Listen Up,
Legislators!
MLA Conference Report
By Carla Powers
When you think of library advocacy, you probably think about
calling or writing your legislators when an important issue comes up, attending
Library Legislative Day in St. Paul,
or coaching your trustees or Friends members on how to speak up on the
library’s behalf.  These actions are
helpful, but as I learned at the MLA conference there is much more to effective
advocacy than an occasional email to a legislator. 
Stephanie Vance, a former Congressional staffer, partner in
the firm Advocacy Associates and self-proclaimed “advocacy guru,” delivered a
keynote address at the MLA conference and followed it up with a breakout
session.  I have attended many, many
workshops about library advocacy over the years, but I was so impressed with
Vance’s keynote that I went to her breakout session as well.
Vance stressed that personalized communication from a
constituent is a legislator’s top influence. 
Letters can have an impact but aren’t necessarily the best way to
communicate, especially with legislators at a federal level.  The mail in Washington D.C.
is so carefully screened that it takes a long time for a letter to get
through.  An email or a phone call will
be more immediate.  However, do not spend
your time passing along a form letter to every member of the legislature.  Write something brief (no more than one page)
in your own voice, use an anecdote from your library if possible, ask for
something specific, and send it to YOUR legislators only.
The chances of your communication having an impact are
greater if you have already built a relationship with your legislators.  Start by offering your library meeting rooms
to elected officials who want to hold community meetings.  Let them know what resources your library has
that may help them with their work.  Find
your legislators’ Facebook pages and “like” them.  (Don’t worry, “liking” them on Facebook does
not necessarily require you to like them in real life!)  Keep an eye on their Facebook posts or
Twitter feed to find out what they are interested in and relate it to your
library, or send them positive comments from time to time.
Never, ever underestimate the influence of legislative
staffers!  Talking with them can be just
as effective as speaking directly with the legislator.  Legislators depend on their staff members to
brief them on issues and help them decide how to vote.
When you do write that letter or make that phone call, be
specific about what you are asking for and request some follow through.  Ask the legislator to let you know how he or
she voted on the issue in question.  If
you and the legislator do not see eye-to-eye on the issue, ask the legislator
to get in touch with his or her party leadership to let the leadership know
there are serious concerns about the issue in the legislator’s district.  If the leadership hears from enough
legislators, perhaps a compromise can be worked out or the vote can be
postponed.
Avoid the temptation to contact legislators from outside of
your area.  Your efforts are better spent
getting in touch with your own legislators and asking them to have a talk with
their colleagues.
If you are intimidated by the idea of building a
relationship with your elected officials or don’t feel you have enough time to become
a library advocate, choose just one thing that is not too far outside of your
comfort zone and give it a try.  After
all, as Stephanie Vance reminded us in her keynote, if we don’t advocate for
libraries, there will be no one to ensure that the library experience is
preserved for people now and into the future.