I Have to Ask: Should a Library Fly Under the Radar?

Posted on May 24, 2018

In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week Jamie Eustace, Sterling Municipal Library, Baytown, Texas, writes about how libraries approach discussing their evolving needs with city management and elected officials.

There’s an engineer to the left of me, a fire chief to the right….

The conversation around the table bounces from the construction of a wastewater treatment plant to rezoning of a newly annexed property.  We talk about revising the ordinance that prohibits bandit signs and debate the merits of MUDs and PIDs.
I am in the agenda meeting with my peers preparing for next week’s City Council meeting.  I am nodding my head and taking notes, even though I don’t have anything on the agenda. I rarely have anything on the agenda…. Yet here I sit, at the table with big boys… trying hard to remember the difference between a back hoe and a front loader. I have been the library director in a medium-sized Texas city for almost three years, and I’m still learning how to sit at this table.

Flying Below the Radar

When I first started out in libraries my director told me her goal was to make sure the library flew below the city’s radar.  I didn’t think much about her curious words of wisdom at the time, but looking back I suppose she didn’t want to risk the security of near obscurity. We had it pretty good back in the day.  We were geographically separate from City Hall so we didn’t hear much of the political noise. Our budget was consistent from year to year and the public loved us in the way they love all things nostalgic.  If we went unnoticed, we would stay safe in our cocoon, coasting on waves of goodwill.

Years passed and directors came and went.  When I took the wheel, I had most facets of the job down pat.  I could talk about books. I knew my patrons by name. I could whip out a budget without breaking into hives.  I had even become pretty fair at managing people. All of these skills served me well inside the walls of the library, but they didn’t amount to much when I sat down with my peers, who no longer were other librarians, but the directors of the other (dare I say ‘sexier’) city departments.   I realized that the most important thing I could do for my library was to legitimize my place at the table and learn how to advocate for the needs of the library in a political culture where fire training and litter abatement are the priorities de jour.

In reactive political environments it can be hard to get attention unless you are metaphorically bleeding out.  Balancing “needs” like public safety and infrastructure with “wants” like bike trails and awesome libraries is no small thing. Educating public officials and advocating for libraries takes a delicate touch, but librarians don’t do their communities any favors by demurely walking to the back of the line.  
Flying under the radar can backfire.  Keeping a low profile can mean being cut out of the conversation. Instead of taking refuge in our library silos we should be waving our hands in the air and jumping up and down shouting our stories.

Know Your Story

Why do libraries exist in the first place?  We have done such a great job of becoming centers of fun and learning that it is almost easy to forget our origin story.  Libraries exist as a way for communities to share resources. Over the years, the resources we hold have run the gamut from scrolls, to books, to bandwidth, to jelly molds.  At the most basic level, we provide value to the community by sharing what makes little economic sense for citizens to own individually. Did you know a library can circulate a picture book for pennies per checkout?  An eBook that costs an individual $12 to purchase through Amazon can read by 24 different people for the same price. When you look at it that way, libraries have more in common with the Public Works Department than you might otherwise think. By framing our story on the foundation of economic value we start to open the ears of the decision makers.

Tell Your Story

Once we are clear about the bottom line, we use creativity and gusto to show how libraries make communities better. Our patrons are our biggest fans, but we need to extend the fandom to city leaders and decision makers who are not necessarily library users. We need to throw our awesomeness in their face with social media posts, press releases, blogs, podcasts, and events.  We need to invite city administrators and elected officials every time we do something amazing. We need to write articles, nominate ourselves for awards, and have a presence at as many community-wide events as we can. We need to make sure we do not pass up the opportunity to brag about our successes and innovations. Buy a bullhorn and use it often. When you are super visible, it is harder to get left out of the conversation.

Leverage Your Skills

Librarians have mad skills.  We should use them not only to make our libraries great, but to help other government departments be awesome as well.  Want to improve your website? We can help. Digitizing your departmental records? I’ve got just your woman. Need someone to facilitate a process improvement event?  Sit on an interview panel? We’ve got your back. Busting out of the library silo by supporting other departments is my favorite way to earn legitimacy points. When libraries act as part of the whole, ears and hearts become more open to our unique wants and needs.

Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You  

When asked what advice he would give to novice comedians, the iconic Steve Martin said, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”  This is great advice for libraries and librarians. As city or county departments, we will always be going head to head with potholes and police cars. Some days the competing interests and never ending needs can be a bit overwhelming.  My advice? Stay Calm and… Awesome On! As long as libraries continue to be exemplary stewards and as long as we keep adding value to our wider organizations, we can keep inventing new ways to surprise and delight our communities.

Supplemental Reading

Close window