I was prompted to write this article because of a few of the articles that are being published around Beto O’Rourke as his candidacy for president in the 2020 election becomes much more likely. The articles that I reference later in this blog post are designed to diminish Beto’s strength as an early contender and build strength through early counter narratives through the process of surfacing. This article is about exploring surfacing and the kinds of tactics that we are seeing deployed against Beto almost two years before election day and at least a year before he announces his candidacy.
Before I get to deep into it, I do feel like I have to start this by saying that I am not a supporter of any of the current potential presidential candidates on either side of the aisle. I have not made up my mind about anyone yet. I’m also not arguing that Beto is a good guy or bad guy. I have no idea. Mostly, I’m writing this post because I find this pre-candidacy process of surfacing candidates and causes so interesting.
As we move into the 2020 presidential elections we are going to start seeing potential candidates surfacing their campaigns in order to take on Trump. This surfacing may come from both sides of the aisle to attack or support a potential candidate. I want to explain this process because so few people know what surfacing is and so that you understand what is happening when we see the publication of these kinds of articles.
The surfacing process is key to building a viable candidate who is positioned to win the election because it introduces the candidate to voters in a strategic way. It is a crucial step in building a candidacy because before these individuals are officially candidates they are often free from opposition attacks and voters are less skeptical of their messaging. Before they are candidates they are just individuals who are expressing their hopes and dreams for the country and telling their story to voters. They can do this through articles in newspapers, publishing a biography, speaking on news shows, and utilizing various media in order to begin reaching and educating voters before those voters have become familiar with other candidates. By starting early and working in an environment free from these distractions and obstacles then potential voters will already be familiar with the candidate and the candidate will have a network of supporters, volunteers, and donors ready for a campaign once they announce their candidacy.
On the other hand, after they officially announce their campaign and become candidates, voters’ attitudes begin to change. Voters start to question the candidates’ messaging, or their voting history (if they have one), their earlier tweets, the content and context of their bestselling book, previous speeches, or earlier attempts at running for office, etc… The campaign suddenly becomes difficult because they start working in an environment of opposition attacks, party in-fighting, political punditry, and voter skepticism. The longer that a potential candidate can stay out of this environment, the more they can build their resources for a more successful campaign later.
One of the most important reasons that surfacing is important is because, in politics, whoever says it first and loudest is often most believed. By speaking first you put your political opponent in a position of defense instead of offense. If you are the first and loudest candidate to fill the political messaging space with your views on an issue then you will now control that narrative in the election cycle because your opposition will have to spend their resources addressing your narrative instead of promoting their own. For example, one of the big issues for Hillary in her run for presidency was simply that Trump was first to speak and spoke the loudest which meant that she spent much of her election cycle defending herself from Trump’s claims, being forced to speak about what Trump previously said, and using precious campaign resources trying to maneuver through Trump’s chaotic messaging style. Surfacing gives candidates the opportunity to speak first and loudest on issues in an environment that is generally free from attack from opposition and that helps voters make decisions early in the campaign process.
Early Surfacing Against Beto O’Rourke
However, What I think is most interesting is that surfacing against potential candidates is becoming more common years before potential candidates become more viable and long before they announce their candidacy. For example, we’re seeing surfacing tactics from the opposition being applied to Beto O’Rourke from both the left and the right due to the speculation about his potential presidential candidacy. This is incredible considering election day is still almost two years away.
In fact, the reason that I wrote this blog post was because of an article that came across my feed. In this article against Beto O’Rourke the “Journalist,” posits that “The 2020 Democratic frontrunner is a Republican.” I thought this was a fascinating piece and I explored it more to see if it was part of an opposition campaign against Beto forming their messaging this early. It turns out, it was.
These articles are often hard to spot because, at first glance, they are authentically written articles by a journalist and should be trusted. In this case, it was a little easier because this particular article was written by Mathew Walther and the news platform allowed me to click through to his author history and bio. The first thing that I noticed was that his previous articles were often right leaning and one of his previous articles was titled, “Liberal’s Infantile Beto Fantasy.” When I read his bio it stated that he is also a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow. What is interesting is that this fellowship is made through The Fund for American Studies. TFAS is an organization that promotes conservative ideals in journalism and has ties to major conservative organizations like the State Policy Network and The Charles Koch Institute. Now it becomes clear that this article was most likely written specifically to diminish Beto’s luster with Democratic voters by positioning him as too Conservative for Democrats to support.
The other article that caught my eye was called “Beto O’Rourke is the New Obama and That’s the Last Thing We Need.” It was written by David Sirota who writes for Capital & Main which is a left leaning publication. On first glance, this lends his arguments a little more authority. But, when we look more deeply into David’s history we find that he worked as the press aide and then as the spokesperson for Bernie Sanders. What this means is that if Bernie Sanders is planning on running (it looks like he is) then he needs to start filling the messaging space with counter narratives about Beto in order to weaken his position for the upcoming presidential run. By running articles like this, the Bernie Campaign is taking advantage of this surfacing process to weaken Beto’s position among the Obama era Democrats so that Bernie’s position becomes stronger. In the campaign, Beto will have to address this narrative instead of promoting his own narratives. In fact, this tactic from the Bernie campaign insiders has become so apparent that main stream press has picked up on it such as in this article from NBC News entitled “Inside Bernie World’s War Against Beto O’Rourke.”
Most often these kinds of articles rely on the readers’ ignorance of the surfacing part of a campaign. They are typically very difficult to identify for a common reader. In the case of both of these articles I had to click through to authors and perform Google searches to see if they were legitimate criticisms of Beto O’Rourke or if they were simply part of the electioneering process. If you don’t want to be duped by the surfacing or counter surfacing of candidates by themselves or their opposition, it will simply take a little work.
I’m excited to announce a second session of the eCourse with ALA Editions and SJSU iSchool entitled Winning Support and Influencing Communities for Library Funding. After the success of the previous course session, I’m providing it again with updated data and information from the recent release of the second “From Awareness to Funding” study. We’ll also dive deeper into local data and recent political innovations that can be applied in communities of all sizes in order to cultivate and build support for local library funding.
It’s no secret that over 90% of library funding comes from the will of the local voters and the local politicians. In fact, on average, only 3-5% of library funding comes state legislative issues, and only another 3-5% of library funding comes from federal legislative issues. That means that libraries and library staff have to learn how to navigate and influence the local political environment to build support for funding for their community library. Whether that support comes from voters or political pressure on local boards and councils, this course will teach the skills you need to get the funding that your library deserves.
Whether you are going to the voters in the next year or next 5 years, you can get started today by learning the skills, tools, and political theories used by some of the largest and most successful campaigns in the country. In this course we’ll look at the ways that libraries can start re-building voter support in the years before an election. We’ll learn from some of the most successful presidential and local campaigns and discuss the ways that libraries can adapt their tools and tactics within their own communities. The earlier that you get started building the political support you need, the easier it will be to make an ask for increased library funding from both the voters and the local legislators.
“As a librarian from a community with no project on the horizon, but dreams of one, I learned a lot about laying the groundwork for a future project. I hope to begin to apply those principles and lessons so that one day I am able to report a successful library campaign!” – Sonja Dean Ferrell. Ottumwa Public Library
OCLC’s recently released second study measuring voter and political support for libraries found that over the last ten years general favorability of libraries has increased but overall voter support has dropped by over ten points. We should be alarmed by these results because more than 90% of library funding comes from the will of the local voters and the will of the local politicians. Without this political support, libraries in the United States are at risk from significant losses of funding and the potential for widespread closures as we’re seeing in many areas of Europe and Canada. That’s why this course is especially designed to focus on learning how we can encourage the voting public to take meaningful action to support library funding and apply pressure to our political leaders to ensure that they continue to fund libraries.
If your library is not dependent on voter engagement for funding, we will also explore the skills that you need to build political power within your community to influence your local legislators. We’ll look to major causes like Fight For Fifteen and Standing Rock as well as national PACs and political organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and Sierra Club and we’ll discuss the ways that libraries can apply those tactics in their day-to-day work to influence their local political ecosystems.
“I finished this class feeling much savvier about advocacy and the nature of campaigns. Advocacy is much more than simply “telling the library’s story” – it’s crafting a succinct, memorable message that resonates with your audience. Patrick’s feedback was incredibly valuable and I highly recommend his class to all who want to up their advocacy game.” – Susan P. Bier, Library Director at McCracken County Public Library
Everything we teach in this course has been tested in the political field through campaigns and political actions. EveryLibrary has worked on over 75 campaigns and over 50 political actions at the local, state, and federal level. Through these campaigns we’ve built and tested a wide range of tools and tactics that have a strong history of success through restoring funding and increasing support for funding and political initiatives. In fact, the tools and tactics that we teach in this course have helped EveryLibrary return $1,600 in stable library funding for every dollar we’ve raised. In this course we will show you how to build and use these tools in your own communities.
“I unequivocally recommend this class, whether you just want to know more about library advocacy or have an actual initiative to plan for. Going into this class I had no idea how much I didn’t know, and came away with a profound appreciation of what it takes to plan a campaign and a detailed blueprint to refer to in the future. Patrick’s expertise shines through the informative lectures, careful selection of readings and videos, and pertinent feedback.” – Morgan Rose Pershing, Community Library Manager at County of Los Angeles Public Library
OCLC recently released the latest dataabout voter support for libraries and the results should scare our entire industry out of political and advocacy complacency and away from the poor advocacy culture of storytelling that permeates our field. The results of the data have validated the fears of those of us at EveryLibrary and they’ve shown that we need to learn from some of the more politically savy and powerful organizations in the United States if we want library to continue to have the funding they need to remain into the future.
This report comes ten years after the previous “Awareness to Funding” study that was released in 2008 and underwritten by OCLC and the Gates Foundation. The original study looked at the awareness, attitudes, and underlying motivations among US voters for supporting library funding. This study was significant because it was the first time that anyone had looked at voter attitudes about library funding. The mere fact that it was a first of a kind study should worry us considering that more than 90% of library funding comes from the will of the local voter and the will of the local politicians. If we are concerned about library funding in the United States, the first place we should look is to the voters and politicians who are responsible for funding us.
The results of the original study did a lot to dispel a number of myths about why Americans are willing to vote to tax themselves to support libraries and indicated largely positively voter and political support for libraries. For example, they found that 37% of voters were almost definitely going to vote yes for libraries and another 37% of voters were likely to vote yes for libraries. That left only 26% of voters who most likely would vote no for a library funding initiative. The study found that library users were not necessarily more likely to vote yes for library funding measures and in fact, non-users were just as likely as non-users to vote for libraries. It also found that political support for libraries was not dependent on political party or affiliation. Instead it found that the most influential variable in voter support for libraries was the relationship and trust in the librarians themselves.
Through this study we learned that we need better data to understand who our most likely supporters might be or to more efficiently run library campaigns by more easily identifying likely voters and likely non-voters. It became apparent that our lack of data meant that we have no way to use enhanced voter files to reduce the number of voter contacts and voter contacts are one of the most resource heavy aspects of a campaign. For example, if we could determine the profile of a library voter, we could use that data against an enhanced voter file to significantly lower the cost of campaigns and drastically increase the success rate of library campaigns allowing us to better fund our libraries. This profile is typically called “model voter data” and the fact that the study did not help us determine model voter profiles was one of the biggest flaws in the study.
The difference between support and voting
One of the most important underlying issues is that there is a remarkable difference between being in favor of libraries and having a willingness to vote in favor of taxation. This distinction was realized in the results of both studies and this distinction needs to be understood if we want to influence elections for libraries. The most disturbing trend that was identified in the 2018 study was that favorability for the services and programs of libraries has increased among our strongest supporters and remained steady for probable supporters but willingness to vote or pay more in taxes to supply those services and programs have declined a significant amount. In fact, the willingness to vote yes for libraries has declined by more than 10 percentage points across the country.
What this means is that many of our current advocacy models are working if our measurement of advocacy is overall opinion of libraries. But, that overall opinion will not lead to more votes or political support and because funding is directly affected by those two factors these results do not bode well for future funding initiatives. That means that without the political will, there is no funding, and therefore, there are no libraries. Most importantly, it shows that our advocacy measurements for success are wildly ineffectual and misguided if we want libraries to exist for future generations.
I would argue that not only are our measurements wrong, but our entire advocacy ecosystem needs to be re-imagined. Our industry largely relies on the idea that if we tell good stories that people will stand up and take action on our behalf. This misguided ideology leaves most of the actual work of true advocacy on the table. In fact, while most of the recommendations from this study are fairly routine and primarily surround issues of voter education, the study points to two recommendations that I believe that we need to take seriously. Those are:
Target public awareness efforts
Awareness of library offerings and value continues to be a challenge—perhaps one that is only growing as people are more distracted and diverted into a fragmented communications environment. The Pew Research Center has consistently found in their household surveys that many Americans, including library users, are still unaware of the breadth of resources offered by the public library. The market segments and their characteristics outlined in the original research and updated here can better enable library professionals to target communications and customize messaging via traditional and social media channels to more effectively reach people. For instance, libraries may connect announcements of new programs or services to larger stories about how the library supports school-age children, workforce readiness, or small business development.
Cultivate and Empower Super Supporters
A significant bright spot in the research is that support among library Super Supporters—a small but mighty group—is largely unchanged. This segment’s loyalty should not be taken for granted, but rather nurtured and protected. In addition, library leaders can consider how to engage and leverage this group as library ambassadors to advocate with decision makers and influence other segments of the population that might be more disconnected or skeptical.
For the last 5 years, libraries not sufficiently addressing these two issues has haunted our work at EveryLibrary.
The first, “Target public awareness efforts,” points to the fact that a number of organizations that claim competency in Marketing in our industry are most often confusing marketing and advertising. Advertising comprises the tactics used to put messages into the community such as radio, tv, billboards, bar coasters, and other tchotchkes and giveaways. ALA’s own Libraries Transform and OCLC’s Geek the Library are both examples of this. Both of these campaigns are simply advertising and promoting libraries in general libraries. But true marketing encompasses a more holistic approach to getting the word out and measuring real results against goals. It includes real data driven and measureable activities. As written in “Investopedia; “The essential strategic components of a marketing effort are commonly called the four Ps: product, placement, promotion and price. Advertising, which is how a company communicates to prospective clients about the product or service, falls under the category of promotion.” And promotion is really the focus of most of the activities that our industry calls marketing.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with advertising our libraries. We should be doing everything we can to promote them. And, again, the advertising is “working” if our measurement of working is that people view libraries more favorably. It’s just failing if our measurement is that people are willing to pay the price for libraries through taxes and under any definition of the word, this more important measurement comes from true marketing.
And, of course, this typically isn’t the fault of the library staff. Libraries often do such a poor job marketing themselves that any kind of advertising or promotional activity is an improvement and will return some kind of result and lead library staff to falsely believe that they are great at marketing, go on and present at conferences, write books and articles, and continue the narrative in our profession that advertising is marketing.
Addressing this issue would take more time, energy, and space, than I’m willing to delve into in this blog post. However, I highly recommend looking outside of the library industry for guidance on understanding true marketing. Of course, I would also recommend my eCourse with ALA Editions where we dive deep into data driven and measureable results through proper communications and customer relations. But again, this is all taken from outside of the library industry.
The second issue, “Cultivate and Empower Super Supporters,” is exactly how political power is built and used although I would argue that it should read “Identify, Cultivate, and Empower Support Supporters.” This is advocacy beyond storytelling and requires significant time and energy on the part of the organizer and might better be described as activism. Notice also that there is nothing here to indicate a need for users. The word “supporters” in this recommendation is both important and intentional. The data from this report reinforce the argument that we have been making at EveryLibrary and that OCLC is making here, that library use does not at all equal to or correlate with library support. In fact, while we are running library campaigns, we see in poll after poll that library users are not more likely to vote yes or no for a ballot initiative or take action for libraries than non-users. As this study also showed, we have no real meaningful data point to use to identify which community members are likely to support libraries and which aren’t. This leads us to the difficulty of identifying library supporters in the community and if we can’t identify them then we can’t cultivate them, and if we can’t cultivate them then we can’t empower them.
That’s why one of the largest projects of EveryLibrary is identifying the people across the country who support libraries. We do this through a wide range of tactics. The most visible tactic is our use of Facebook and our one million Americans for libraries campaign. While this is only one of many tactics that we use, it is one that most people can quickly and easily understand and see in action. By taking the time to identify library supporters (or rather, allowing them to self-identify by liking our page) we are able to look at the data about who supports libraries through Facebook’s Audience Insights platform and then cultivate their support through targeting ads and messaging that tie libraries to the issues that they care about. This one tactic alone has been so effective that we regularly are able cultivate our followers and empower them to take action to support libraries that far exceed and return our expenses. For example, we were able to raise $6 for every dollar we spent in the few days after Trump announced his cuts to Federal Funding for libraries. We were also able to activate supporters into action for a few pennies per action. We were then able to use these donations for more expensive tactics later in the campaign when engagement significantly dropped and costs per action drastically increased as naturally happens with any social media activism activity. We were also able to capitalize on the thousands of early supporters by empowering them to continue to take actions on behalf of IMLS.
If we can continue this trend with an even larger audience of identified super supporters then we can empower these supporters to take larger actions for libraries and exercise real political power and pressure on our nation’s leaders. If we were able to reach one million self-identified supporters (as likes on Facebook, for example), then we could spend resources cultivating those individuals to become more entrenched super supporters who are more willing and likely to take action. That would mean that anytime there was a threat to libraries, we would be able to reach millions of like-minded Americans each week and encourage hundreds of thousands of them to take action such as signing petitions, contacting representatives, attending rallies, and making donations.
If we’re being honest, this isn’t a new or interesting concept. It is no different than tactics generally used by any large cause, candidate, or political organization. Using the NRA as an example, the reason that we are not able to pass gun laws in the United States is not because the majority of Americans are against gun restrictions but it is because there is a very radicalized minority of identified, cultivated, and empowered supporters who are very vocal and will take action through the drop of a single email or post on Facebook. There is no reason that we can’t do the same for education and libraries in this country and drive the legislative and policy changes we need to support our organizations. But this i
s only done through a very long and methodological process of identification, cultivation, and empowerment beyond storytelling and beyond simply using Facebook or putting up some billboards.
Again, this blog post is too short to detail this process. But, if you’re interested in learning, I have spent the last five years working with some of the best presidential campaigners, community organizers, and cause related organizations. I’m excited to bring back everything I’ve learned to libraries through my eCourse with ALA Editions. In this course I teach the basic theories and concepts that can be applied at libraries of any budget level or serving any community size. This process will also be detailed in our upcoming book from ALA Editions (title still under consideration) but we touch on it in Winning Elections and Influencing Politicians for Library Funding.
Nearly 90% of library funding is dependent on the will of local voters and local politicians. Understanding these power structures is essential so you can help influence these individuals to ensure continued funding for your institution.
That’s why I developed this twelve-week advanced eCourse, to provide you and your staff with the necessary information to understand these local power structures and get the tools you need to build support for your library. Through my experience at EveryLibrary, the nation’s first and only library advocacy Political Action Committee (PAC), I will share the secrets of major national PACs, campaign consultants, community organizers, and local and presidential campaigns that can help you build relationships to sustain or increase funding for your library. Whether you are a director in a major city or a librarian in a rural town, the theories and best practices taught in this course are scalable and can be implemented to enhance support and increase funding in your area.
After completing this course, you will be able to:
Identify and build large networks of library activists
Help raise money for your institution
Encourage community action to increase widespread support for your library.
Participants who complete this Advanced eCourse will receive a SJSU iSchool/ALA Publishing Advanced Certificate of Completion. This certificate will affirm your status as having completed all the steps of an Advanced eCourse on Winning Support and Influencing Communities for Library Funding and will provide proof of your participation that you can add to your resume.
Advanced eCourses—a format in which faculty from the SJSU iSchool will help you dig deep into cutting-edge topics during 12-week online courses, equipping you with potentially transformative knowledge and skills, and taking you from introductory through high-level content.
If you’re interested in this 12 week course designed for staff at all levels and for members of advocacy groups like associations, Friends, and Foundations, please visit the ALA Store here to register! Or, if you know of people who would benefit from this class, please feel free to forward this to them or share it on Social Media. We’ll be using the hashtag #libraryfunding for this course so you can also join in the conversation there!
Thank you for considering this course and I look forward to seeing you there!
It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone when I say that the political landscape in America has drastically changed. We have seen some of the wildest political rhetoric that we could imagine come from political pundits, politicians, our presidential candidates, and various media outlets. There are accusations of fundamental biases rooted in deep belief systems that are based on many of the fears of middle class Americans who have been left behind in the job market, Americans who feel threatened by outsiders, Americans who feel they are losing their familiar identities to anonymous and unknown forces. These fears are being capitalized upon by a multi-billion dollar political industry that is designed to exaggerate threats and use fear to win elections.
The most exaggerated of those fears that affect us, librarians, and our industry is a fear of government overreach and blaming taxation for a wide array of economic and social problems in the country. This fear didn’t spontaneously come about into being by itself. It was coldly cultivated with big data, polling, focus groups, targeted messaging, and the strategic radicalization of highly specific populations within our citizenry. These political groups have used this data to develop new sets of exclusionary languages that allow people of the same beliefs to communicate and understand each other. This has lead to the development of new political cultures within targeted demographics. These differentiating languages are one of the strongest walls against communication between differing political views. The language that is used is something that librarians, as government employees who are paid by taxes, must learn if they are to continue to serve their communities.
The problem is that it shouldn’t have to be librarians who are marketing and advertising the things that libraries are offering like databases and our various collections. The ones marketing their products to the public should be the ones selling those products to us. If some database company wants my library to buy their product, there should be a demand for their product. If nobody uses their latest proprietary database on the mating habits of the Great Spotted Alaskan Chinchilla, then my library just simply shouldn’t be buying it.
Why are librarians the one stuck paying for a product, and then having to pay to market that product to the people to make sure that demand is high enough to justify buying that product? Why do we have to do their work for them? This is not how it works with any other industry.
Here’s my analogy;
The mom and pop stores on the corner of my block carry all kinds of Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, whatever… But, not once have I ever seen an ad on FB, on TV, on the Radio, in the Newspaper from the corner store telling people how delicious Pepsi is. They might advertise that they have it, but they’d never advertise that anyone should drink it over anything else. You know why? Because Pepsi advertises that people should drink Pepsi, which makes people demand Pepsi, which is why stores offer Pepsi.
But in our case;
A database company sells their database to the library.
But that’s it! That’s all that happens! Then its up to the library to make sure anyone uses it or cares that the library is paying for it. The library has to convince the public that it’s a good product AND the library has to expend resources telling people that they library offers it. The library pays for the opportunity to offer a product nobody wants because the company that makes the product doesn’t spend any resources to tell people how great their product is. It’s as if libraries are paying twice for the product and being forced to do all the big vendor’s work for them as well.
But here’s something to think about.
If one of our database companies started using their money, not to advertise to librarians that they have the product, but to advertise to the people that there is a really great product offered at their local library, then the libraries would have to offer their product due to demand AND people would know that libraries are offering these products. Essentially, by advertising to the public about what their products are offering and how great they are and that they are available with a library card then more libraries would have to buy those databases due to increased demand and libraries would get more people to use their services. Because of this we will also get more engaged and educated library users and that translates into more library support which translates into more funding for libraries which in turn translates into more money for library vendors since more people will be demanding their databases.
What do you think? This was really just a quick and rough brainstorm that I had and it was too long for a tweet so I wrote a blog. Am I totally wrong on this idea? I’d love to know that I’m wrong.
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.
I spoke with Dustin Fife of Utah Library fame for his podcast and I spoke about what we can do to support school libraries, how we can win elections and ballot initiatives for public libraries, making libraries fun, and how we can all support each other.
I was speaking on behalf of EveryLibrary and the work we do as a political action committee that supports local ballot initiatives with training and resources pro-bono for libraries.
The most important thing you can do right now is get involved and sign a petition or pledge or, even better, contribute $5 a month to fight for libraries on our Action Page
Many libraries conduct traditional outreach like tables in front of Starbucks, storytimes at the local parks, or showing up at community meetings. These are great ways to get out of the library and into the community at large. But, what if we extended these traditional outreach programs into opportunities for networking with community leaders, politicians, professionals, and entrepreneurs? How would we develop relationships and what could we do with them?
While working for EveryLibrary on political campaigns for libraries I’ve noticed that the better connected a library is to these groups, the better funded they are, the better positioned they are to win their campaign, and the better supported they are in their community. Often, this level of influence in a community is due to only one or two well-connected employees. Typically, this is the library director or assistant director who has spent time and energy building relationships with city council members, attending Kiwanis or Rotary Club meetings, or some other social group. Through these relationships the library is able to gain access to grants and funding opportunities, or establish partnerships to provide bigger and better services, and enjoy the benefits of pro-library political climates. Also, by extending the sphere of influence of the library, there are simply more opportunities all around.
If your library doesn’t have a well-connected administrator, one of the ways to begin is to start providing more services to those with money and power and influence in their communities. Libraries do a good job providing and marketing their services to children, community members in need, the middle class, and many marginalized communities. These services are outstanding and terribly, and unfortunately, much needed across the country and in every town and city. But we also need to reach start-ups, entrepreneurs, unmarried men and women in their late 20s and early 30s, build relationships with local businesses, and maybe even create partnerships with other non-profits and influence politicians. Some people might argue that those people don’t need libraries, and that might be true, but I would argue that libraries need them. I would suggest that libraries need these kinds of community members in order to continue to have the resources and social capital we need to survive.
Because they don’t come into the library, and because we don’t always do a very good job doing outreach in their networks, many libraries might not know how to reach them. In fact, there are only a few ways to get into these networks. The most important and most impactful way is to show up and librarians should always show up. There are few places that librarians can show up, and I’ll just talk about two of them.
If there are any community meetings happening, a librarian should show up. These are opportunities to meet the influential people even if the community meeting has very little to do with the library. There are almost always a wide range of people who attend these meetings and many of the people who show up are the ones who are most committed to the community as well as many local politicians or people with political aspirations. These are some of the few people who actually show up to the city council meetings and speak on behalf of a local issue. The librarian can make many connections with the most politically active community members by showing up to these community meetings and introducing themselves, hearing about their issues, and discussing ways that the library aligns with their beliefs. The best part about working in a library is that there is almost always some way that the library aligns with every local issue even if it just providing books and collections that deal with that issue.
Besides community meetings there are almost always networking events and social engagements throughout the area or nearby. If you live in or near a larger city, one of my favorite networking events is called Network After Work and has large networking events happening across the country at very low prices. I always tried to attend as many as I could or send my librarians to the ones happening nearby. If you don’t have a Networking After Work nearby, try looking for events on Facebook, Meetup.com, or even Craigslist. These kinds of events are filled with people working in start-ups, entrepreneurs, bankers, and new or early professionals who want to work on projects. One of the big things I always came away with where a handful of cards of people who wanted to do something in the library like debut their documentary, host a financial literacy fair, or provide some other program. But, the most important outcome was the opportunity to talk about the services that the library can provide to these kinds of individuals who don’t usually use the library as well as find people who want to help the library through donations, volunteerism, or other engagement like speaking or writing in support of the library when you need them to.
My biggest issue is that I’m an introvert. This is something that I wanted to be able to work around so I have spent a lot of time learning how to be social in these situations and I’ve spoken and written about how to fake being an extrovert until you get the hang of it. You can watch the talk in the video below.
The weekend before Thanksgiving I gave a series of talks at the Arizona Library Association Conference where I talked about partying hard and making it happen in a professional context. As many of you might know, this is the Mantra of ALA Think Tank which is the largest online network of librarians in the world. The opening keynote was entitled Party Hard and I spoke about how to take advantage of professional and social functions to make connections that will benefit you, your library, and your career. In the closing Keynote I spoke about how to take advantage of these connections and make it happen in order to accomplish even more for your communities. AZLA was kind enough to record the sessions and I am making them available here. The slidedecks for these presentations are available on Slideshare here.