship in a traditional way. In a more conservative or libertarian community or a place where there hasn’t been a high level of engagement with the library, we might talk about libraries contributing to a thriving, interesting, and most importantly, prosperous place. That resonates with every political persuasion.
So beyond the immediate results of the election, the takeaway is that we need to be actively engaged, with a good-sized campaign and the truth about what we’re going to do with the funding, if it passes, and the impact on the community. And communicate in a way that makes sense for the people we’re serving.
And don’t be shy! Don’t be shy about talking to everyone, whether conservatives, libertarians, or progressives—of whatever political views. “Don’t be shy” is the biggest takeaway from the midterms. That starts with asking people to be part of the campaign team and having a bigger team. To compete in elections with high turnout, we can’t operate with a team made up of just a few library board members or Friends of the Library. We need a bigger, earlier “ask”—for people to become part of our campaign and become part of the “Library Party.” We need Republicans and Democrats to join the Library Party.
Shumaker: And how does EveryLibrary decide which elections to get involved in?
Chrastka: We support roughly 10%–15% of library elections in any given year. We monitor the news to learn of initiatives we might support, and sometimes we reach out to them. Others come to us. We state the criteria on our website—we look for the most significant impacts and the opportunities to make a difference in the outcome of the election. We were involved in 17 elections in 2018 and will participate in at least a dozen in 2019.
Shumaker: I’m curious about the privatization of library operations. Is that an issue that comes up in any of the elections EveryLibrary participates in?
Chrastka: It doesn’t come up in elections as such, because those decisions are made by local government bodies. However, part of EveryLibrary’s organizational value system is that public libraries should be public. Library management and boards need to use taxpayer money efficiently. Public employees and public governance of the library are cornerstones of how we choose to tax ourselves in this country and how we choose to fund projects that work for the common good. There’s a lot of pressure to privatize what should be public, but we don’t support that.
Shumaker: What other insights would you like to share about the state of libraries and the need for library advocacy?
Chrastka: The biggest challenge to the library ecosystem is the fall-off in voter support over the past 10 years, as reported in the OCLC/ALA reports in 2008 and this year. The library industry needs to confront it head-on in a way that engages the different types of voters. Our approach to identifying the voters when we’re participating in an election is that there are four groups. “Believers” are already our supporters. “Questioning” voters want to know how the library addresses issues they care about. “Suspicious” voters are suspicious of government and taxes in general, not just the library. Finally, there are those who just aren’t going to vote for the library. First, we have to engage the Believers in a way that enables them to support us. Then, how do we answer the questions of the Questioners in a way that’s not trying to change them, but “connects the dots” between the library and their lives? And next, how do we speak boldly about the fact that we need a progressive tax policy in order to fund the common good? We have to talk about the good that funding makes possible and not be embarrassed by it. There is a high level of avoidance by library leaders and boards of talking about taxes. But we have to talk about taxes, because everybody else is.
But above all, we have to talk up the role and value of the libraries and librarians. Just asking candidates about libraries may get them to think about us for the first time ever. We’ve seen it work, and that’s why we’re developing the school board candidate questionnaire I mentioned. All too often, the only people who’ve thought about public libraries are the librarians. That’s what we have to change.