You could summarize EveryLibrary’s 2022 Library Advocacy and Funding Conference (LAFCON) in two words: why and how. Why is library advocacy more important than ever right now, and how can I advocate effectively for my library? Held virtually Sept. 26–28, the conference delivered clear, actionable insights on both topics, with a sharp focus on public and school libraries.
The “why” has changed a lot in the 2 years since the last LAFCON. The old reasons for library advocacy—creating and sustaining a positive brand image; generating community support for bond issues and general library funding needs; and, most of all, strengthening library services that best meet community needs—haven’t gone away. The hot button issue of 2 years ago, misinformation and the librarian’s role in fighting it, is still a major focus as well. But in the intervening years, a new and greater challenge has arisen: direct attacks on librarians and their role in a democratic society—promoting access to information, enabling all members of the community, and fighting censorship (in other words, defending intellectual freedom).
Two of the most compelling sessions presented the threat to libraries and intellectual freedom in quantitative terms. The EveryLibrary Institute recently released the results of an opinion survey it commissioned on attitudes toward libraries, censorship, and intellectual freedom. The pollster that conducted the survey, Embold Research, presented an overview of the findings, which showed broad support for libraries and opposition to censorship among the American public. The results concluded that “most Americans are in [librarians’] corner.” But it’s up to the profession to mobilize that support. In a related vein, PEN America staffers presented recently updated figures from the organization’s tracking of attempted book bans across the U.S. From July 2021 through June 2022, it tracked more than 2,500 attempted bans, covering more than 1,600 unique titles and 1,200 authors and involving 138 school districts in 32 states. Details of the EveryLibrary Institute’s poll are available at everylibraryinstitute.org/bookbanpoll. PEN America’s most recent report is at pen.org/report/banned-usa-growing-movement-to-censor-books-in-schools; earlier research is at pen.org/research-resources.
In addition to the programmed agenda, the Whova conference platform allowed attendees to organize their own informal meetups. The capability was used to good effect for several interesting conversations. Notably, one meetup dealt with “First Amendment auditors”: citizens who enter the library for the purpose of videorecording library use and operations. According to experiences shared at the meetup, as long as the “auditors” don’t engage in harassment of library users or staff, it’s best to leave them alone. If they fail to provoke an overreaction, they soon depart. Clear policies and staff training are needed to prepare for and manage these encounters.
Other sessions that addressed threats to intellectual freedom and librarians featured historical reviews of censorship and book banning in America. EveryLibrary executive director John Chrastka’s session “School Legislation That Wasn’t Terrible in 2022” focused on current and recent state legislation affecting school libraries. Although there was some legislation that wasn’t terrible, a substantial portion of the session was dedicated to both successful and unsuccessful attempts to do terrible things to First Amendment rights. Particular concerns include the criminalization of librarianship and the censorship of digital database content. EveryLibrary’s compilation of state legislation is accessible at everylibrary.org/2022_legislative_attacks.
The “how” hasn’t changed as dramatically as the “why” over the past couple of years. Tried-and-true concepts such as audience segmentation and crafting persuasive messages tailored to your situation and audience still have as much validity as ever. Many advocacy tools and messaging media are largely the same as they were a couple of years ago, although they are always evolving. Thus, it makes sense that many of the “how” presentations at this year’s conference were recycled from the first LAFCON in 2020 (and clearly labeled as such). Still, there were a number of insights and methods not covered at the previous conference. Here are a few of them.
Cordelia Anderson, formerly director of marketing and communications at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, presented an overview of how to prepare for communications during a crisis and how to communicate if you are confronted with one. She emphasized that crisis operations and crisis communications are two different things and that they must be treated as such.
Jeff Davis, library planner/designer at MSR Design, described the public interest design (PID) process, which he uses in planning library buildings. The PID process emphasizes gathering input from community members, especially those traditionally marginalized, in the course of designing public facilities. A starting point of the process is to replace traditional community meetings organized by the library, often held in the library, with outreach to connect with people in groups and events they already participate in, in places they already visit. Although Davis spoke from an architect’s perspective, he pointed out PID’s benefits for governance, marketing, and service development that transcend the building design application.
Julie Womack, representing the organization Red, Wine, and Blue, emphasized one-to-one communications. Her organization’s Troublemaker Training program prepares engaged supporters to have conversations with their less-engaged friends and relatives about political issues such as book bans and library censorship.
Benjamin Kolendar, former economic development director for Salt Lake City, offered insights into the job of a unique and powerful potential ally for any public library: the local government’s Economic Development Department. He described different ways that directors and local governments approach the job, offering tips for librarians considering outreach. The general principle underlying his specific advice is a good one for engaging with any unfamiliar constituency: Start by asking questions, or “seek first to understand; then to be understood.”
Finally, well-known library leader Ken Haycock, currently executive director of Better Boards/Better Communities, addressed yet another vital group: members of a library’s own board. The board’s effectiveness is critical to library success, but too many boards underperform. Library directors can address this situation through special advocacy geared to board members. Free resources from Haycock’s organization are downloadable from betterboardsbettercommunities.com/free-resources.
Advocacy for library missions and budgets is essential if library services are to survive and thrive. But few library and information science graduates leave school adequately prepared to navigate the complex tasks involved, so they must learn on the job. Moreover, the challenges and opportunities are constantly evolving, and even experienced practitioners need continual updating of concepts and methods. LAFCON 2022 gave 500-plus library and information professionals a valuable opportunity to do just that. It exposed them to diverse professionals from the marketing, communications, and policy sectors who shared their insights and explored the applications to local as well as national library action. Its virtual, asynchronous platform and structure also enhanced opportunities for wide participation and peer-to-peer sharing. How library funding and advocacy will evolve in the next couple of years is anyone’s guess, but it’s to be hoped that the next LAFCON will be there to help librarians advance.