The Ontario Provincial Elections and Public Libraries

This is a personal post but it is informed by my work with the Federation of Ontario Public Libraries (  I’ve been thinking about this current provincial election and how we can promote the the value, impact and position of public libraries in our province.  These are my initial thoughts:

FOPL has a clear point of view (which is different than a political stance).  We are not neutral.  It is found here: It helps me frame these key talking points.

The context for public libraries is that we exist in a community and we are largely funded by municipal level taxes (and to a lesser extent there are provincial, federal funding and fundraising through donors and bequests).  As public institutions we must remain very strictly non-partisan but that said:

Non-partisan does NOT mean silent.

Non-partisan does NOT mean unbiased.

We should be vocally biased towards our community’s success, our users’ life experiences, quality information and answers, equitable access to services, technology and resources, and great experiences that have an impact on our neighbours’ lives.
Being silent or avoiding interactions that may be falsely framed as political during an election year is not a good strategy.
Elections are a great opportunity to communicate the roles and direction of public institutions.  This is an opportunity to engage our communities.  To that end we can:
1. Inform our communities about the vital role of libraries in the overall community priorities context.
2. Talk to and engage community groups that value the public library.
3. Engage politically active citizens in their roles as incumbents, candidates, and political activists.
Public libraries, through their staff, trustees/board members, community stakeholders, and users can (and should) engage in the political atmosphere of an election year in a number of ways.  These include some key impacts:
Library awareness: The library has a VERY complex service proposition.  We’re so much more than books but reading and quality information is the foundation on which we build.  You can build a foundation for a house or a home.  A home is better.
Education:  Reading and quality information is the foundation on which we make a difference in our community’s employment, education, social, economic, health, and cultural success.
Digital Divide: Leveling the playing field for everyone is core to the service mandate of libraries.  We ensure that everyone has access to the digital services and resources and training that allow them to more fully participate in society.  Whether that’s applying for a job, getting information on health issues, or taking or studying for an online course, your public library is there for you.
Services to Government: Despite the internet juggernaut,  public libraries are busier than ever.  As governments in Ontario invest heavily in e-government for forms and communication of programs and services, in order to reduce costs and acquire revenue through license fees, taxes, etc. The public library is the one place in our communities that has the trained staff, technology (and peripherals), convenient local locations, and service hours, that bridge the needs of our community for the large number of citizens who need this help (seniors, students, new Canadians, and more). Most communities in Ontario have a library and, indeed, the same cannot be said for such institutions as banks, post offices, and schools which many communities lack nearby access to.
Disaster Relief: Hundreds of times – big and small, the public library has been an acknowledged point where assistance is available for disaster support.  Whether they’re used as cooling or warming centres during extreme weather, showing folks how to connect with family and services during ice storms, tornadoes, floods (and internationally hurricanes and earthquakes), the public library provides elasticity for our communities to get up and running quickly. (For example, during this year’s ice storms Toronto Public Library was there for almost a million people who needed warmth, a phone recharging station, or something to do, when heat and electricity was disrupted for 1-7 days.)
Specifically, there are a number of (additional) activities that can be considered to position the public library – in a non-partisan way – during an election.  (FOPL has a few sample board and staff policies covering election behaviours which I can share if asked) These include:
  • All-candidate meetings in library branch theatres and meeting rooms.
  • Voter registration tables in library branches.
  • Poll stations in library branches on election day. (Libraries tend to be very AODA accessible)
  • Social media information strategies about the economic, social and cultural impact of libraries
    • Populating major social media channels (just as the politicians have learned to embrace) with positive stories of public libraries with great visuals.  Include Facebook, blogs, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, Flickr, Instagram, etc.  Each social media tools has different aspects of your community there.  When they search Google about the library, what do they find?  Ensure they find the key stories and value they should!
  • Educational activities about the proven impact of public libraries on:
  • Offering columns and articles to print media on major issues (such as new branches, library funding impacts, services for the poor, students, community health, seniors, events, etc.).  Print media shines during an election.  Be strategic.
  • Offer programs on understanding the local election process for teens, young adults, new Canadians, etc.  Invite seasoned politicians and candidates to present.
  • Up your TOUR game.  Make sure that you invite incumbents and candidates to tour the library, present a program or read a story to kids (after coaching them on the pro skills).  Make sure that they’re seeing the library(ies) and not just public perceptions – what’s there, what’s going on, how busy they are, etc. Have your talking points ready as you engage them in an educational tour.  Make sure you take pictures (the Photo-Op) and even consider making a READ poster (virtually or in print) of politicians and community members,
  • Do a census.  You know your employees.  Do you know whom they know?  Do they live near a candidate or are they friends with them or an incumbent?  Start your survey now and know what bench strength you have.  Are they going to meet over the neighbourhood BBQ?  Are they prepared with talking points about your library and it’s role and goals?
  • Create events to get your message out there.  Have volunteer thank you events and include key funding relationships at the civic staffing and political levels.
  • Make everything viral.  Use tools like social media, infographics, annual reports, and online videos to position the library’s goodness and impact well and memorably.
  • Review your distribution lists to assess what you can use them for for promotion.  Your ILS contains (or should) phone numbers, e-mail address, mailing addresses, etc.  as well as demographic information.  Decide the timing of your educational activities about the role and value of the library strategically.
All of this is based on a few competencies that we’ve been learning in the 10 part FOPL influence and advocacy training sessions in 2013-4.  You can listen and see the slide shows on the FOPL website as a member.  They’re a series of top leaders on library influence sharing their knowledge and insights and research for free.

The basics are:

  1. LISTEN first
  2. Be visible
  3. Be likable
  4. Be FOR something  . . . not just against a policy or position.
  5. Be memorable
  6. Thank supporters for the past support – well and often
  7. Follow up with a thank you,
  8. And don’t complain, whine, attack, or be memorably negative.

Also, be clear about the split between the roles of key players in this ‘game’:

  1. Library board members (trustees)
  2. The CEO
  3. Library management team
  4. Library staff
  5. The union leadership
  6. Community partners
  7. Other municipal departments (that may be partners or competitors for public or funding attention)
  8. Cardholders
  9. The community
  10. Your associations (FOPL, OLA, OLBA, OPLA, AMPLO, ARUPLO, CELUPL, CULC), agencies (SOLS, OLS-N, consortia) and suppliers/vendors who have a shared interest in your success.
Some other (not an exhaustive list) insights from me:

  • Be short and to the point
  • Don’t try to talk about the whole waterfront of libraries.
  • Avoid library jargon
  • Be visual (pictures and charts)
  • Avoid statistics and instead show measurements and impact
  • Make your point about impact memorable.
  • Train everyone connected to your talking points so that they can follow up and not just parrot.

Cialdini’s research and six tactics tell us:

  1. Authority (use your sources that are trusted and good)
  2. Consistency and commitment (stay on message so that you’re trusted more)
  3. Liking (this is a big one – people tend to like those they see more of)
  4. Reciprocity (offer to help them as well)
  5. Scarcity (know what you offer that they can’t get consistently elsewhere)
  6. Social proof (have others speak for you too – especially if they’re part of their network or community)
It is my opinion (but some boards may feel differently) that the trustee position is political (small ‘p’).  Your union may be a political partner as well and has done some good advocacy.  Community partners and cardholders / citizens can be political as well.  Also, just look at the role of celebrity – like the great support from Margaret Atwood for TPL!  It’s quite the mosaic when we consider a combined strategy.
The best agenda is to be constantly building long term and sustainable relationships with your administration.  Good library governance isn’t just about managing your library well with programs and good fiscal performance.  It’s about making sure the civic leaders know the role you play and the value you deliver and the damage that cuts could do to the community or the benefits that can arise from future support.
Ideally this is is an all-the-time continuous activity and not just focused on the election event cycle.  We are constantly in the business of promoting the library’s role in our community as being about books and reading and so much more.
Canadian polls show that Ontarians place high value on 5 tax funded services – police, ambulance, firefighting, hospitals, and public libraries.  Public libraries have a hugely high, possibly top, score.  My pitch is that we need the others just-in-case but we’d rather never see them.  The public library is the one valuable thing we get for our tax dollars that we choose to use!  And our residents and voters use us a LOT!
I think our best positioning (politically) at his juncture is that public libraries deliver the best return on investment for your tax dollars.
Why are we in public libraries such a complex message?  Because we’re more than a one-trick pony.  Just think:
Ontario public library services long ago evolved to be much more than books and buildings.  Today’s libraries have a measurable and valuable impact on the quality of life and the success of our communities – economically, socially, educationally, and culturally.  FOPL ensures that funders and decision-makers know the full breadth and depth of the role of public libraries in Ontario, and advocates for the needed support, programs, and resources to continue to make a difference for all Ontarians.  The Public Library value proposition is strong and includes (but isn’t limited to):

    many studies show that public investment in libraries delivers a measurable, positive return on investment economically, socially and for the capacity of communities to attract businesses and residents.


    supporting small business and entrepreneurs who will drive local economic recovery, growth, and job creation by providing them with resources such as databases on market trends and information on regulatory obligations;


    providing services and resources for career planning, job search, education, and upgrading skills;


    helping newcomers to Canada succeed through settlement support; language acquisition including ESL programs, accreditation and employment support and maintaining cultural connections;


    supporting success in life and reading and school readiness through a vast array of pre-school and children’s literacy programs;


    professional help and collections to support learners of all ages to develop advanced information fluency competencies, do research and complete projects.  Open longer hours than school libraries, public libraries are also critical support systems for adult distance education and home schooling.  Across the province, libraries are busier than ever with students at all ages and stages;


    public libraries ensure that the whole community of Ontarians – including those with visual or physical limitations, from any cultural or language community, natives, and more – receive equitable access to the resources of our society for success.


    public libraries are often the only place where all residents can access free computing resources, the internet, peripherals, training, and assistance to accomplish their goals as citizens, workers, and more.


    providing professional support services, accessible locations, and technology infrastructure to serve as a major access point for e-government. Public Libraries provide cost-effective opportunities to reach Ontarians to deliver government services for everything from forms and information to advice;


    Ontarians have important information needs and deserve quality answers regardless of their economic status or location. On issues of health, parenting, finance, life choices, and more, libraries go beyond Google to improve the quality of questions and answers.


    a critical piece of a community’s cultural framework, public libraries are essential to a healthy and sustainable society as social equity, environmental responsibility and economic viability; and local history heritage.


    offering free borrowing of books, music and movies and exciting library programs for children, families, seniors, and people of all ages and tied directly to community needs and demand.