Alternative Advocacy Ideas for Library Funding Skeptics

Last week, I found an article in the New York Times entitled “In Kansas, Climate Skeptics Embrace Cleaner Energy” that got me thinking in regards to library advocacy. Specifically, this passage:

Over dinner, Wes Jackson, the president of the Land Institute, which promotes environmentally sustainable agriculture, complained to Ms. Jackson, his daughter-in-law, that even though many local farmers would suffer from climate change, few believed that it was happening or were willing to take steps to avoid it.

Why did the conversation have to be about climate change? Ms. Jackson countered. If the goal was to persuade people to reduce their use of fossil fuels, why not identify issues that motivated them instead of getting stuck on something that did not?

(Emphasis mine.)

There are some very familiar refrains that library advocacy invokes in a public awareness campaign in the last year: books and reading, computer access, education programming, assistance for the unemployed and underemployed, and lending aid in the time of the recession. But, as I would commonly see in comments on library funding news stories, what librarians find as a compelling reason does not resonate with everyone. Consider some of these comments left on various library budget stories.

If the "public" supports libraries, the "public" can pay for them with their own "private" dollars. I AM the public, and I do NOT support the libraries, and I do NOT want my income confiscated to pay for them. They are completely anachronistic and need to be privatized. If they can stand on their own they will. If they cannot, they should not.

Think of it: [Every] town spending millions of dollars on buildings, computers, and infrastructure, and then staffing them, and then continuously buying books, DVDs, and CD’s so that one group of citizens can have free entertainment. OUTRAGEOUS.

We have to stop worshipping the needy. The needy need to get off their butts, get jobs, and properly buy their books, DVDs, CDs with their own money. (


Libraries are like unions. They are obsolete. Nobody uses them anymore. It is a huge drain on our economy and is no longer economically viable right now. Maybe in the future when we have funding we can reopen them. But, probably not, because nobody really uses them. I still don’t even know what they are for. (


Tired of all the whining and hearing it’s such a small amount. All of these so called "small amounts" are starting to add up. VOTE NO! User fees. If you use the service, YOU pay for it! As a homeowner, I’m tired of financing [everything] for everyone. (Columbus Dispatch)


Libraries will be like museums, to store old books. Hasn’t anyone ever heard of e-books?? Kindle?? Nook? iPad??
What about music CD’s and movie DVD’s loaned out by libraries you say?? These will go the way of the VHS move. Music is already downloaded off of the internet, movies are streamed through the internet.
Let’s put this 100-year dinosaur to rest !! NO ON MEASURE Q !! (The Herald, Monterey County)

While I have chosen some of the more extreme examples of opposition to library funding, I think they act well to demonstrate that the usual sort of reasoning for library support will not always be compelling. In reflecting on these comments in the new light of the New York Times article, I think there are other ways of enticing people to support the library without relying on the usual issues identified. I think there are a couple of other rationales that may appeal to people who are unmoved by our usual rhetoric. I’ll attempt to outline a few different approaches in this post.

Photo by ladybugbkt/FlickrAs much as the quote “There’s this American flag, apple pie thing about libraries” from Frank Pezzanite at LSSI shot around the library blogosphere, he really is onto something in that remark. There is a patriotic aspect to the library. In an “On My Mind” piece for American Libraries, Andy Spackman wrote about the influence of the Founding Fathers in planting the seeds for what would eventually emerge as public or free libraries.

Enlightenment-inspired Founding Fathers believed an informed citizenry was necessary for the preservation of liberty and the function of democracy. James Madison argued “a popular government, without popular information … is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy.” Jefferson placed the “diffusion of information” among the “essential principles of our Government.” He said, “I have often thought that nothing would do more extensive good at small expense than the establishment of a small circulating library in every county.”

While some might not be fans of Jefferson, there is enough influence by the other Founding Fathers in general to make a patriotic case for the inclusion of libraries in local and state budgets. That, in addition to providing for a well informed citizenry, the library also provides people with opportunities that they would not otherwise receive. Lending the material for self improvement is not the same as charity. For a country that has touted itself as the "Land of Opportunity”, it would be contrary to this idea to not offer current and future Americans the tools for them to succeed. It’s the story of the American Dream told time and time again of someone from humble means rising up into a successful life. The library fits into that role because it does not dictate what people should do or become, but allows for the endless possibilities of human destiny.

It’s a lofty argument and an appeal to a different sort of populism. But for all the citing of the Founding Father, the outpouring of patriotism themes and memes, and talk of the American Dream, the argument that libraries fit right in there could be compelling.

Photo by M. Angel Herrero/FlickrAnother path to consider is much more wallet based: property values. That is, that having a library is a selling point for someone’s property. While the current owner may not be interested in the current library, that does not mean that future residents (or neighbors) will not. In listing the proximity to points of interest on a real estate description sheet, the library could be another selling point for a potential buyer to consider.

There have been numerous studies and papers regarding the relationship between education and crime. These reinforce the educational importance of the library in the lives of the community as well as provides a positive benefit as a component in the overall reduction of crime in the area. With better education, in general crimes rates go down, wages go up, and (subsequently) property values increase. What is being paid to maintain the library is a pittance compared to the salary and benefits of law enforcement officers.

While I think this kind of argument has its high and low spots (depending on the listener), I think it can key in on financial arguments that avoid the “I don’t use it so I don’t the financially support it” mantra that gets tossed around.

Photo by Trostle/FlickrA third consideration for presenting something that might motivate people to support libraries is more religious based. In reading about Stephen Colbert’s testimony to Congress regarding immigration issues, he broke character to make this point.

Colbert said he cares about people "with the least power." He quoted the Bible, as he often does: "Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers … these seem like the least of our brothers."

[It’s a reference to the Matthew 25:40. You can read Matthew 25:31-46 for the full context. –A]

The philosophy of caring for others plays a significant role in the major world religions. There are many allegories and statements within religious texts and dogmas that express the spiritual goodness when a person acts to support another. While the Bible does draw a difference between compelled and uncompelled acts of charity (as would someone who might be listening to this approach might do), I believe there are enough other passages that outline the (for lack of a better term) holiness of providing for those who are in need. In matching it to a reason to support the library, it is a matter of pointing out that there is no charitable organization within the United States that does exactly what the public library does. While it is a government based entity, it does provide tangible aid at a local level. I am aware that this might be a bit of a stretch, but there is only so much you can do without steering it directly into a charity situation and all of the connotations that go with that.

I’m pretty certain that not everyone who reads this would be comfortable with this approach. Religion can make an issue more contentious than it needs to be and can potentially backfire badly as an alternative approach. While I’m certainly not the most religious person (yes, the blog title has layers of meaning), I can appreciate the sentiments being expressed within the passage in regards to taking care of those who are less fortunate than ourselves. This post is about finding other things that motivate people to provide support for the library and I feel that an argument based in religion (especially in religious tenets that address duties to others) is a potentially valuable argument for those who feel comfortable making it. 


These are but a few ideas that could motivate people to support the library when the standard benefit presentations do not work. It does us very little good to repeat the same talking points in the face of funding opposition; instead, it is the time to turn their arguments into advantages. This isn’t about making up anything to answer their concerns and objections; this is about looking to other less obvious benefits that can be presented that address those concerns.

This is the time to think outside of the advocacy box. In the face of opposition coming from new directions, some of the rote arguments will not work. Librarians can and should look to demonstrate their value in other ways that will spark the motivation for support that we are looking to gain.

6 thoughts on “Alternative Advocacy Ideas for Library Funding Skeptics

  1. I don’t see why it is worth trying to convince people who make such arguments, unless they agree that we should privatize all roads because I don’t fly, and remove the police and fire department because I don’t break the law and my house isn’t on fire. Get rid of the military because we’re not being attacked. Libraries are our front line against the stupidification of our culture.

    Their point is that they want to pay for what interests them with your money, but not let you pay for what interests you with theirs.

    To talk about details with such a person is meaningless, unless you can get through this cognitive impasse on their end. Never deal with the symptoms if you can go straight to the cause.

    • I’ll concede that there are people out there who are unreasonable when it comes to government spending. There are people we will never through to. For me, this is about coming up with additional points and counterpoints that look to engage some of the reasonable people who are actually listening. I think a different approach may catch them off-guard, give them a new way of looking at the library. I think it is worth the time because it is better than simply repeating what we say over and over again to an unreceptive audience.

      Perhaps the better title for this post would be, “Searching for a Better Comeback”.

  2. Andy, kudos to you for thinking outside the mainstream of basic advocacy approaches. I like that you are asking people to relate to the better angels of their human existence. In fact, the argument that you advance might resonate with a particular segment of the political matrix that most librarians arrogantly and foolishly turn their backs to – the growing evangelical movement. If we are going to set up a constructive and hopefully productive dialogue with the growing ranks of conservative religious political activists, we need to talk their language. What is religion if not a set of beliefs that posit the inherent worth of every human being under the divine creatorship of an Almighty spiritual being? You do not have to believe in those concepts, however, to understand the importance of them to many people. Within that cosmic framework, the library has an important place in creating a wholistic and yes, a holy approach to creating a just, knowledge based society that provides opportunities for all. I’m not sure why librarians are so reluctant to engage that conversation with those who look to the gospels for life’s meaning. It certainly can’t hurt. We are losing the budget wars and we are losing them badly. Let’s challenge the religious right to practice what it preaches.

    • My only hesitance with the religious approach is how it is handled. There’s a vast difference between saying something like “the library is in line with religious teachings about taking care of the less fortunate” versus “Jesus wants you to pay your library tax”. That’s a bit of an overstatement, but it’s my concern that it doesn’t come across as proselytizing. It is certainly one of those ‘know your audience’ sort of moves. And it certainly isn’t limited to the religious; I can see an inroad for atheists and humanists in terms of appealing to them via a ‘the good of society’ sort of route.

      I don’t know about turning our backs on the evangelicals; I think that they get a bad reputation since they appear to be the more likely of book challengers for sex, profanity, drug use, witchcraft, homosexuality, and the like. Of course, one could make their argument at the opposite end of the spectrum (whatever the opposite of evangelical is) for objecting to books that are racist, sexist, discriminatory towards anyone (for that matter), insensitivity to others, and other ‘politically correct’ hangups. It might be harder to connect with the evangelicals than with the opposite because librarians hold strong views about not restricting content that is at odds with the Bible.

      Even with that said, I don’t think that it is a gap that cannot be bridged. It just takes a bit more finesse on the librarian’s side and perhaps a bit more understanding on the evangelical’s side.

  3. I’m sleepy so I apologize in advance for typos, misspellings, etc, but this quote “That is, that having a library is a selling point for someone’s property.” is timely in light of recent elections. (Which I’m sure is why you stressed it.) What’s additionally interesting is that I’ve heard the argument before, libraries=real estate selling point and I wonder why people just don’t get it? A very affluent suburb of Detroit, Troy, recently smacked down a millage to keep it city library open by a very slim margin. Someone had said to me the calculation per home owner would have been LESS THAN 10.00 month increase in taxes. Or roughly the equivalent of 2 Starbuck’s coffees.

    Sometimes I feel libraryland is the “Starving Marvin” episode form South Park.

  4. Three things:

    1. I agree that the Bible advocates sharing and doing for one another and, in a sense, it would seem that we are in a business that evangelicals would relate to and want to support. But the problem is that evangelicals apply this message in direct context to how they interpret the messages within the Bible. Therefore, sharing hordes of books and other resources that are at odds with the messages that evangelicals proclaim to be the singular, right messages of God will be at odds with their mission. Their mission is to spread their perceptions to all nob-believers for the purpose of converting them to their faith, and not to perpetuate what they would deem flagrant misperceptions. Libraries, then, are flagrant misperception brokers. We lead people astray.

    Now, if we agreed to censor ourselves from ill-informed resources, those that are antithetical to the views held by particular evangelicals, then perhaps we would be able to have a relationship (and likely only with very, highly specific evangelical groups based on what we would agree to allow or disallow in the collection). In the big picture, successfully wooing evangelicals would have to lead to a radical shift in our ideals. It would also lead to libraries with collections reflecting the beliefs of a particular sect, rather than a collection relevant to a society and community based on the concept of pluralism and diversity.

    2. Be careful about comparing the libraries Franklin and Jefferson would have rallied for to the model of today’s public library. The libraries that existed in the days of our founding fathers were far from the model of a public library we have today. Our founding fathers used subscription libraries. They paid money to belong to the libraries and those that belonged to subscription libraries were the elite, wealthy, white males of the time. I do not think we would want to go back to the model of the subscription library (although, if budgets continue to be slashed and the middle class continues to shrink, perhaps that is where we are headed).

    Or maybe we need to take a lesson from Dr. Pepper. He was a wealthy doctor in Philadelphia that inherited nearly a quarter of a million dollars from his uncle, George Pepper, to fund a public library in Philadelphia. At the time, the other subscription libraries wanted a piece of that pie, but the courts ruled that the money was intended to create a new kind of library: the public library we are so familiar with today: open and free to everyone. And while we are on the topic, ne’er we forget the generosity so lavishly displayed by Andrew Carnegie.

    Philanthropy directly led to the public libraries we have today, and perhaps philanthropy is the key to saving our public libraries today. By seeking grants, donations and endowments we can plump-up our scrawny figures. It is a win-win because the wealthy will be giving back to the community and libraries will be able to remain free and open to everyone within the community. Public libraries are socialist institutions that must figure out how to survive in the dog eat dog world of capitalism. That means looking beyond the government and tax payers for funding. It means we must learn how to play with the big dogs. It is the big dogs we can teach many new “tricks.” We can link the big dogs positively to the people and to whole communities.

    There is definite power in what we do each day. There is power in how we present ourselves each day. We need to convey this power to the world of big business and philanthropists. We are attractive. We can attract many dance partners if we loosen up and learn to do the dance.

    3. Touting libraries and the distance a house is from a public library as a factor in increasing property values is a brilliant idea. Plus, letting people know about the studies that show better education leads to drops in the crime rate and. erego, higher property values would be a great pitch for realtors to throw (for both the benefit of the realtors and libraries). This should be standard procedure across the country. It would increase our power of attraction even more!

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