Will Social Media Activism Rescue Besieged Libraries?

Posted Tuesday, April 20, 2010 - 11:48
Although budget crises abound, libraries have become richer for the outpouring of support from devoted—and networked—patrons
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Library workers and supporters nationwide are turning to social media to spread the word about proposed funding cuts and recruit advocates. Despite what looks to be a very bleak FY2011, social media blitzes to stave off cuts for the current fiscal year may have laid some groundwork toward influencing budgetmakers.

In March, the Charlotte (N.C.) Mecklenburg Library was asked to return $2 million to the county. The library board responded by voting to close 12 branches and lay off more than 140 library employees. The public reaction was immediate: An online fundraising and awareness campaign spread across Facebook and Twitter to plug the budget hole. Although that goal wasn’t met (as of mid-April, some $300,000 had been donated by people around the world), trustees rescinded the closures a scant week after okaying them, opting for reduced hours and fewer layoffs.

The swift action was thanks to the library’s vibrant online presence; officials tweeted up-to-the minute news from trustee meetings using the #cmlibrary hashtag, as well as information on how the community could best advocate for libraries.

Charlotte’s Learning and Development Coordinator Lori Reed was also spurred into action. She created savelibraries.org, a clearinghouse of online campaigns to fight cuts to library services and worked with the American Library Association to link to advocacy resources including direct links for contacting Congress, state legislators, and the media. The site has the potential to create another powerful voice for library advocates: one-stop shopping for new libraries that come under threat.

Despite these efforts, deep cuts remain a possibility. Mecklenburg County officials have asked the library to plan for a 50% reduction in funding for FY2011.

Viral reactions

Facebook groups and advocacy websites opposing cuts also sprang up quickly when Los Angeles and Boston officials eyed branch closures, layoffs, and service-hour reductions. The Florida and New Jersey library associations rallied the library troops virtually as lawmakers sought to slash or eliminate state aid to libraries. Los Angeles library lovers took action as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa ended Sunday service April 11, with more cuts in the offing. In Boston, rallies organized online helped lower the number of branches eyed for closure from 10 to four.

The budget proposed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would eliminate 74% of funding to libraries and associated organizations, which translates to the loss of 50% of state funding currently intended for public libraries—ending interlibrary loan and shared electronic resources. NJLA reacted by alerting the library community through Capwiz, advocacy software that ALA provides to the states for contacting legislators about important bills. Within days, state lawmakers got more than 32,000 messages; Gov. Christie told a Cape May County Library patron at a gubernatorial forum that libraries’ viability generated more messages of concern than any other issue.

The internet groundswell of support is in stark contrast to the difficulty encountered by Salinas (Calif.) Public Libraries in 2004. Would the city council have voted to close all three branches if the discussion and vote had been instantaneously broadcast over Twitter and Facebook? It’s encouraging to note that even without the use of these online grassroots platforms, the Salinas libraries reopened after several months thanks to more traditional community networking.

What, then, is the advantage of social media advocacy? Certainly, more rapid and widespread coverage about impending crises. The library community inherently trusts that the Lori Reeds of the world are always benevolent and discreet. Yet, one well-meaning but angry supporter can harm long-cultivated relationships: In the heat of last year’s budget crisis in Ohio, someone posted a spoof of Gov. Ted Strickland’s READ poster; the devil horns and pointed tagline ("Read: Just Not at the Library") were impolitic at best.

It remains to be seen whether the Facebook pages and Twitter streams of library fans present and future make a lasting difference at budget time during an economic downturn.

—Cindi Trainor, coordinator, library data and technology services, Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond.

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