Grassroots Advocacy: Tips and Ideas

Betsy Blankenship, OSU Marion with contributions from Eboni Johnson, Oberlin College

I attended the ALA webinar “Introducing Grassroots Library Advocacy” on August 2 and thought I would share some of what I learned in the session. The panelists were Lauren Comito, Outreach Librarian for Queens Library; Aliqae Geraci, Industrial and Labor Relations Research Librarian at Cornell University and Christian Zabriskie, Assistant Coordinator of Young Adult Services for Queens Library. They founded Save NYC Libraries ( and are the leadership for Urban Librarians Unite. Over 245 attended the webinar at some point; they came from all over the United States and beyond; ALAO member Eboni Johnson from Oberlin attended, too.
The message was largely geared toward public library funding situations and I found it somewhat challenging to see how it would apply in an academic library setting. I did record some of their ideas and processes and thought someone might be interested in them.
Many funding problems usually result from an economic change, with services and staffing often becoming the first areas to be cut or reduced in a library budget. Library workers who desire to preserve services and staff or minimize cuts often develop some sort of advocacy campaign to gather support and get the message out. In order to be an effective advocate and run a successful campaign, one should consider the following:

  • Strategy: Outthink your opponents, make the best use of your available resources, remember your end goals, understand key stakeholders and decision-makers, know your budget structure (i.e. who assigns your budget monies) and think of your target audience(s) – who influences them and who can you mobilize to help you.
  • Message: What do you need to say? How do you need to say it? What tone to use? What tools to use? Once you get your message, repeat it over and over. Consider your organization’s unique politics as you decide on the tone of your message, and be willing to change the tone, to match your audiences (i.e., the tone of the message going out to library patrons and supporters may be different from the tone used to reach government officials).
  • Tools: Use any tools you can, both social and traditional. Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, websites, blogs, etc. as well as email, newsletters, a professional marketing service, etc. Also, think about using radio and television outlets if you can (more on this below). Use the tools to corral support, provide information to supporters and volunteers, and document what you are doing.
  • Getting People on Board: Put out the call. Once you have volunteers, give them something to do – make it real and fun. You will help build leaders by sharing the important tasks. Play nice when dealing with conflict; how you deal will the conflict will influence your ability to attract & retain volunteers. Think of who could be a volunteer and/ or a supporter – library workers, community, schools, PTA’s, clubs, organizations, etc. Be aware of pre-existing institutional campaigns – don’t compete. Also, understand people limitations – some cannot advocate at work, some may not be able to work at certain times, etc. Be sure to give the volunteers the resources they need to be most effective for your cause.
  • Internet Outreach: Again, it is useful to inform, recognize, provide, etc. for media, volunteers and the general public. Make sure you have a website and it has a media page on it. Use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc . Live stream events if possible and post them (use the tools that your community uses — if they use Twitter more than Facebook, then concentrate more there).
  • Building & Maintaining External Relationships: Who are your allies, who can be your partners? State groups and organizations, special groups such as Law associations, the State Library, anything with library in their name might be a possibility. Think of multilingual groups, churches, etc. To get their support, be clear in what you want them to do for you – provide volunteers, do interviews, give testimonies, donate money, etc. And remember, to get support, you should consider supporting their activities if at all possible.
  • Getting the Message Out: Don’t forget the traditional media – newspapers, radio, television, etc. Write up press releases and send to your media contacts; cultivate relationships with people on staff who have supported or written about libraries in the past. Do something unusual to get noticed – big attention grabbing actions let you be heard over the “noise” of other city activities.
  • Tried and True Methods: Be official; be prepared – cross your T’s and dot your I’s. If you are planning an event, be sure to keep it legal and safe. Get the proper permits needed; check with the local authorities, check local laws, etc. It’s about respect and building a culture of respect with the community.
  • Getting Funded: Funding might come from various avenues; be clear about what you are asking money for and make it easy for folks to donate.

Eboni shared some of her thoughts with me about the webinar, too. She agreed that it was difficult to see how these ideas would work in an academic library setting. “What I did like, though, was Save NYC Libraries’ book seeding campaign to get your message out to supporters who may not be frequent library users but who might still be affected by budget cuts or whatever is the issue at stake.” The book seeding campaign was essentially a distribution of about 1,500 free books around the city, each of which had a large sticker on the cover stating the issue and included a QR code to an online petition that people could sign. This campaign was meant to raise awareness in the community about budget cuts and how the libraries would be affected. Here’s what the books look like:

Lauren Comito, used with permission

Eboni was also “glad that the presenters mentioned the importance of doing your homework and understanding stakeholders and decision-makers when planning a campaign, and then crafting your message accordingly. That step takes work and time but will be incredibly valuable in helping library advocates create the right message with the right tone … and making sure it’s directed to the right people.” We both feel that there were some good ideas discussed and hope that someone can benefit from the information.
If you enjoyed this advocacy article, ALAO is looking for an awesome person to join our board and head up our Government Relations team! If you are passionate about libraries, have a desire to represent libraries and library interests and inform your colleagues about government legislation and activities that could affect them, then we need you!! For more information or to volunteer, contact ALAO President Sue Polanka at

This entry was posted in Vol. 30 no. 3 (Sept. 2012). Bookmark the permalink.

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