Creating New Advocates for Libraries: Pennsylvania Forward Case Study

In 2007, the U.S. economic crisis hit, and libraries across the U.S. struggled to articulate their value and maintain public support – and Pennsylvania (PA) libraries were no exception. Like many places in the world, funding for libraries in Pennsylvania has been inconsistent and unpredictable over time. While the U.S. state ranks 4th for state government support for libraries, their local, municipal support ranks at 47, one of the lowest in the country.  In the late 1990s, the Pennsylvania Library Association (PaLA) launched ‘Platform for 21st Century Libraries’, a grassroots movement to bring state subsidy for libraries. The campaign was enormously successful, but over time competing state finances stripped away the libraries’ gains, with the economic crisis delivering the final blow.

While libraries in Pennsylvania struggled to find their footing, their communities also struggled under the weight of the economic crisis.  The National Center for Education Statistics reported that among states within the same population range, Pennsylvania and Illinois ranked the highest in illiteracy rates in the U.S.1 Library staff recognized that their literacy challenges extended beyond basic literacy. Public, academic, and school libraries across Pennsylvania were helping people of all ages master five types of knowledge essential to functioning successfully in the 21st century – basic literacy, information literacy, civic and social literacy, health literacy and financial literacy.

Convinced there must be a better way to ensure sustainable funding for libraries so that they would be better positioned to meet their communities’ changing needs, PaLA President Mary Garm launched the Next Generation Task Force, made up of 25 library visionaries from across the state. The task force spent 2 years conducting research, interviewing advocacy and marketing experts, conceptualizing an approach, and, ultimately, developing a new advocacy and partnership model that would launch PA Forward in 2012.

PA Forward is

  • A campaign to build literacy across Pennsylvania
  • A framework for library advocacy and marketing
  • An opportunity to create partnerships and build a collective voice for libraries

The campaign uses a brand name that is short, conveys action, and links libraries with Pennsylvania’s future growth. It creates a shared dialogue around literacy for libraries, legislators, businesses, and other community stakeholders through fact sheets with examples of high tech and high touch ways that libraries help meet a range of literacy needs and give library staff new tools to talk about their work. Through this dialogue, libraries are building new partnerships, creating new library advocates, and strengthening the base of support for libraries in Pennsylvania. 

PA Forward is staffed by one full-time project manager, with additional support from PaLA’s other three paid employees. In order to accomplish their ambitious goals, PA Forward relies on a broad network of volunteers which make up the following:

  • Steering Committee – Broken into 7 subcommittees, these individuals lead and sustain the campaign over multiple years to ensure lasting improvements to all library services through engagement of the library community, partnership development, marketing, fundraising, and measuring impact;
  • Literacy Teams – Committees develop collaborative initiatives that leverage libraries in efforts to increase literacy, provide financial and information resources for libraries, and communicate the value of libraries. Each of the five teams is made up of representative’s partner organizations plus three librarians. The literacy teams create new ways that the partner organizations and libraries can combine efforts and resources to help people increase their literacy skills and reach their greatest potential.
  • Advisory Board – About a dozen influential individuals, representing a range of Pennsylvania interests, who provide strategic guidance, connections, and advocacy in support of PA Forward.

To get their work off the ground, PA Forward created a fact sheet that could succinctly and effectively communicate libraries’ impact on the 5 literacies and another that clearly articulates opportunities for partnership. Simultaneously, PA Forward’s Partnerships Committee established a list of prospective partners – businesses, government agencies, statewide associations, and not-for-profit organizations – held in high regard by legislators and the business community.

To gain the participation of key state government agencies, the team reached out to their governor. At the behest of the governor, the Secretary of Policy for the Commonwealth wrote a letter of support to ten targeted state agencies, strongly encouraging their involvement in PA Forward.

The team’s strategic approach to establishing partnerships has resulted in 35 active and engaged partners – and the list continues to grow.  PA Forward cites the time they invested in these early conversations as critical to their success. They did not use a ‘one size fits all’ approach to partnership recruitment. They took time to identify individuals – library leaders and PaLA’s lobbying and communications/marketing consultants – with close ties to the leaders of potential partner organizations, and then strategized the best approaches to address the needs and interests of each potential partner. With external funding in place, PA Forward was also able to focus their conversations on shared goals and collaborative partnership to meet those goals, rather than requests for funds.

With this strong network of partners in place, PA Forward has been able to accomplish a tremendous amount since its 2012 public launch. The accomplishments include:

1. Training and supporting public, academic, and school libraries to use PA Forward effectively for institutional positioning, by providing:

  • A marketing toolkit
  • A database of library programs, resources, and outreach services related to each of the five literacies
  • Technical assistance to support individual libraries’ marketing and advocacy competencies
  •  “How to” workshops conducted statewide that focus on communicating the library’s value, effective use of PA Forward’s marketing tools, partnership development, and model literacy practices
  • Customized “how to” workshops by request
  • Annual Conference sessions
  • “Train the trainers” events targeted at district library consultants
  • Webinars 
  • Monthly press releases that are customizable by libraries to showcase resources related to a monthly theme

2. Building a new advocacy force for libraries through partnerships focused on increasing literacy levels and ensuring that libraries have the resources to play that vital literacy-building role. Partners work together to produce events and training, such as:

  • Information Literacy Summit
  • Engaging the Next Generation of Civic Leaders (a one-day conference)
  • Speak Up for Libraries!  (a statewide event featuring author and illustrator appearances at libraries)
  • Public education initiatives
  • Financial education presentations
  • Year-long healthy choices awareness campaign, with monthly themes
  • Conference sessions on media relations and resources for supporting a health community

3. Using PA Forward to frame advocacy efforts. PA Forward’s website, positioning language, and impressive list of partners are resonating in legislative visits.

The team’s early successes have not come without challenges. Being dependent on volunteer leadership necessitated setting realistic timelines and recruiting leaders who have sufficient time to devote as well as the expertise, experience, and passion for the tasks required. They are also bringing together partners who have no history of working together, and while – breaking new ground is exciting, it can also be difficult to ensure that everyone is contributing effectively and getting their goals met. The work has also required librarians to think about their role differently. Using powerful advocacy messages to position libraries’ value doesn’t come naturally to us, and it’s a skill that needs to be developed.

Despite these challenges, not a single partner has left the program. PA Forward is positioning libraries as facilitators of community conversations. It is changing the way people:

  • Think and talk about libraries
  • Understand and value the role of libraries in our communities
  • Commit resources to ensure libraries’ impact.

PA Forward is a model that can be adapted by any library system to strengthen their partnerships and increase support for libraries with key stakeholders. PA Forward’s complete Toolkit for Libraries is available for free, online.

1The National Center for Education Statistics and Institute of Education Sciences, National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 2003.