What would a Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton presidency mean for public libraries in America? That question will understandably be on the lips of many library advocates as the 2016 presidential election enters the homestretch. But in fact, 90% of the tax revenue that supports libraries is appropriated and collected at the local level—often within single zip codes, notes John Chrastka, founder and executive director of the library advocacy group EveryLibrary.
Launched in 2012, EveryLibrary is the first and only national organization dedicated to campaigning for library funding at the local level. In its first year, using a Kickstarter-like fund-raising model, EveryLibrary raised close to $50,000 in small donations. And, by February of 2013, the group had notched its first campaign win: a $1.6 million special levy for the Spokane Public Library.
Since then, EveryLibrary has helped support 37 local campaigns, with an impressive 28 wins. Over the past four years, EveryLibrary campaigns have helped libraries of all types secure more than $100 million in local library funding. Chrastka says EveryLibrary’s goal is straightforward: to harness the power of library supporters nationwide to “extract the best outcome” from the many initiatives voted on every year in local library districts.
How It Works
Though national political races focus on Republicans and Democrats, it really doesn’t matter whether a municipality, county, or state is red or blue, Chrastka says. EveryLibrary is strictly nonpartisan. What matters, he explains, is reaching those in the community who may believe that “any tax is a bad tax.”
Because EveryLibrary is set up as a 501(c)(4), it can engage in direct voter advocacy and can spend money and resources influencing politics beyond simple lobbying. And, as noted on the EveryLibrary website, the group can and does “spend money and resources directly influencing elections.” But rather than lobby legislators, at the core of EveryLibrary’s strategy, Chrastka says, is having as many conversations as possible directly with voters, to inform them about what a properly supported library can mean for their community. “We lobby the public,” he notes.
For example, in 2014, EveryLibrary worked with citizens in Miami-Dade County to restore library funding after deep cuts were proposed by local politicians. Throughout the campaign, EveryLibrary did not have a single meeting with any local politician, Chrastka says. Rather, over a period of nine months, the group helped build a coalition of local library supporters that succeeded in reversing the proposed cuts and eventually secured approximately $8 million in additional library funding.
With 37 campaigns now under EveryLibrary’s belt, Chrastka says two keys to success have emerged. The first is to have conversations with voters not only about plan A—that is, what they can expect from passing a library initiative—but also about plan B: What happens if an initiative fails? What does the community lose? “The voters really want to know what the difference is between more money, less money, or the same amount of money,” he says. “Because, if we don’t tell them the roof is leaking, there’s no impetus to fix it.”
Chrastka says the other key element is that people are eager for more contact with library staff. “The public wants to see librarians more, and by librarians, I mean anyone who works in the library—not just the M.L.S. holders.” He says the data show that more contact with library staff leads to better outcomes for library initiatives at the ballot box. “To that end, we do a lot of training for the librarian as candidate,” Chrastka says, “because you are the candidate, whether you want to be or not.”
You Can’t Win ‘em All
Having to go with plan B, of course, is never easy. “Heartbreaking” is how Chrastka described the recent loss of a $12 million building bond for two new libraries in Meridian, Idaho, the fastest growing city in the state. Two factors worked against the library measure, Chrastka says. First, the tea party came in near the very end of the campaign with an antitax direct-mail campaign. And, second, in order to pass, the measure required a two-thirds approval—so even with an impressive 59% vote in favor of the library initiative, it fell short.
But there have been more good days than bad for EveryLibrary. Just over a year ago, on May 2, 2015, the New Orleans Public Library was on the ballot for the first time post-Katrina, with voters considering a $9.7 million annual mill levy to fund the 14-branch system, and to reopen a 15th location with additional funding from FEMA. The measure passed overwhelmingly.
“I’m very proud of our work in New Orleans,” Chrastka says, adding that the win took a lot of work, and was far from a slam dunk. Over a period of 15 months, New Orleans Public Library executive director Charles Brown and his team, with coaching and training from EveryLibrary, initiated a whopping 2,682 community conversations, as librarians and supporters fanned out neighborhood by neighborhood to engage citizens, organizations, educators, businesses, and other stakeholders.
“These conversations are what drove a 75% yes vote,” Chrastka says, with understandable pride. “And what drove the success of this very active, robust campaign was the librarians who were out there telling the truth about what library funding does.”
Chrastka is also happy to talk about a recent $30,000 mill levy for the Darby Public Library, in Montana. The win may have been significantly smaller in scale than the referendum in New Orleans (Darby has a population of about 2,500), but it was just as huge for local residents—and for validating for EveryLibrary’s model of voter engagement.
“There was nobody in Darby who didn’t know what happens if the initiative passed, or if it failed,” Chrastka says. “And, there is nobody in Darby who didn’t meet the person who will be spending his or her money.”
Have a local initiative on tap, or just want to support libraries? Check out the EveryLibrary website.
EveryLibrary at ALA
If the success of EveryLibrary has you reaching into your pocket, there are two opportunities to help at this year’s ALA conference. EveryLibrary is hosting two fund-raisers: one for the group itself, and one for the Cynthia Graham Hurd Foundation for Literacy & Civic Engagement. All are welcome.
Friday, June 23, 8 p.m.–12 a.m., at B.B. King’s Blues Club. Tickets are $40 in advance, $50 at the door.
Librarian Cynthia Graham Hurd was one of the nine victims fatally shot at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, S.C., last year, just blocks from the Main Library of the Charleston County Public Library. Her family has established the foundation in her memory with the hope of turning grief into action that benefits the entire community. Sponsored by Brainfuse, and cohosted by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA).
EveryLibrary Fundraiser (in partnership with JSTOR)
Friday, June 24, 8 p.m.–12 a.m., at Howl at the Moon. Tickets are $50 at door.