How Teamwork Busts the Three Biggest Myths About Library Advocacy

Stephen Wyber /

Originally published January 12, 2021 in OCLC's Next blog, written by Stephen Wyber, Manager, Policy and Advocacy, International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions

Many people associate advocacy with lobbying—a full-time job in which one cultivates personal relationships with lawmakers and officials to make or defend key lines in laws, regulations, budgets, and other decisions.

To many who work in libraries, this can seem daunting. However, as is usually the case with stereotypes, this one is far from accurate. I’d like to make the case that there are three “big myths” about library advocacy that you need to jettison right now.

This matters, because in reality, budget increases and policy changes are usually the end product of a long process of changing minds and attitudes that starts well away from national legislatures, county councils, or town halls. These earlier steps require teamwork, and can rely on efforts made by all types of library workers with a variety of skills and interests to contribute. By understanding how you can contribute, you can start advocating for your library—and all libraries—today and every day.

Myth one: Advocacy is just about lobbying

First of all, to be clear, lobbying is part of success. It is important to have personal relationships with lawmakers and officials in order to be able to make—or defend—key lines in laws, regulations, budgets, and other decisions. An insider’s knowledge of the policy process and of the people who make it work will help.

But it is only part of success. Changing minds and attitudes among decision-makers starts well away from town halls, county councils, or national legislatures. Successful advocacy is the result of a much wider—and longer-term—effort to win people over through showing what libraries can do and why our institutions need to be supported at all levels. This also represents a natural strength of libraries: by being present in every town and working directly with people, we are well placed to carry out this sort of work.

Myth two: Library advocacy is a full-time job

You do not need formal training or to dedicate many hours a week to contribute. Clearly, there is a pay-off from a greater investment of time—this is why we have associations with people responsible for running campaigns. However, as underlined, there is something powerful about advocacy carried out by people who are also engaged in delivering services at the local level, which gives libraries an added legitimacy and power.

Contributions to this can come in many forms. One of the most effective ways to change the minds of decision-makers is to shape the views of those who influence them: voters, journalists, commentators, even their friends and families.

Working at a grassroots level, convincing one person at a time of the need for adequately supported libraries, is vital. Other contributions can include the gathering and presentation of stories and other evidence, monitoring developments in the places where decisions are taken, or using social media or design skills.

All of this work can be broken down into short investments of time and effort that will fit into a busy schedule. IFLA created a set of fifty 10-Minute Library Advocate activities that you can share with your staff.

Myth three: Some people are simply not good advocates

100% wrong. So wrong. So super, extra, ultra, very wrong. Advocacy is about much more than being able to know your way around a town hall, parliament, national assembly, or congress. Being a successful advocate relies on a wide range of actions and skill sets.

There is as much place for someone who is great at collecting stories, examples, or data as there is for an extrovert who feels comfortable on the stage at a public meeting. In a world of social media, being an effective writer or designer can count for as much as great interpersonal skills. We also need people who can build networks and support in communities just as much as we need those who can follow and understand legal processes. Every library worker and supporter will have some particular strength to contribute for an effective campaign. Everyone can and should play a role.

If you’ve got two minutes, I recommend that you take this quick Library Advocacy Personality Quizand share it with your staff. It’s an entertaining and easy way to introduce the concepts of advocacy types. And it can act as a bridge to more formal conversations about what roles people in your organization can play to help advocate for the library. (And all libraries!)

Moving forward together

The next step, of course, is to think about how you and those around you (staff, volunteers, board members) can bring your strengths together. As noted above, an effective campaign needs a combination of skills.

Once you’ve identified your particular advocacy type, and those on your team, you may need to fill in some gaps, do some training, look outside for consultants, or even take a moment and decide, at a fundamental level, where it’s actually realistic to begin.

The moral to the story is … don’t let myths about library advocacy keep you from getting started and getting excited. And we should all work together to help every library survive and thrive.

In addition to the Library Advocacy Personality Quiz mentioned by Stephen, here are some resources at WebJunction to help with your advocacy efforts: