**Note: In light of the recent school shooting in Newtown CT, and the National Riffle Association’s role in conversations about American gun legislation, I feel that it is important to restate that this blog post is ONLY a study of the NRA in that it discusses the effectiveness of their communications strategy. In addition, the opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent those of my employer.
The American Library Association recently convened a Presidential Task Force on Equitable Access to Electronic Content (EQUACC), “created to study challenges and recommend potential solutions in libraries for improved electronic content access, distribution and preservation systems.”
I have been following their work, because I’m concerned about how captive we are to vendors and publishers, and think that we do need to address our current inability to take control of our future. One of the biggest problems I see is our inability to communicate with the public about our value and what we do.
When the EQUACC blog asked how should we message the fact that “Your right to read is at risk,” I responded on their blog: We need a National Library Association – something designed to get the public involved in defending the value of Libraries on a national level.
I’m reposting my thoughts here because I don’t think my answer is necessarily something that fits within the ALA mission. It might be, and I look forward to further discussing the idea on the EQUACC forum. But it might be something else entirely.
Being involved in communications at my Library, and being involved in the online conversations between library folks, I can’t fail to notice that we are much better at speaking to each other than we are at speaking to the public. I see this as one of our biggest problems, because we exist for the users more than for ourselves. And although none of us want to lose our jobs, it’s Library users who have the most to lose by not supporting libraries.
In pursuit of models for how to speak to users, I’ve been thinking a lot about a well known, influential and politically effective member organization – the National Rifle Association. I have a close relation who works for the NRA, and this has allowed me to observe their communications strategies fairly close-up, and this has lead me to see that they know how to influence their members. In addition, they’re not a corporation – they’re a nonprofit organization.
The NRA’s communication model turns out to be a surprisingly useful for thinking about what Libraries are NOT doing well in terms of public awareness and influence.
What does the NRA do well in terms of advocacy?
1. Membership – The NRA has a national membership, of regular people from all over the country. Yearly membership is $35.
We have library users who belong to individual libraries all over the country, but do not share a sense of national membership to a universal cause (the support of Libraries)
2. Publications and Websites – The NRA publishes a monthly magazine, in which it tells it’s members about what’s going on with the industries, 2nd amendment politics, and people involved in the movement. The NRA also has a website specifically designed to deliver their information to the public.
We publish magazines for ourselves, about ourselves. There is no National website that is designed to get library-advocacy information to the public.
3. Feel-Good Anecdotes That Create Community – Each issue of the NRA’s National Rifleman magazine has a column called “the armed citizen,” in which they publish short news articles about regular people who defended their lives or property through use of their firearms.
We don’t have any widely read publication which shares stories about how people’s lives were changed or saved at the library.
4. Political Clout – During election season, the NRA rates politicians on how they stand on second amendment issues, and many members vote along those lines.
As far as I know, Library Lovers have never swung an election.
5. Ideology – The NRA has a clear stand – support the second amendment.
We don’t claim the declaration of independence, but we could: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” We’re the only free way that people have to work towards those goals.
What I’m seeing is that American Libraries – as individuals and as represented by the ALA – lack a good model for creating a public, member accessible face. It’s about time we created a model.
What if there was a nonprofit called the National Library Association, that could work with American Libraries and the ALA to educate the public about their right to access a Public Library in pursuit of Life, Liberty and Happiness?
What if you were given a $35 membership form by the staff at your local library when you first got your library card? What if that $35 brought you a monthly (or quarterly) magazine full of interesting information about Libraries? What if readers could learn about Library innovations, the ways in which Libraries change people’s lives every day and why our programs are valuable?
What if we could educate the public to the extent that their voices could actually move state and federal politicians on our behalf?
I know there are a whole bunch of “yes, but…” responses to this idea. Would this give the public too much of a chance to question how we do what we do? Staying low-profile is definitely safer, and when I think through the “yes, but…” questions, I get scared too.
But the public already question what we do – and it’s often because we haven’t given them enough information to understand the choices we make.