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Public Library Advocacy: An Evidence-Based Perspective on Sustainable Funding

by Cheryl Stenstrom & Ken Haycock on September 14, 2015

A new evidence-based perspective on evaluating the advocacy efforts of public libraries is being developed. By drawing on research from other disciplines and the latest studies on libraries, a set of advocacy best practices is emerging. Findings show that building strong relationships with funding decision-makers and other related tactics of interpersonal influence could be important advocacy tools.

Discussions about flat or declining funding have become the “new normal” in public libraries. As little as a decade ago, senior library professionals spent much of their time concerned with finding new money and increasing funding; in the last few years these efforts have been replaced with ongoing attempts to retain as much funding as the year before. Since the latest recession started, more than half of the public libraries in the United States (approximately 57 percent) have experienced decreased or flat funding.1 A heightened interest in developing advocacy campaigns has been one response taken by many libraries. Campaign goals may vary somewhat from library to library, but at their root they are most often designed to sway the opinions of those holding the purse strings and convince them that public libraries are a valuable enough part of their community that they should be adequately funded. While the idea of developing and implementing advocacy campaigns is not new to the work of public librarians, the current financial situation suggests it may be time to become more strategic through the use of evidence.

There are few evidence-based studies focusing on the request and approval process for public library budgets, though the work done in other disciplines can help to reframe these studies as well as to strengthen the findings and conclusions. New research is being undertaken that considers a systematic approach to the techniques that are most effective in positively influencing those making decisions about public library funding. Drawing on the evidence from other disciplines, a growing body of work is being developed that looks at the applicability of these approaches in the library context. To date, it has been shown that different strategies and approaches are not only relevant but perhaps even more effective.

Taking Stock

Too often advocacy campaigns are developed as a reaction to the threat of a funding decrease, or indeed, after reduced financial support has been shown by local and state funding bodies.2 Faced with a cut, it is common for library supporters to feel threatened so their reactions are frequently characterized by a tone of outrage and protest. In a few instances, the results have softened the blow but large-scale efforts in mobilizing angry patrons rarely result in a full reversal of the decision, and likely make any future negotiations even more tense.

This should come as no surprise since studies in the field of public administration have demonstrated that “case studies [of pressure groups] teach us . . . that the most successful groups are those that know whom to talk to—and when—and are able to communicate in a bureaucratic fashion, with briefs, working papers, and professional consultations, rather than with placards and demonstrations.”3 Certainly this idea corresponds well with familiar definitions of advocacy in public libraries: “Advocacy is planned, deliberate, sustained effort to develop understanding and support incrementally over time.”4

Widespread letter-writing campaigns instigated by the library community and directed at elected officials seem to have little effect on final budget decisions, yet these grassroots campaigns are often suggested by library professionals as a preferred method of opening discussions with politicians about public library budgets.5 It is so much easier to be indignant than develop positive relationships over time. While it can be very tempting to “rally the troops” in times of threat, previous research has shown patrons as a group are able to exercise almost no influence on the local annual budget process,6 and the theory of public choice has shown increased use does not correlate to increased funding.7 Tilting at the windmill of increased use during economic recession is a non-starter yet it is our constant fallback position for advocacy. Further, studies have confirmed the role that library board members, and by extension, the director, play in the local political process and resulting budget deliberations has been minimal; generally library trustees have been inactive politically, but increasing activity in the local political process has not correlated to increased funding8 without preexisting relationships and connections.

Despite the variables political conditions bring to the current environment, governments in regions with a history of strong funding relative to others have generally continued this trend. Libraries that have received relatively higher levels of funding in the past may continue to enjoy this benefit,9 as well those located in areas with higher levels of educational attainment.10 Both budgetary incrementalism11 and community and country-wide local socioeconomic conditions provide some explanations for these contexts.

Few library advocacy campaigns are measured in terms of results. Greater attention needs to be paid here. Several reports of “successful” campaigns (in essence it was done and the proponents felt good about it) did not result in increased or even stable funding.

Where To From Here?

Ultimately the goal of advocacy efforts should be to develop an environment in which libraries can operate without these threats of funding decreases or spend precious time reacting to cuts. Working over time to create an understanding of the value of public libraries should help those making funding decisions promote public libraries in a favorable light when engaged in budget discussions, and agree that adequate funding should be given. Studies relevant to this question touch on a variety of topics, and include budget theory, decision-making, networking, and, most importantly, influence.

Through examining the budget setting process in local and state governments, it is apparent that senior bureaucrats, elected officials and interest groups can all be engaged in budget requests.12 Librarians and trustees must build positive relationships with those setting funding levels, but recognize that administrative staff, budget committee members, and elected officials remain the most prominent players in the process, and therefore, the most influential in funding and budget decisions.13 It is important for library stakeholders to put themselves in the shoes of those decision makers. From this perspective, advocates need to first understand that internal decision-making processes tend to be more important than external pressure. Consider these facts:

  • Previous knowledge and experience completes the picture for a decision maker. Knowledge needs to be built through positive experiences.
  • Often a decision maker has no experience or context.
  • Credibility is also a key factor in the decision-making process.14

Examples of strong perceptions of librarians’ credibility in the advocacy process should be considered. The development of strong relationships with local politicians and agreement with state library counterparts can increase credibility15 and those decision makers with contemporary, positive relationships with librarians are able to rely on more accurate images and perceptions to inform their decisions.

The presence of an existing relationship between library stakeholders and decision makers strengthens the chances that information critical to understanding the case for supporting libraries can be effectively conveyed.16 The deep bodies of literature in the fields of public administration and social psychology can help to further understanding of networking and the specific role that interpersonal influence can play in decision-making. The importance has been shown repeatedly of senior administrators, in both governmental agencies and their related counterparts, working strategically to exploit internal and external networks to achieve positive outcomes.17

The Six Principles of Influence and the Emergence of a Set of Best Practices

It may useful in considering the previously presented evidence to apply the framework of influence developed by Robert Cialdini.18 This framework is suitable for examining decision making in libraries because it allows to look at upward influence, i.e., when making requests to those in power. Here are brief descriptions of Cialdini’s six tactics.

  1. Authority can refer both to legitimate authority, that is, when an agent (advocate) has hierarchical or organizational power over a target (decision maker); or authority of expertise. When making an appeal, those who are perceived to have genuine knowledge, or the reputation as having genuine knowledge, may be able to make more persuasive arguments. Authority is also conveyed through dress, manner, perceived professionalism, and crossover expertise such as the police chief advocating for libraries and literacy to reduce crime.
  2. Consistency and commitment relate to a target’s need to carry through on either previous statements/promises, or actions that appear consistent with their values, statements, public beliefs, and so forth. An example of a public belief may be a party-wide campaign promise on which individual cabinet members and representatives act. A target’s strongly held value for public services and literacy will make libraries an easier consideration than an overriding value of reduced government and self-sufficiency.
  3. Liking reflects both the popular definition of the term—a mutual affinity between the target and agent—but may also encompass aspects of the mere exposure theory. In other words, a target may be more likely to feel positively toward an agent upon multiple introductions and interactions. The mere exposure theory further supports the notion that one may find an object or person more attractive as they become more familiar it. Both of these attributes can have a positive effect on influencing the target. The importance of networking and even just “showing up” cannot be overstated. Not only must the target like you, or at least recognize you, he or she must believe that you like them. An annual “leg-day” just doesn’t cut it as sufficient activity.
  4. Reciprocity reflects exchange theory and supports the notion that targets are more willing to comply with requests if the agent has had a prior exchange with the target. This can include examples such as favours, gifts, advice giving, and so forth. Surprisingly, Cialdini asserts that an agent may be more successful in influencing a target even if the favour was received by the agent, rather than given by him or her. Serving city hall, its senior staff, and elected council members, as one market or constituency, can pay dividends.
  5. Scarcity refers to the possible lack of availability of an object or service. An everyday example could include the retail sales pitch cliché of “Buy now! They won’t last at this price!” In the context of libraries, services that may be seen as valuable and hard to obtain are seen to be scarce, and therefore, may be “sold” to funders on that basis. Stressing “free” hinders scarcity, and the information marketplace is very crowded. Scarcity might be better served by repositioning (as in transformation, learning and/or community development) and stressing the scarcity of the expertise of the professional librarian, as long as it is indeed unique and scarce.
  6. Social proof is the reflection of a decision maker to act in accordance with peers or otherwise accordingly in situations where one option is clearly more socially acceptable than others. Studies do demonstrate that just as library directors have associations and conferences, so too do city managers, mayors, and council members. Interesting, preliminary studies suggest that while directors compare per capita support, city managers compare percentages of municipal budgets, and the differences from one municipality to another are less striking.

Over the past few years, an examination of these principles of influence within the context of Canadian public libraries has taken place. Those results reveal three primary ways of exerting influence were through:

  1. a direct or peripheral relationship with the decision maker or those in his or her professional and personal networks;
  2. the directing of their attention to a specific matter by a superior; or
  3. their own desire to “champion the cause.”

Detailed analyses showed building positive relationships, or what Cialdini calls “liking,” might be the most important way we can help decision makers understand the value of public libraries.19

With the addition of these latest findings, two salient patterns are beginning to emerge. The first is grounded in the notion that circumstances significant for each library and their related advocacy needs are inherently local. The process and people that should be strategically targeted vary from one campaign to another. The individual nature of each situation establishes the base for the second emergent theme, which is that the development of personal relationships with decision makers on an individual basis is key to forwarding messages about library services effectively.


Over the past several decades, a handful of studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of specific advocacy techniques employed in a variety of settings. While the number of studies is small, the growing body of evidence in this area can help to inform the strategies boards and senior library staff members devise in order to stimulate support and increased funding for library services. Networks, reputation and influence—and their related techniques—are proven to affect the success of an organization; the intersection of these has implications for how we libraries are managed.

The implication from this review is that a one-size-fits-all approach cannot be effective—every funding situation is ruled by individual players in the community. Over time, personal relationships between both decision makers and other supportive audiences must be developed with library directors, trustees, and other interested stakeholders. It is only in the presence of strong relationships that effective messages can begin to have an impact. There is a need for research comparing advocacy efforts and activities to intended outcomes, and those strategies that had greatest effect.

The most recent studies on advocacy have shown that when decision makers considered funding for public libraries, they use three distinct lenses:

  1. the consistency lens (what are my values?);
  2. the authority lens (is someone in power telling me to do this?); and, most importantly,
  3. the liking lens (how much do I like and know about libraries and the requester?).

We might start to consider less simplistic approaches to advocacy efforts than previously thought. The emphasis on effective communication and strategic relationship building may need to be strengthened. As the environment in which public libraries operate continues to evolve, the ability to create meaningful connections with individuals in many communities and across all levels of government may need to be emphasized. As Cialdini himself declared when discussing the most effective tactics for influence, “the relationship is the message.”20


  1. Ray Lyons, “Rainy Day Statistics: U.S. Public Libraries and the Great Recession,” Public Library Quarterly 32, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 97-118.
  2. Cheryl Stenström, “Factors Influencing Funding Decisions by Elected Politicians at the State/Provincial Level: A Case Study of Public Libraries in Canada” (PhD dissertation, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia, 2012), accessed July 6, 2015, from Trove: Australian Dissertations and Theses.
  3. Paul Pross, Group Politics and Public Policy (Toronto: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1992): 15.
  4. Ken Haycock, “Advocacy and Influence,” Ken Haycock and Associates: Training and Development, Apr. 26, 2011, accessed Aug. 3, 2015.
  5. Stenström, “Factors Influencing Funding Decisions by Elected Politicians at the State/Provincial Level.”
  6. Leigh Estabrook and Brian Lanker, A Survey of Public Libraries and Local Government (Urbana-Champaign, IL: Library Research Center, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Univ. of Illinois, 1995).
  7. Bryce Allen, “Public Opinion and the Funding of Public Libraries,” Library Trends 51, no. 3 (Winter 2003): 414-23.
  8. Jane Robbins-Carter, “Political Science: Utility for Research in Librarianship,” Library Trends 32, no. 4 (Spring 1984): 425-39.
  9. Andreas Varheim, Sven Steinmo, and Eisaku Ide, “Do Libraries Matter? Public Libraries and the Creation of Social Capital,” Journal of Documentation 64, no. 6 (Winter 2008): 877-92.
  10. Virgil Blake, “Joining City Hall: The Role of the Public Library Director in Obtaining Local Support for the Public Library” (PhD dissertation,
    Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, 1988), retrieved from ProQuest Digital Dissertations & Theses.
  11. Cal Clark, Janet Clark, and Karen Stanford, “The Boom-Bust Cycle in Wyoming County Spending: Implications for Budget Theories,” International Journal of Public Administration 17, no. 5 (May 1994): 881-910.
  12. Jay Ryu et al., “Effects of Administrator’s Aspirations, Political Principals’ Priorities, and Interest Groups’ Influence on State Agency Budget Requests,” Public Budgeting & Finance 27, no. 2 (Summer 2007): 22-49.
  13. Estabrook and Lanker, A Survey of Public Libraries and Local Government; Susan McCargar, “The University Library Director in Budgetary Decision Making: A Study of Power, Influence, and Governance” (PhD dissertation, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1984), retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses; David Gillespie, “A Survey of Business Managers and Library Directors to Identify the Variables Affecting the Final Decision on Library Budgets in Institutions Awarding at Least the Baccalaureate, But Less Than the Doctorate Degree” (PhD dissertation, Florida State University, Tallahassee, 1980), retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses.
  14. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, “Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases,” in Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, edited by Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Pr., 1982): 3-20.
  15. Charles McClure, Sari Feldman, and Joe Ryan, “Politics and Advocacy: The Role of Networking in Selling the Library to Your Community,” Public Library Quarterly 25, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2007): 137-54; Robert Ward, “State Library and Local Public Library Relationships: A
    Case Study of Legislative Conflict Within South Carolina From the Principle/Agent Perspective,” Public Library Quarterly 23, no. 1 (Winter 2004): 43-60.
  16. David Shavit, Federal Aid and State Library Agencies: Federal Policy Implementation (Contributions in Librarianship and Information Science)
    (Westport, CT: Greenwood Pr., 1985); Estabrook and Lanker, A Survey of Public Libraries and Local Government; Ward, “State Library and Local Public Library Relationships”; Stephanie Rollins, “Alabama Virtual Library Lobbyists’ and State Legislators’ Perceptions of Effective State Lobbying” (DPA dissertation, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, 2005), retrieved from ProQuest Digital Dissertations & Theses; McClure, Feldman, and Ryan, “Politics and Advocacy”; Cheryl Stenström and Ken Haycock, “Influence and Increased Funding in Canadian Public Libraries,” Library Quarterly 84, no. 1 (Jan. 2014).
  17. Alisa Hicklin, Laurence O’Toole, and Kenneth Meier, “Serpents in the Sand: Managerial Networking and Nonlinear Influences on Organizational Performance,” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 18, no. 3 (Mar. 2008): 253-73; Kenneth Meier and Laurence O’Toole, ”Managerial Strategies and Behavior in Networks: A Model With Evidence From U.S. Public Education,” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 11, no. 3 (Mar. 2001): 271-93; Laurence O’Toole and Kenneth Meier, “Public Management in Intergovernmental Networks: Matching Structural Networks and Managerial Networking,” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 14(4) (Apr. 2004): 469-94.
  18. Robert Cialdini, Influence: Science and Practice, fifth ed. (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2009).
  19. Stenström and Haycock, “Influence and Increased Funding in Canadian Public Libraries”; Stenstrom, C., Roberts, K. and Haycock, K. “The Role of Influence in City and Public Library Partnerships: An Exploratory Study,” Library Management 35, no. 3 (Spring 2014).
  20. Robert Cialdini, “The Language of Persuasion,” Harvard Management Update 9, no. 9 (Sept. 2004): 10-11.

Further Information

This short video, featuring Ken Haycock, gives practical advice on the topic.

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