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Public libraries are, by nature, non-partisan and should garner a broad range of support from individuals from diverse backgrounds, political affiliations, and socio-economic and educational levels. To broaden our network of support, library advocates need to understand the values and priorities of elected officials and decision makers who may not share their political views. We are challenged to broaden the level of understanding and appreciation of library programs and services that benefit the communities we serve.
The first steps in developing messages and strategies to expand the network of support for libraries is to recognize personal bias and find common ground. In order to deliver clear, compelling reasons for supporting libraries, it is critical to identify what messages may resonate with the intended audience and create arguments and find examples that build on shared values.
In 2019, libraries across Colorado began to receive challenges to content available in their electronic databases. In these challenges, there was common ground between the libraries and the challengers: both groups want to make sure children are safe. Yet they have very different ideas of how to protect children from potentially harmful content online. By connecting with parents’ concerns for what students can access digitally, librarians can come up with tools to help create effective search strategies, identify resources that are age appropriate and provide direct assistance to students doing research. Changing the focus from defending intellectual freedom to providing expert and trusted assistance in navigating what can be overwhelming or inappropriate content online, the debate shifts and new alliances can be formed.
One of the most powerful ways to build coalitions and discover shared values is by reaching out to community members who may have a different political perspectives. Keys to building relationships include researching the background of elected officials and decision makers, offering library resources and expertise to help them do their jobs, providing regular communication about library programs and events, and asking for their assistance or presence as needed. By effectively telling the library story in a way that resonates with those who may not share their political and personal perspectives, libraries can broaden their support networks and remain relevant and useful to all.