How to Advocate for Closing the Library

For library workers who are working to convince local governments to close the libraries and continue to pay staff during the COVID-19 pandemic, the best bet is to discuss the issue with their union. For those without a union, here are some advocacy ideas for convincing decision makers to close the library during the pandemic and support the staff.

Library closed COVID-19 signIn an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, many organizations have pushed for closing their doors to the public and sending employees to work from home. A significant number of libraries have closed their doors to the public and encouraged, or required, staff to work from home as well. In some places, however, local governments have decided to keep their local library open and have staff continue to serve the public. This puts both the community and the staff at risk of exposure and could help to continue the spread the virus. Even when the public is excluded, if staff must work on-site, exposure to one another and, for some, to other commuters on public transit is still risky. And a few libraries have closed completely but laid off staff, leaving them without financial support at a time of suddenly extremely high unemployment.

For library workers who are working to convince local governments to close the libraries and continue to pay staff, the best bet is to discuss the issue with their union. Unfortunately, many librarians are working without a strong union behind them. For those in that position, here are some advocacy ideas for convincing decision makers to close the library during the pandemic and support the staff.

Approaching this issue as an advocacy campaign means beginning with good data and an understanding of the environment you’re working in. Start with researching any legal implications of closing your library, and how staff could be paid if the library were to be closed. Consult a legal expert. Are there policies that designate the library as some kind of safe space or disaster relief area that make it legally difficult to close the library? If the library closes, is it possible for staff to continue their work from home, if necessary? Be prepared with answers to these questions.

Of course, you will also need to be prepared with up-to-date information on COVID-19—consult a medical expert—and be ready to talk with officials who may not be similarly informed already. In some communities, members of the local government that controls the library might think that the virus is simply like having a cold or the flu, and that people are being overzealous in their calls for closure. Work your networks to understand whether this is the case, and who the key power-holders are.

A clear understanding of who the decision makers are will let you know who you’re lobbying and make sure that you’re applying pressure to the right person, organization, or government division. It allows you to answer key questions about who and how to lobby. Do you have to fight a legal battle or a battle of misinformation or stakeholder education? Does the decision-making process occur with the administration or the local government, or does the power lie within the board of trustees, a local council, or another governing body?

We need to know as much as possible about the power-holders. Does the power-structure yield to public pressure or financial pressure? Will they respond to media attention, or do they distrust the media? Does placing pressure on these governing boards create or alleviate pressure in other areas of library funding, or put future or long-term funding or staff employment in jeopardy? Do the power-holders respond to data or stories? Finally, and maybe most importantly, why do they want to keep the library open?

With answers to those questions, inventory the tools and resources you have as campaigners. Be cautious using library funds and resources for a closure campaign or doing this work during your paid time. In many cases, this might have sticky legal implications. You probably won’t have library resources available to you for this kind of advocacy and will probably need to largely work from your personal funds and time.  Do you have access to email lists of community members? Do you know local members of the media? Who are your potential partners? Do those partners have connections with the power structures you need to influence? Do you have access to tools like petitions, surveys, mass email, or letters to the editor? Do you have any funding for things like digital ads or legal advice?

If you personally have a large emailable list of community members (keep in mind, it might not be legal or ethical to use your ILS data or library’s email list) or a large local following on your personal social media, you might be able to make a petition successful. If you don’t have access to lists of people who can be activated for action, you would need to spend money to reach your community through digital ads or local media. If your local governance doesn’t “believe” in COVID-19 then you need to target and educate the public and the local voters who specifically support those officials about the real dangers of the pandemic and ask them to contact the officials.

This doesn’t always mean that you need a large and public campaign. In fact, about 30 percent of EveryLibrary’s campaigns go unseen simply because a big noisy campaign would disrupt the process and ruin the campaign itself. Instead, sometimes, all it takes is a well-placed call to one of the elected officials’ largest campaign contributors, a frank discussion with their party leadership, or even a nice chat with the friends, family, or spouse of decision makers. You have to do your research to find the right pressure point.

No matter what strategy you take, the critical thing to remember is that you must place the right kind of pressure on the right people at the right time. You can only do that by understanding the environment that you’re campaigning in. No matter which strategy or tactic you use, remember that at some point, the library will re-open and you will most likely have to work with the individuals or organizations that you organized against. Oftentimes they hold the purse strings for library funding, so be sure to navigate your campaign strategically and intelligently.

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