Why Advocacy Matters for Public Libraries

5 min read

Posted on May 31, 2016

By Rhonda Sewell 

Long gone is the notion of public libraries lingering in the shadows and doing little to advocate their value to their communities and promote their many offerings, programs, and activities. Advocacy and unapologetic promotion of our transformative systems is now a major priority. Such ideas hold a sacred place in our discussions surrounding public service, strategic goals, funding, construction, marketing, and digital implementation for libraries. Even the Twittersphere of endless hashtags has transitioned from reading sentiments to action items and rallying statements such as #LibrariesMatter, #LibrariesTransform, and #SaveOurLibraries.

Because doing more with less is a reality for public libraries, especially as competition for funding sources and customer demands increases, advocacy matters now more than ever.  “Advocacy, the process of acting on behalf of the public library to increase public funds and ensure that it has the resources needed to be up to date, is critical to the success of libraries,” states the Public Library Association (PLA)[i].

In recent years, the Toledo Lucas County Public Library has created new staff roles that include an advocacy bent. Recently added system job titles now cover community initiatives and partnerships, and external and governmental affairs. These positions were developed to support the continuation of a strong, community-focused system, now more than 175 years old, via local, state, and federal partnerships.

Central Court PeopleThese new advocacy positions also are important in discussions surrounding funding issues for the public library. For example, the public library industry has never before seen such a major need for advocacy on library ballot measures. According to John Chrastka and Rachel Korman in their February 2016 Library Journal article, “More than 1.1 million voters showed up at the polls in 2015 to decide on tax measures for their libraries. Just over 650,000 people voted yes and nearly 470,000 voted no.” While voter turnout appears great on the surface, library advocacy is needed to combat what the article described as “significant local and statewide opposition” to library-related funding.

Understanding voter behaviors, partnership attitudes, and the position of legislators are vital parts of the new advocacy discussion that libraries must promote in order to be successful. For example, one of the key strategies for success that came out of the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries report Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries (2015) was the need to “Cultivate leadership.” Other strategies involve community vision, strategy, and input from all stakeholder groups[iv].

Some of the steps to achieving such goals include these key advocacy components: “improving communications with community leaders, developing community champions, strengthening intersections with diverse communities and communities of color, reaching out to and engaging with young-professional organizations, and demonstrating the collective impact of partners working together.” The report’s conclusion stated that if we are truly attempting to “re-envision” public libraries, we must advocate for ourselves, implement these key goals, and recognize that we are at the forefront of institutions that really can create these platforms and meet community challenges.

An emphasis on advocacy and strategy is a priority of the Toledo Lucas County Public Library. After working for about a decade for my system in marketing and media relations, I was promoted to a new role in library external and governmental affairs. As part of this position, I advocate on behalf of my library system with key stakeholders and legislators. This role aligns with a new Strategic Plan 2016/2020 that includes the need to “Strengthen Our Community Engagement.”[v] Not only are my system’s officials attempting to strengthen relationships between staff and , but our administration, board of trustees, volunteer organizations (e.g., Friends of the Library), and staff understand that facilitating connections, touting our offerings, and, yes, seeking vital dollars to support life-transforming initiatives are essential to our survival.MainLibrary

Traditionally, the Toledo Lucas County Public Library system has connected well with legislators at the local, state, and federal level on partnership initiatives, grants, and more. But today’s funding quandaries create a stronger need to advocate showcasing our value and economic benefit.

As our Strategic Plan states, we must work like never before to facilitate connections of “mutually supportive partnerships that support our ability to meet community needs.” This includes having a seat at the table, going for much-needed dollars, and touting our value. Recently, my system released a Return on Investment Study done by Howard Fleeter & Associates which revealed that for every tax dollar invested into the library, customers get an economic value of nearly $4. The outcome might be closer to nearly $5 if a more aggressive methodology was used, according to Dr. Fleeter [iii].

I am honored to work and advocate on behalf of a $37 million countywide system with nearly 20 locations (a new King Road Branch is under construction), a five-vehicle strong mobile outreach fleet, and a Mobile Technology Center that addresses the digital divide in high-need areas. Working to advocate on behalf of my system helps to preserve the best of the library’s past, recognize the challenges of the present, and best prepare ourselves, along with the residents of Toledo and Lucas County, for the future.


[i] “Advocacy.” American Library Association. Web. 26 May 2016. <http://www.ala.org/pla/advocacy>

[ii] “Constant Campaign | Budgets & Funding.” Library Journal. Web. 26 May 2016. <http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2016/02/budgets-funding/constant-campaign-budgets-funding/>.

[iii] “Return on Investment Analysis of Toledo County Public Library”. Howard Fleeter & Associates. April 2016. Web. 26 May 2016. <http://www.toledolibrary.org/uploads/pdfs/Fleeter-ROI-STUDY.pdf>

[iv] Rising to the Challenge: Re-envisioning Public Libraries.” The Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program. Web. 26 May 2016. <http://www.aspeninstitute.org/sites/default/files/content/docs/pubs/AspenLibrariesReport.pdf>

[v]“Toledo Lucas County Public Library Strategic Plan 2016/2020, Toledo Lucas County Public Library.”<http://www.toledolibrary.org/uploads/pdfs/StratPlan_FINAL_sm.pdf>



Traci J. Cothran

About the Author

Rhonda is the External and Governmental Affairs Manager at the Toledo Lucas County Public Library.


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