The Why, How, and What of Library Advocacy

The audio isn’t great for the first half but it gets better later.

It’s not a well kept secret that I do love a good TED talk (or five). When I’m feeling like I’m out of creative energy and need a recharge, I watch a bunch right in a row. Pretty soon, it is late at night when I’m supposed to be asleep and my brain is trying to assimilate the ideas, thoughts, and concepts that have just been presented to it. If there is a cure for insomnia, this is the opposite of that endeavor.

From Simon Sinek’s talk, he talks about the model for how good leaders and companies effectively communicate. It’s the idea that people buy into the purpose over the actual product; that people are attracted to the ideas and emotions more than the actions. Here’s the part that grabbed my attention:

Why? How? What? This little idea explains why some organizations and some leaders are able to inspire where others aren’t. Let me define the terms really quickly. Every single person, every single organization on the planet knows what they do, 100 percent. Some know how they do it, whether you call it your differentiated value proposition or your proprietary process or your USP. But very, very few people or organizations know why they do what they do. And by "why" I don’t mean "to make a profit." That’s a result. It’s always a result. By "why" I mean: what’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care? Well, as a result, the way we think, the way we act, the way we communicate is from the outside in. It’s obvious. We go from the clearest thing to the fuzziest thing.

(The short version for people who have not seen the clip is that most organizations advertise in a “What they do/How they do it/Why they do it” pattern. Effective individuals and groups communicate in the reverse; they talk about Why-How-What they are doing or believe in. If something I write is a bit confusing, it is in reference to the talk. It’s a medium length video clocking in at fifteen minutes and it is totally worth the time.)

It got me thinking about this idea as it relates to library advocacy. Are the majority of advocacy efforts communicating in a What-How-Why pattern?

Consider this.

How often do libraries lead off with a ‘what’ type of statement in their materials? (“BumbleEff library circulates 750,000 items a year.” “Over 1,000 children have come to our story time programs.” “The library has 180,000 visitors last year.”) I mean, look at these statements. Who doesn’t know that the library lends items? Or their library has story times for kids? Or that as a public building you can actually visit it? I would say that (with few possible exceptions) there isn’t much of a doubt as to what the library does. People borrow books, movies, and other stuff. They have computers that you can use. If you have kids, they have monthly story times. You can read the newspaper there. People in general know what the library does; all these numbers is remind them of what they already know about the library. Sure, you could list all the things that the public might not be aware of, but that’s like tossing out attributes in the hope that one will resonate with someone. The public evaluates it as it relates to them, not so much as it relates to the community as whole. 

In turning to the ‘how’, it can be very hit or miss as to how the materials, services, and programs of the library come to exist. In providing a ‘how’, it tends to be based in finances; it makes mention of return of investment numbers, the local or state per capita spending, or the savings involved in group contracts or a robust interlibrary loan system. When staff are mentioned, the terms hover around adjectives such as dedicated or professional, the same sort of words used to describe upper tier restaurants and spas. It’s not exactly inspiring in the slightest nor explanatory as to how things come into being at the library.

As to the last area, the ‘why’, I find myself wondering if I’ve seen a good ‘why’ explanation offered by libraries. I’m talking about more than just offhand statements like “promote literacy” or “provide internet access” because those are simply superficial expressions of purpose.  It’s the equivalent of a mother declaring that she provides her child with maternal care; while technically correct, it doesn’t delve into any emotional or intellectual depth that the institution and the people who work there bring to this equation. It is these vapid declarations masquerading around as high minded philosophies that fail to make the personal connection between the library and the communities that they serve.

Just like Simon’s talk, I propose to reverse the manner in which the library advocates. Start by showcasing the ideas and emotions behind the why, present the how as the method for putting the why into action, and leaving the what as a footnote to the whole thing.

In addressing the ‘why’ of the institute and the profession, Simon offers basic questions that can be used to work it out. Why does the library exists? What purpose does it serve? Why did you choose to be a librarian? Why should people care about the library? It’s deeper than a love for books or helping out kids and adults with their homework. It has to lay bare the essence of the library and librarian in their societal role from its Enlightenment rooted beginnings to the distant future. In attempting to address this myself, here is what I feel (in regard to the public library):

The public library is a community supported public institution that provides knowledge access and information literacy education. Built on the ideals of supplementing public education, supporting individual self improvement, and providing materials and services for those in the community who would otherwise go without, the public library is a champion for intellectual freedom and personal curiosity. My work at the public library is important to me because I believe it is one of the greatest ways in which to support the new knowledge economy as well as improve the lives of the community members. Each and every day is a chance for me to change the life of someone who walks through the door, from a simple act of public service to providing or creating intellectual and social opportunities. A public library is an act of community altruism which creates happier and enriched fellow citizens.

The gist of the ‘why’ argument is based in the personal emotional drive of the library as an institution. My example is far from a perfect logical argument, but it is why I believe the library exists and why I have chosen it as an occupation. It is authentic in its telling and belief, invoking an appeal that goes beyond the surface and the numbers. This is what the ‘why’ drives at: the raw emotional core that makes an appeal at a completely emotional and ideal level.

In pivoting to the ‘how’ aspect for libraries, I believe it needs to address all of the moving parts of the library. It is drawing back the curtain and taking people down the path of what is required to arrange the materials, services, and staff for daily operation. Beyond what is immediately apparent, it is touting the expertise of staff in selecting books and preparing programs; the coordination and planning of personnel to ensure the acquisition and flow of materials (both print and online) at and between locations and on the website; and the use of budget as it relates to furthering the core mission of the library. For example, it is one thing to say that the children’s collection is selected by staff; it is another to say that the staff are former teachers with years of experience in both settings. It is showcasing the process and the people who carry it out that reveal more about the character of the institution. For me, the ‘how’ is a marriage of the fiscal wizardry and value of the library to the talent of staff and the individuals who choose the books and databases, prepare or schedule the programs, and maintain the quality of the institution.

Last, in presenting the ‘what’ of the library, it is about offering a course of action to support it. What can people do to support their library? Should they be asked to donate money, time, and materials? Which politicians or newspapers should they write to and what should they say? Could they offer to teach programs or tutor others? How can they raise funds for their Friends or association? Can they serve on the library board? Who can they call to gather support and what should they say? As I have stated previously, everyone knows what the library does but most don’t know what to do to support it. This is a chance to ask for their help, to inform them as to what is required, and to make supporting the library a truly community effort.

As I glance back over the preceding paragraphs, I think this might be an uncomfortable tact for some of my peers to consider. It takes us down a different direction, perhaps unproven in their eyes. The current advocacy strategies, while far from perfect, have been proven to work in a varying degree of success. The abandonment of those stalwart arguments might be perceived as a gamble. For myself, it is a necessary step for the continuation of libraries. I believe that libraries will lose in the long run if they stick to simply ‘what’ they do. That is a numbers game that will be set aside against a digital data future that is only getting faster, larger, and more accessible. What cannot be denied in that numbers game is the ‘why’ of existence of libraries and it is there that the appeal lays. The principles and purpose that lay within the institution are the keys to saving it when it reaches out and touches their inner idealist.

In a world where people accept ideas on the basis of their authenticity, I believe it is within our best professional interests to present library advocacy in terms of why, how, and what. For while our collections change, our principles and mission do not. Let those be our strengths in the battles ahead.

8 thoughts on “The Why, How, and What of Library Advocacy

  1. You make some great points about how to enhance our advocacy efforts. However, I think some of your earlier points aren’t accurate. There are MANY people who do not know what the library does, or who think you can only get reference books there. We have people who have lived in our community all their lives who don’t know that we circulate DVDs – and we’ve been doing that for over 15 years. Or there are people in town who are new parents and never had a reason to learn about story times for kids – but now they do, and they need to find out. Or they don’t know that we have public computers, or audiobooks that you can download from home, or music events, or art shows. So you can’t assume that everyone knows what the library does.

    All of that can be lumped in with some of the “how” and “why” that you outline though. I think it’s a worthwhile effort to aim more toward “how” and “why” while still incorporating the “what”.

    • Thanks for your comment. The problem I have with the point about people not knowing what the library does is that I don’t think it changes people’s minds about the library in a significant manner. I am unaware of someone radically changing their stance on the library because they found out about DVD lending or story time hours. It bogs down the conversation about the library into a list of services and materials and buries the ‘why’ in a pile of prose.

      It’s not a matter of assuming that everyone knows what the library does; that’s a Sisyphean task of marketing and advertising. It is a matter of knowing why the library is there. Sure, you can include what the library does as part of library advocacy, but in my opinion it’s more worthwhile to use that space to ask for assistance.

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  3. I think the why often tends to be a “wishful” why and not the real why. Your what should reflect your why, right? If not, that’s not the sign of success, is it? I mean, if you why is to promote literacy, what does offering DVDs for checkout do? If the why is to create happier and enriched citizens, does your what or how actually mesh with your why? I would argue it doesn’t.

    I think you might have stumbled upon the secret. Nobody mentions the “why” because it would mean they have to change their “what” and “how” pretty dramatically.

    • I’d say that DVDs fall into different literacies; you have print literacy, media literacy, and the whole literacy bag there. I think if you start getting into literacy hierarchies is where you run into trouble; where do you draw the lines for which are more important than others. Plus, in relation to the rest of the collection and the amount of use, it falls into a minority.

      I think it does mesh, but obviously I’m a bit biased on this one. If anyone else wants to offer another opinion, I’m more than open to hearing it.

  4. Thanks for this post: I think these are very important points, and while my perspective differs a bit, as an academic librarian, bringing the marketing back to emotion, passion, and our role in our respective communities is what will forge bonds with our patrons (and potential patrons).

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  6. Pingback: Discussion Topic: Library advocacy & lobbying | International Librarians Network

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