This is a post that I’ve been working in various forms for about 3 years. There’s a lot of background and explanation here and I’ll even cite my sources where I can. Essentially, I’m going to make the claim that advocacy and politics in America has been hijacked by a sadly necessary extremism and that for libraries to continue to exist as we know them we need to get on board with the rhetoric. If we don’t learn to start to talk about libraries in a severely emotionally meaningful way that engages and activates our most impassioned supporters, libraries will be next on chopping block. We can’t allow this to happen because libraries are one of the few truly great institutions to come out of the American Government.
Before I really get into this, I’d like to point out that this is not a partisan issue. I have seen these tactics in use by every political party. I’d also like to point out that I’m a pretty hardcore moderate and I have a strong and healthy distrust of both progressive and conservative parties as well as low faith in both the government and corporate power structures. I’m going to do my best to pull examples from as many different arenas as possible for a fair and balanced discussion of the issue that should make everyone equally angry.
This all begins with my own blog and why I essentially stopped blogging. The truth is that I was frustrated about what kinds of posts got the most hits. A few years ago I realized that the posts that “did the best” were ones that were inherently mean spirited or controversial for their extreme views. For example, I wrote a post about Second Life that was intentionally mean spirited and to this day it is my most read piece. The thing to realize about this post is that I never really said anything important. There was nothing in there that would move anything forward. Libraries were already dropping Second Life and by the time I wrote the piece the virtual landscape was already a ghost town. On the other hand, I wrote a number of other posts that I think were more important but didn’t have anywhere as close to the same level of emotional reactions, emotion, or rhetoric and they were hardly read at all.
Of course, we could make the argument that the other posts weren’t as well written, or as timely or whatever, but really, the biggest difference is the level of emotional sensationalism. I really don’t hate Second Life, I really don’t care at all about Second Life, but I had the chance to write something in the extreme and see what happens. I was so disappointed in the broad and deep response that my number of blogs written per week almost drops off completely after that experiment. I went from writing one blog a week, to one every month or two. That was 4 years ago.
When I realized that these are the kinds of articles and blog posts that get the highest ratings I began to notice what was happening in the commercial media sphere. Everyday online it seems like there is more bad news, or emergencies, or constant state of urgency in the world around us. There are constant streams of vicious and witty criticisms and very few appraisals of positive viewpoints or constructive ideas. I realized that this was because moderate ideas simply don’t attract reaction or generate the ratings and views that are necessary to raise revenue or resources through encouraging actions or ads or donations. For example, this article criticizing adults for reading comics. There was really no point in writing this article because it doesn’t move any discussion forward, its poorly written, and it doesn’t matter if adults read comics or watch superhero movies and essentially has no real affect on the world. However, because it is an extremist viewpoint and wild criticism of a popular and generally well liked pastime, this article appeared multiple times on my social media feeds with varying levels in indignation. It was clearly being well read and circulated.
Recently, I left full time library work to work for an organization called EveryLibrary. If you haven’t heard me talk about EveryLibrary let me quickly fill you in. EveryLibrary is the first and only National Political Action Committee for Libraries. In the last three years we have helped libraries win local measures for library funding to the tune of almost 100 million dollars. Because EveryLibrary is about libraries, it’s a non-partisan issue, which is one of the things that I, as a moderate, really enjoy about it. But because it’s a non-partisan issue, I’ve attended webinars, trainings, conferences, read books and professional literature, followed campaigns, etc… for just about every political party in the United States. These trainings came from the Tea Party or the Libertarian Party or whatever flavor of progressive politics they were and were essentially all over the political spectrum.
I say all this because my work with EveryLibrary combined with these trainings have also reinforced my belief in the necessity of more extremism in our advocacy efforts. When we write for EveryLibrary we noticed that some of our posts or emails get a much higher level of engagement than others. While we understand that library issues are highly complex and require complex solutions we noticed that when we explained those issues in an educational and informational way that lays out the full scope of the issue, they were generally left unread by the professional public and the public at large. However, the ones that have the highest level of emotion, the least amount of complexity, and least amount of real information or solutions are the ones that get the highest levels of donations, the most shares, the most likes, and are the ones that are most widely read. What’s the point of writing something educational if nobody reads it to be educated?
We have many examples of this stark contrast between informational or educational posts and emotionally extreme posts. For example, when we post articles about how important libraries are for businesses and startups and how those kinds of organizations can take advantage of the services of libraries, we get very few click-throughs, almost no shares, and we get even less donations. But, when we post that libraries are being attacked by the Koch Brothers we can raise thousands of dollars and have hundreds of people sign up to support libraries in a matter of hours. There is a guttural emotional reaction to the idea that wealthy billionaires are working to strip services away from the American people and there is no sense of urgency in learning that businesses and startups can benefit from the services of libraries even though providing a higher level of services to upper social classes would position libraries as more relevant and necessary institutions to those in power. It is, without a doubt, more important for libraries to learn how to better engage upper class and more powerful cross sections of communities than it is to know that the Koch Brothers are attacking libraries, yet there is no engagement there.
We also conducted A/B testing to determine messages that engage the highest amounts of people and return the highest level of actions take for libraries. We wrote emails that explained what positive things that libraries were doing and how they help communities and got very little return. Yet when we wrote something controversial or something that was more highly emotional and less deeply informational, we were able to see more donations, sign-ups, shares, etc… I have also seen this to hold true when we are attempting to activate people to sign a petition to fight legislation. Our calls to action that were informational went largely unheard and our calls to action that were highly emotional generated thousands more signatures.
While many people who work in the library industry have brought up the fact that they don’t enjoy our extremist posts, I would like to point out that those kinds of posts are generally not for them. People who work in libraries tend to be well educated. They tend to have a broader understanding of the complexities of the issues that surround library work. Librarians tend to be less motivated by reactionary posts about the Koch Brothers attacking libraries because they understand the full complexity of the issue at hand. For example, librarians are the people who know the difference between things like para-professional staff and MLIS credentialed librarians while the broader audience that we are writing for and the general population of people that we are trying to engage think that anyone who works in a library, from a page to a director, is a librarian. So, while I absolutely understand their concerns (I have them too), we aren’t writing for the people who are already engaged and have a strong understanding of all the issues, are already willing to take action for libraries, and are well educated on librarianship. We are writing to engage the public at large.
We can also see examples of the high level of success of this kind of extremist messaging beyond librarianship. We see it in the political discourse around minimum wage or abortion or the second amendment. You have probably participated in the discussions yourself or, if you haven’t, you have almost definitely noticed how the discourse between other people often slides into a highly emotional argument of sound bites and meaningless rhetoric and continues to decline into a barrage of name-calling rather quickly on all sides. What is interesting here is that, just like the issues in librarianship, the highly emotional and rhetoric filled views of these issues are not fully representative. Each of the issues are highly complex and require a deep level of understanding of the full scope of social concerns that surround them if we are seriously looking for a cure. If we think about each of these with a full understanding of them, we’d quickly see that soundbites like “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” are wildly dismissive of the deep-rooted social ills that are actually behind high murder rates and, likewise, simply banning guns won’t cure the underlying social ills that cause murder either. For there to be a real solution, there needs to be a fully immersive strategy that undertakes the task of explaining all the possible solutions at each level and the people need to be educated about the entirety of the situation with holistic solutions at every level. So, these soundbites and simplified emotional rhetoric are clearly not the solution.
So why are such simplified and meaningless rhetoric to discuss highly complex issues so prolific? There is a sound reason for this. As we pointed out earlier, extremist propaganda returns the most extreme return on investment. Another example from outside of librarianship of a large ROI on an extremist action comes from US Representative Joe Wilson who yelled “You Lie!” during the State of the Union Address from President Obama. His campaign for re-election raised millions of dollars from his supporters in the next week. Joe Wilson was then able to use those resources to go on to defeat his general election opponent, Rob Miller. Joe Wilson was able to use his extremist outburst to drive up donations to use as resources to win his bid for re-election. Of course, this isn’t just limited to candidate campaigns, we see a similar set of actions and outcomes play out repeatedly in almost every cause. That’s because these extremist actions are the necessary first step in allowing causes to have the money and identify the supporters and help them build the resources they need to take action for the actual solution.
Of course, Joe Wilson’s donations didn’t come from moderates. His donations didn’t come from people who could see both sides of the issue. His donations came from people with deep seated and extreme anger and resentment towards President Obama. People who kind of like Obama as president weren’t the ones who donated to Representative Wilson. It was the ones who hate and oppose Obama the most. What this proves is that extremists are the ones who take action. Not moderates. It’s very important to understand that extremists with extreme views who are using extreme rhetoric are the ones who give money, volunteer, and otherwise provide resources to causes. You won’t find someone who has only moderate views on an issue or is careless about an issue spending their hard earned money to fight for or against it.
What is also interesting is the very low percentage of individuals that give to campaigns. Bernie Sanders, for example, who has raised more money from individual donations for his campaign than any other candidate in history has received donations from 1.3 million Americans. While 1.3 million people sounds like a large number, when compared to the size of the general population, it is almost a meaningless statistic. There are over 330 million people in the United States and that means that Sanders has only raised money from less than one third of one percent of the population. The most successful individual donor candidate in the world has only been able to actively engage 0.33% of the public and convince to take action. This is also interesting considering that he polls at an approval rating of about 40% of Democrats and about 30% of Americans identify as Democrats or about one hundred million people. Since you do not have to be a registered voter to donate to a campaign, there are around 50 million people who potentially support Bernie Sanders (far less are willing or able to vote) and could be tapped into giving donations to the Sanders Campaign. Why then, do only 1/3 of one percent of Americans give? Because those are the individuals with the most extreme faith and belief in a country governed by President Sanders. The truth is that it take a very small percentage of extremist Americans to drastically influence politics.
All of this is to say that if a cause wants to exist, it needs resources to fight, and therefore it is in the best interest of causes and political parties to generate more extremism in order to get more access to more of the resources that they need to be maintain a sustainable fight.
So, if libraries are to continue to have the resources that they need to continue to fight for their existence then libraries need to find ways to identify and engage a small percentage of Americans who are extremist and ravenous supporters of libraries and who will take action and give those resources to library causes. Whereas, Bernie Sanders is supported by 50 million people, libraries have far more supporters than all of the presidential candidates combined. Libraries have an approval rating of over 80% across the country and across a wide range of political beliefs but we’re failing to engage the most extremist believers in libraries. Librarians need to understand where and how these extremist beliefs are generated and how they can be used and who they can be used on. Libraries also need to really take some time and look at the messages that are being used against them and take the time to understand the root of those messages in order to develop effective and emotionally charged counter messages.
One of our biggest weaknesses is that we know very little about the kinds of people who support libraries, why they support them, and we know even less about the people who are against libraries and why. For those other well resourced causes that we mentioned earlier as well as political party platforms, literally millions of dollars are spent every single year to research voter perceptions and motivations for voting or taking action on behalf of the cause as well as identifying messaging that works effectively and the kinds of people that it works on. Every single year, these causes of the most current and up-to-date data to help them fight. Whereas, for libraries,the only real study that has been done to look at the propensity of registered voters to support libraries at the ballot box was done in 2008 with 2007 data. This means that the data comes from a time that was pre-recession, pre-Tea Party, pre-any tax is a bad tax organized groups. Since then, we have had a major culture shift built entirely around the circumstances set up in the recession. But even with that study and disregarding the recession, we learned very little. For example, we know that people’s support or opposition to libraries is not dependent on their use of the library and we know that people are just as likely to vote for or against the library regardless of their political ideology unless they are extremist in their views on either side of the political spectrum. What should scare librarians and library supporters is that we do not have data to create a model of voters for libraries and we don’t have data to create a model of voters in opposition to libraries.
We can, however, look at some interesting trends in the comments on our Facebook Page. Because there is currently no funding for this research, this is where we are starting to look to build this data although it is a very poor source for data. One of the biggest things we’ve noticed is that the people that comment positively for libraries are not extremist, but the people who comment in opposition to libraries are extremist. They are generally deeply neo-liberal or deeply neo-conservative.
For example, if you click on the comments below, it will take you to the walls of the commenters where you can see that the majority of their FB posts are almost entirely around extremist political rhetoric even though they are typically individuals who do not work in a political sphere. These are individual that have no reason to post politically because they are not major influencers in politics, they are not authors or personalities in politics, they have low “friend” numbers and are not engaged by comments from their “friends” or followers, and they are essentially impotent in the political world and have no real incentive to post any kind of political rhetoric.
I want to point out that there is nothing wrong with the beliefs of these two example cases. With their experiences and their understanding of the world around them, they are right to believe what they believe. However, it our responsibility to understand them and their ideologies and be able to respond to them in a way that’s meaningful to them.
What this does show is how strongly the kinds of individuals who oppose libraries are influenced by the political extremism of neo-liberalism or neo-conservatism. It’s interesting that, these individuals, without any personal influence on American politics, without any responsibility in American politics, and without any real role in American politics at all, feel so strongly that they only post American political rhetoric on their personal walls. This is especially alarming considering the wide range innovation in the world, the immense amount of venues for entertainment across hundreds of venues and mediums, the vast discoveries and inventions of the 21st century, and the potential for exploration of an entire world at their finger tips in the digital age that they would choose to almost exclusively post about American political rhetoric. Essentially they are focused on posting about a small sliver of the world in which they live and a very small sliver of the world in which they have almost zero influence. The obvious complete control of each of these individual’s mind is a testament to the power and influence of political think tanks, the vast resources and far reaching power of diverse issues, and the kind of extremism that is being tapped into in order to fund the fight for these various oppostional beliefs.
But, wouldn’t it be nice if libraries could tap into this kind of extremism? In fact, I would argue that it has become even more of a necessity for librarians to be able to speak in ways that tap into these kinds of extremist belief systems. We need to take the time to study and look into the reasons that people believe the kinds of things that they believe at such guttural levels. After all, these kinds of extremist views and these kinds of systems of support that are based in extremist ideologies where specifically developed for these outcomes. Why couldn’t similar ideologies be built around a belief system that is supportive of libraries?
One of the reasons this hasn’t happened in libraries is that we have never had the need for it before. Previous to the Great Recession, libraries have had the benefit of being so well supported by the general public that they have not even had to campaign to win elections. Libraries could simply place ballot measures before the people and about 85-90% of them would pass without the need for well-funded or well-trained and structured campaigns. That level of passing referendum is almost unheard of in almost any other cause and we can’t expect to ever surpass these levels again without highly structured and well-funded modern campaigns. But because libraries have never had the need to learn to be better politically positioned in communities, libraries have not had a strong culture of politics or political action in our day-to-day work. This is can no longer be the case.
Currently fewer library campaigns are winning and those that do are winning smaller at margins and are being even further eroded by legislation that require super majorities to win tax increases. We also seen more movement to fight against libraries like the recent movement by the Koch Brothers funded Super PAC to come out against libraries. Comparatively, causes that have had the benefit of years of research and careful construction like 2nd amendment rights, abortion, and minimum wage, have a level of extremist influence built through years of experience and deep pockets of resources that libraries have just begun to understand and don’t yet have access to. Organizations like our own EveryLibrary are only just beginning to build the data and research that we need to ensure that libraries continue to win at high margins. We are only just beginning to understand these extremist viewpoints and build extremism into our own rhetoric…. Like it or not…
But now its time for a solution. Libraries need to spend time and resources on data building, on focus groups, supporter ID, and message development to build our database of extremist supporters with key messages that we know will activate them to take action on behalf of libraries. This is one of the reasons that we created this Knight News Foundation Grant Submission and are looking for funding to continue our research into this area. For other causes this was done through well-funded think tanks with financial backing and big data resources. The need for identifying supporters is also why we created our Political Action Platform for libraries. It’s time for libraries to duplicate the efforts of national causes and political parties and cadidates and truly understand what makes Americans ravenously believe in causes to such an extreme that they will support those causes with money, time, and other resources. We need this level of extremism on the side of libraries in order to ensure that libraries continue to exist at all to continue to serve the good of the American people.
5 thoughts on “The necessity of extremism in library advocacy and political outreach”
Probably libraries no longer gain the mass support because in this country there is no longer a shared communal culture. An extreme right-winger will see the library as the breeding ground for loony liberals; an extreme left-winger will view the library as a relic of white patriarchy. The activism fomenting on college campuses — or driving people away from college — points to similar extremist views. Basically you please all, you please none. Maybe we need a Trump/Sanders type librarian – someone charming enough to attract attention.
1) I appreciate your “hell yeah” spirit. I’m right there with you. Tear it up.
2) I agree that librarians need to step their game in terms of advocating for libraries among voters and influencers who can bring resources to libraries. YES to that. However… when you have to yell about something, that means you’re out of control. Getting loud and yelling about libraries might work in the short term but it’s not a sustainable tactic to get support for libraries over the long haul. It’s more of a last ditch effort best reserved for advocacy campaigns and therefore makes a lot of sense for your profession.
3) Library leaders should speak softly and carry a big stick. The “big stick” in this case is a customer base that finds libraries to be valuable, useful, and relevant to their lives. In short, we provide our customers with a product they want and need, while we seduce them with the big WHY of libraries — social justice, equal access, etc. You’re right – people form opinions based on their gut feeling. But if that gut feeling is all we can provide, then that’s how we end up with people who say they love libraries, but they don’t use them and won’t support them financially or at the polls.
4) In short, we must look inwards and fix our shit otherwise all that yelling doesn’t mean anything.
What I think is missing from this piece is the variability of what a library is. It ignores the role of the actual value of libraries in the advocacy process. It seems to be suggesting that the best way to support libraries is to change how we talk about them, rather than actually changing them.
This piece seems to propose a disconnect between the day-to-day practices of libraries, and the politics of funding them. It turns libraries into a political symbol. And while I agree that this might work, in the short term, as a campaign/fundraising tactic, it could do long term damage if these tactics don’t facilitate the evolution of library practices. Ultimately, the underlying value of libraries is the service they provide to taxpayers. Yet many librarians operate under the assumption that the nature of their core services are just fine and appropriate, and that any shortcomings of a library are due to marketing, outreach, and advocacy.
Consider how many political advocacy movements are highly effective (guns, tobacco, etc.) yet the underlying activity has a detrimental effect on its constituents. The point here is that advocacy can be effective, even when the activity it supports is not. Libraries should be careful about advocating for themselves based on anything but evidence-driven value propositions. Part of the reason I say this, is that overly-effective advocacy potentially takes the pressure off library staff to develop more valuable services. Sometimes political advocacy is more expedient than institutional change. But there is no substitute for institutional change.
If desperate times are calling for desperate measures, libraries might want to consider how their underlying services and programs can be evolved. This is not to say that spin and foment should be entirely avoided. Yes, they have their place too. But they should not be seen as a substitute for evolving library services.
Consider how many political advocacy movements are highly effective (maybe… rights of marginalized communities, environmental issues, death penalty, abortion, etc…) that you do agree with. Radicals and extremists are the only people who brought about the changes you do agree with. You used examples that you disagree with and then attacked their tactics for being effective, but the truth is that the movements that you do agree with use the exact same tactics. Each of the original individuals involved in all of the civil rights movements where considered radicals and extremists. Using political advocacy movements that you might disagree with like second amendment issues disregards the hardwork and efforts of the political extremists that brought those other rights that you do agree with. Because it wasn’t the 50%+ voting majority that started those movements. It wasn’t a widespread movement that one day just woke up and decided to allow the marginalized communities to have the rights of ordinary citizens. It was a couple of dozen activists who stood up for what they believed in who learned how to organize communities through supporter ID, messaging, and activating the few other activists to build the resources they needed to organize larger marches, rallies, and build big data sets that they could use to activate others and engage moderates and eventually convince the American people to vote accordingly.
This article doesn’t ignore what libraries do. Libraries are doing amazing work and we aren’t talking about it accordingly. We don’t need to change what libraries do, we need to change the way we talk about what libraries do and we need to change the way people think about libraries. Similarly, marginalized communities didn’t need to change to fit the majority culture, they needed to change the the way the majority culture thinks about and talks about them.
Good points! Thanks for responding. I totally agree that some of my favorite environmental and justice organizations absolutely use those same tactics. I was cherrypicking for sure. I’m not absolutely against the strategy. I just hope it’s used effectively for the causes I support (and ineffectively for the ones I don’t ;-). You are right that leadership, activism, and radicalism/extremism are critical to social change. Absolutely.
I’m glad you clarified about the “whether libraries need to change” issue. That’s an important starting point to be clarified. I definitely have a bias there. I see libraries as having much greater potential than their current manifestation. And so that’s what fueled my comments above. I think the library mission is pretty solid, but I think most are punching way below their weight as the main public sandbox for social change. To me, a library is the great third place where anything short of revolutionary activity is not good enough. Is that extreme enough? 😉
Thanks for the provocative post!!