OCLC was kind enough to send me an advance copy of their latest report, From Awareness to Funding: A study of library support in America, and I have to say that the results of their survey are fascinating. Thanks to a grant from the Gates Foundation, OCLC was able to partner with Leo Burnett (yes, that Leo Burnett) to survey American voters about their attitudes and support for funding public libraries.
If you’re in a public library, I can’t encourage you enough to get a copy of this report and read it for yourself. You can download one big PDF, download individual chapters, or order a print copy (highly recommended for administrators and trustees). The survey identifies four types of voters – chronic non voters, voters with barriers to support (financial, detached, “the web wins”), probable supporters, and super supporters. The report examines each one in depth based on surveys and focus group discussions about funding support for libraries.
You really need to read the whole thing for yourself, but there are some key points I want to highlight here.
- Most residents don’t understand that their public library is funded by local taxes. This isn’t a big shock, but it is critically important in the report’s conclusion that voters believe libraries are adequately funded and that if they need money, it will “come from somewhere” so they don’t feel an urgency to vote in favor of funding requests.
- “Super supporters” are a library’s best bet for “definitely” voting yes, but even their support is latent and they have an underlying fear that the library is becoming less relevant. Any funding campaign has to activate their love for the library and focus on support, not usage, because it turns out that library users don’t vote for the library. It seems counter-intuitive, but trying to get the vote out among your users is the wrong strategy. Instead, “super” and “probable” supporters use the library less but support it financially because of their belief in the power of the library based on their own childhood memories or personal transformational experiences.
- Residents who vote to increase taxes to support the library believe in its power to transform peoples’ lives, not because they value the information services we provide. In fact, the more we try to hang our hat in the information space, the more irrelevant we will become in the eyes of those voters. “The research indicates that transformation, not information, drives financial support.” (p.4-12)
- Any support campaign, whether local or national, would have to focus on increasing funding for libraries, not on getting people to use our services more or making them more aware of the variety of services we offer. Doing that just continues to play into our own misconception that library users vote yes with their wallets when it comes to ballot initiatives, and the statistics show that’s just not true.
In the end, the report hypothesizes that in a town of 50,000 people, a library would need to swing 236 votes from the “probable supporters” group in order to pass a referendum. On the one hand, that sounds relatively easy, but the key is to activate the latent passion for the library in probable and super supporters who are community activists so that they will visibly support the initiative and recruit others to the cause based on that passion.
I find so many different statistics in this report fascinating, but there’s one that isn’t explicitly noted in the conclusions that I want to highlight. In the surveys, six of the nine voting groups said that the main library service they use is checking out nonfiction books. Of the three groups that didn’t cite that use first, two cited it as their second most heavily used service.
“…Many described the ability to expand their horizons as the heart of the library’s value…. (p.5-6)
Participants recounted how they discovered a passion for a topic that formed the start of a new career or hobby and ultimately helped them achieve their potential…. They credited the library with helping form who they are and what they have achieved as adults. Many credited poignant interactions with their childhood librarians as impacting the direction of their lives. Some indicated that the library gave them the vision to do better and go further than they might otherwise have been destined for.” (p.5-7)
So as great as our fiction collections and readers’ advisory skills are, the service that is cited the most by voters is our nonfiction collection, and the focus groups in this report center their passion for the library on its transformative power to make them better human beings. I can’t prove it, but I’m guessing these two facts are related, and the person I know who explains this the best is Michael Stephens. If you’re not reading his blog every day, you should be, but you already knew that.
I’ve had the pleasure of watching Michael present several times, and when he first started talking about how “Library 2.0 encourages the heart” (and Librarian 2.0), I have to admit that I thought it was a little “new age-y.” But he’s continued to build on his message, and I think this report confirms what he’s been saying for the last few years, that the future of public libraries – both in terms of service and for garnering funding support – is about providing that transformational experience for people. Understand that I’m not saying fiction can’t or doesn’t do that. I just don’t think we’re going to swing 236 votes based on our fiction collections.
I have more to say about this report, and I hope to make time to continue blogging about it, but this report deserves your own attention if you’re a public librarian or if you care about public libraries, because it’s a roadmap for relevancy, funding, and even greater growth. Although I wish ALA had run this survey and issued this report, I give full credit to OCLC for this valuable contribution.