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Workshops: Connecting With Elected Officials – Our Experience

Brady Clemens
Brady Clemens
June Houghtaling
June Houghtaling

by June Houghtaling, District Consultant, North Central Library District, and
Brady Clemens, District Consultant, Central Pennsylvania Library District

We all know how important it is for libraries to develop, maintain, and enhance strong relationships with our elected officials. Pennsylvania may rank highly in support at the state level, but we fall to 49th when it comes to funding at the local level! The relationships we build with our elected officials are crucial in the work of advocating for more municipal support. In light of this, both the North Central (James V. Brown Library) and Central Pennsylvania (Schlow Centre Region Library) library districts wanted to produce “how to” workshops for our libraries. In our respective workshops, we looked at questions about building relationships with elected officials and local governments, improved communication, demonstrating worth, and addressing how libraries can be part of community solutions.

The North Central Library District held its workshop on November 15, 2017, while Central Pennsylvania held a similar workshop on September 25, 2018 – the latter modeled on what North Central assembled. Both workshops began with panels of local elected officials – including two staff members from state representatives’ offices, several county commissioners and two Borough council members. In both cases, we wanted to provide a diversity of perspectives, both in types of government and geography. Our districts, North Central especially, are geographically wide, and we wanted to make sure this was reflected on the panel. While both of us had existing connections with several local elected officials, we worked with library directors in our district to pave the way with officials in their areas.

We learned very quickly that it isn’t easy to get elected officials to sit on a panel. They’re generally busy, and at the level of borough and township they often have full time jobs aside from their responsibilities. To get people on the panel, we needed to contact them months in advance to have a chance at getting on their calendar. In some cases, it’s often better to direct the request to a secretary or other staffer to ensure that the request gets through. Getting to know key staff is often a good idea in any case, as they usually remain even as elected officials turn over.

With input from our library directors, we developed a set of questions for the panelists to answer, and sent it to them well in advance so that they had time to consider their responses. A reminder email to panelists about the workshop was certainly helpful too! Attendees at both workshops found that hearing about issues and the view of the library from their elected officials’ perspective was really helpful, and put our advocacy efforts in context of the broader issues facing our communities.

Some of the advice that they provided included:

  • Be proactive. Regularly communicate about programs and services (not just at budget time)
  • Maintain transparency and avoid hidden agendas. Politicians want to be able to say that public tax dollars are being spent efficiently and effectively. Show them the numbers.
  • Don’t forget to include stories highlighting successes at your library – a patron expressing particular gratitude for a service provided, for instance, especially if it involves service to children. Data is good, but stories can help them connect to what we do!
  • Relationships are best built on face to face interactions
  • Library funding in Pennsylvania is complicated and needs to be explained – often
  • Find a way for local officials to visit the library.
  • Be organized and concise.
  • Find a way to connect the library’s mission with the challenges faced in communities.

At North Central, the panel discussion was followed by lunch, and a talk by PA Library Association Executive Director Christi Buker about professionalism and communication, followed by a group discussion and recap. For Central Pennsylvania, the panel was followed by a presentation by Denise Sticha, PA Library Association Legislative Committee Co-Chair, on preparing for a legislative visit. The latter was included as many Trustees and library staff have never participated in a visit and don’t really know what to expect. Both workshops included a session of libraries sharing success stories and issues we’ve encountered, to demonstrate concrete examples of what’s worked in the field, find solutions for common problems – and to show that advocacy can take the form of small efforts too!

While it involves a lot of planning and background work, both of our districts found real value in these workshops, and we think that the workshop is a model that can be used by library districts and libraries across the state. Just as we did, this workshop topic and structure can be adapted to fit the needs of the local area and its libraries, and can be tailored so that the cost of the workshop is relatively low. The importance of this topic is only going to increase, so it’s worth learning everything we can to help prepare!

Original notes from June:

Why we did it:

  • Pennsylvania ranks high on state support but low on municipal support. We all know that developing, maintaining and enhancing relationships with our elected officials is an important part of advocating for more municipal support. We wanted to produce a “how to” workshop that addresses building relationships, communicating, demonstrating worth, and address how libraries can be part of community solutions.

What we did:

  • We contacted local elected officials from counties throughout the district. Our district is large and although I know several commissioners and staff of our state representative, I wanted to get a fair representation from across a geographic area. This would mean making cold calls. To contact commissioners that I didn’t know personally, I asked library directors, whom I knew to have good relationships, to pave the way.
  • Tip: Be sure to contact them months in advance of the event. Getting a strong commitment on their calendars can be challenging. Get to know that their staff. We had 5 county commissioners, and one aid from our state representatives office
  • We asked them to serve on a 90 minute panel.
  • We developed a list of questions and included a brief overview of the district (what we do, counties served, etc.) and sent it to panelists well in advance.
  • A moderator led the panel discussion.
  • We asked attendees to provide success stories and struggles encountered when communicating/connecting with elected officials.
  • At North Central, we provided lunch and had an afternoon session that included a talk from Christi Buker about professionalism and communication. We wrapped up with a group discussion and recap.

What we learned:

  • Be proactive. Regularly communicate about programs and services (not just at budget time)
  • Maintain transparency, avoid hidden agendas. Politicians want to be able to say that public tax dollars are being spent efficiently and effectively. Show them the numbers.
  • Relationships are best built on face to face interactions
  • Library funding in Pennsylvania is complicated and needs to be explained – often
  • Find a way for local officials to visit the library
  • Be organized and concise.
  • Find a way to connect the library’s mission with the challenges faced in communities.

 

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