When Siobhan Reardon became President and Director of the Free Library of Philadelphia in 2008, she asked Sara Moran, her Chief of Staff then and Vice-President of Strategic Initiatives now, to manage government affairs and launch a legislative advocacy campaign. Sara Moran took on the challenge and still maintains her advocacy relationships, and I have been continuously impressed with her expertise, ability, and positive attitude. Some activities are ongoing, some annual, and some just when the time is right! Recently, I asked Sara about this initiative and her experiences.
Can you give us an overview of your advocacy work?
We approach local and state advocacy work with the overarching idea to make it as easy as possible for legislators and politicians to participate and stay involved. We regularly visit legislators in session and we are in frequent contact with local offices. We send them information and photos that legislators can use in their own social media and press releases. We try to create positive media opportunities for them. Our focus is to demonstrate that we are good stewards of public funds and to highlight the impact of the library on the lives of their constituents.
What are some specific activities that have been most successful?
As soon as someone is elected, we reach out to establish an ongoing relationship. Legislators may use branch libraries as temporary offices while they search for a local home base. The legislators and visiting constituents get to know the library and experience its value in the community (not just book check outs!). An activity we implemented, but with less guaranteed success, is a breakfast or lunch at the Central Library for all new legislators
We all know politicians love photos and press coverage so activities often highlight these opportunities. City Councilpersons and legislators, complete with hard hats, are invited to tour library renovation sites and, on site, they present over-sized checks representing their governmental contribution.
Photos of politicians participating in a children’s program are another media opportunity. The library’s photographer also captures the event, and we guarantee visibility by pushing out the photos on the library’s social media! Connecting children, library information, and politicians, local libraries encourage children to write to their City Councilperson and legislator about library news and special programs. Politicians love to quote these letters in their own social media and press materials!
What are some advocacy tips and techniques that you’ve developed over time?
• Finding the right contact person and the best email address is worth the time and effort. Communicating directly with a staff person ensures the legislator will get the message. On line contact forms rarely get useful responses.
• Determining the special interests of each legislator (autism, community schools, preschool children) bears results. Targeting communication leads to greater responses and engagement.
• Being courteous and considerate always is appreciated. A quick email will let the legislators know when their local libraries need to close for an emergency or long term. And put a positive spin on the benefits of the new roof or heating upgrade!
• Don’t forget to include appointed officials – Secretary of Education, City Manager – in your advocacy work.
• Make sure all the legislators, officials, local politicians (up and coming ones too), and staff are on the library’s mailing and social media lists.
• Keep relationships strong with ongoing and consistent contact. When library staff change positions, they maintain their relationships and bring others into the conversation.
What’s next for the Free Library of Philadelphia’s advocacy work?
We will be expanding our work with legislators by encouraging the local librarians to initiate visits and relationships too. We have realized that everyone – all staff and Board members – have a part to play in advocacy. We recognize that advocacy is not a once a year activity – it is essential for successful public library service today and in the future.
***Hedra Packman is a member of the ALSC Advocacy and Legislation Committee and a Library and Literacy Consultant in Philadelphia PA.