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We Can’t Be Complacent Anymore – PL Talks With Patrick Sweeney

by on October 17, 2017

Patrick “PC” Sweeney is the Political Director of EveryLibrary, and coauthor of Winning Elections and Influencing Politicians for Library Funding, published by ALA Neal-Schuman. Nick Tanzi conducted the following interview with Sweeney over email on August 29, 2017, in which we discussed his book and the work of EveryLibrary.

PL: For those unfamiliar with EveryLibrary, how would you describe your organization?

PS: I think EveryLibrary is an interesting organization because it fills a gap in our library advocacy ecosystem. As one of the few library groups organized as a 501c4 (social welfare organization, also considered a Political Action Committee), and as the only National 501c4 for libraries, we are allowed to expend our resources on political work while the 501c3s that dominate the library advocacy space are only allowed to expend a portion of their resources on politics. These 501c3 organizations do really amazing and outstanding work on a lot of state and federal legislative issues as well as providing a ton of great resources to our industry that we heavily depend on and are much needed. But the major issue in libraries is funding them and 90 percent of library funding comes from the will of the local voters and the will of local politicians. That means that we need to get more political at the local level and work on local campaigns and elections and voter engagement as well as political activism centered on librarians. EveryLibrary is primarily dedicated to work on local campaigns and elections for libraries and local political issues for libraries of all kinds.

PL: Why is this book necessary?

PS: We hope that this book will help librarians and library staff understand how to influence the political world in which they work. The best way I can talk about why this book is necessary is through the story of my first library job. I started as a library manager about 10 months before the great recession and I had to lay off almost half my staff less than a year into my career. It was wildly eye-opening because I really had no idea about how political the funding mechanisms were for my day-to-day operations. I wasn’t politically savvy, I didn’t take the time to do the political organizing and building around the library, I didn’t understand that I needed stronger political networks and allies, and when the city came looking for cuts, they came looking to cut the department that would get them the least amount pressure or negativity from the residents or their political allies. Unfortunately, that department was the library.

You know who didn’t get cut? The police. In fact, the police hired more officers, kept their raises, and retained their funding. It definitely wasn’t a public safety issue (although they said it was) because there hadn’t been violent crime in that city for more than 10 years. Instead, it was because they were exceptionally well organized, had strong support networks across the city, build political capital, and knew how to organize the community and those networks around them.

The police in that community had skills that we don’t teach in library school and we don’t teach it in our extended learning courses or emphasize it enough in our conferences. But as we see a stronger sentiment against taxes and government, we are going to really need these skills. I really hope that this book will help teach these skills to librarians long before they need them.

PL: Libraries pride themselves on being apolitical. Indeed the idea of entering the political arena in any fashion can be an uncomfortable thought. How do you allay this concern?

PS: I think we need to realize that we aren’t apolitical at all and that getting political doesn’t necessarily mean choosing a progressive or conservative viewpoint. It means that our paychecks and the funding we rely on to provide great services to our communities are dependent on the will of the local voters and the local politicians. If our jobs are dependent on the voters or on politics and we are allowed to keep working based solely on the will of local politics, then whether we like it or not, our jobs are very political. In fact, I would argue that this truth makes us more like political candidates and that we need to operate our libraries as if we are each an incumbent politician running a campaign each year to ensure that we can continue to do our jobs and have the resources to serve our communities.

PL: Libraries remain an incredibly well-respected institution. Do you think this has the effect of making us complacent?

PS: I might argue that we aren’t necessarily that well-respected, but we are well-liked and have historically been well-supported and that has definitely made us complacent. Previous to the great recession, libraries could easily put something on the ballot and walk away and have a pretty decent chance of winning. Librarians simply didn’t have to learn how to be political or what it meant to politically fight for funding.  We don’t have politics embedded in the culture of librarianship the way many other industries do.

Of course, a lot has changed since the recession and not just because of the recession. First of all, there is a huge anti-tax, anti-government movement in this country and it is getting very well organized with the Tea-Party and the Libertarians getting better funding, more supporters, and learning how to use those resources to organize a community against taxes and government like we saw in Douglas County, Oregon or Kern County, California. These organizations have huge networks of supporters, are well-funded, and can turn a community radically against taxes and government. When that happens the library often becomes a proxy fight for taxation and government even if it is decently well-liked or respected. The community votes or resists library services or funding, not because they are against the library, but because they are mad that the Mayor didn’t fix the potholes in front of their house, or because another tax was passed that they didn’t like, or because someone on city-council that they don’t like with supports the library levy and so they are going to vote against the library to punish that city-council person. In any case, we really can’t be complacent anymore and have to be much better at understanding these political ecosystems that we work in.

PL: One of the things I appreciated about your book is its honesty. You don’t attempt to gloss over the hard work and personal sacrifice involved in winning an election. In particular, the “Gut Check: Public Service Fitness Test” stands out.

PS: A campaign is really incredibly hard work and there aren’t any shortcuts. In fact, there is a campaign history that is hundreds of years old and filled with hundreds of thousands of campaigners who were each looking for shortcuts and trying to make winning elections easier. Nobody has found it yet. If it existed, we would be doing it and elections would be cheap and easy. Anyone who needs to run a campaign needs to understand that is it hard work and that you’re going to have to give up nights, weekends, and vacations, to benefit the campaign for at least a few months before Election Day. That’s just part of the game.

PL: Libraries serve all members of their community. This big tent of patrons isn’t the same as a winning voting coalition.

PS: That’s incredibly true. In fact, some of a library’s biggest and strongest supporters or allies might have never stepped foot in the library nor do they need to. Someone doesn’t need to use the library to understand how important a library is to other people in the community. That means that libraries shouldn’t just be relying on their users or patrons for support. Getting outside the audience of users and focusing on building a network of supporters instead of a network of users can really help a library increase donations, volunteers, and people willing to take action on behalf of the library. I think a big problem with our library advocacy and marketing model is how focused we are on getting more patrons and I strongly believe we need to focus on building a network of supporters and then radicalizing that network of supporters so they are willing to take action. There is some of that in this book as well.

PL: Aside from a focus on winning the election at hand, passing a bond, etc: this book also preaches preventative medicine. Can you speak to the concept of “perpetual campaign?”

PS: There is a concept in political theory called Surfacing. This is the phase of a campaign before there is actually a campaign. It’s based on the understanding that there are only three resources in a campaign and those are time, money, and people.  You often see politicians make use of time by doing things like showing up at the Iowa State Fair or suddenly showing up on CNN two years before they ever announce that they’re running. Or, as would be more visible to librarians, they write a book that comes out two years before they announce their candidacy. They do this to introduce themselves to the community of voters and talk about their beliefs and tell their stories of impact before someone is telling opposing stories about them in a campaign. The more they tell those stories and get in the heads of voters with their own narratives, the less impact the opposition will have on their campaign. The voters are more likely to believe the stories they’ve heard for the last two years, before they believe the stories told by the opposition in the last minutes before a campaign. Also during this time a presidential candidate is testing messaging, getting the contact information of everyone who supports them (name, email, phone, address), building coalitions with strong partners, and understanding the data about who and why they are supported or opposed through strong strategic public opinion polling. Libraries can do all of the same things fairly inexpensively and the book talks about that quite a bit.

PL: Patrick, I want to thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Before we conclude, do you have any parting words for our readers?

PS: My biggest suggestion is that we start thinking about the politics of funding our libraries. Politics and library funding are inextricably tied and in order to influence our funding, we need to understand and influence local politics. Beyond the information in the book, EveryLibrary has many resources that are freely available to anyone who is interested in learning more or is looking for the tools they need to get started. Everything we do for libraries is pro-bono and paid for by many great donors and vendor supporters. You can find out more about our work at everylibrary.org.

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