Education vs. Advocacy: A Primer

Created by: Doyle Marketing Communications, Inc., Rochester, NY 14607. Funded by: 2003-04 Library Services and Technology Act grant to Pioneer Library System, Canandaigua, NY

Because libraries are prohibited from using public dollars to affect the outcome of an election, it is vital to understand the difference between education and advocacy and what libraries can do when publicizing an upcoming proposition vote.

Advocacy is the term applied to any effort that urges people to vote for or against a proposition or candidate. School districts, municipalities, public utilities and libraries may not use any public funds to support advocacy efforts. However, libraries may plan and execute an educational campaign that provides voters with the facts about the proposition. Trustees, a Friends group not directly funded by the library or others in the community may advocate in favor of the proposition by speaking out publicly, running ads, making telephone calls or sending out flyers, as long as they do not use public funds to support these efforts.

Here's an easy way to remember the difference between education and advocacy:

  • Public libraries may urge people to vote on the referendum. Friends groups may urge people to vote yes!
  • Public libraries may show a chart that compares its per capita spending with other local or similarly sized libraries. The Friends may directly ask voters to support a proposed tax increase that will increase per capita spending.
  • Public libraries may say that the proposed budget increase will provide additional funding for needed services as identified in a community survey. The Friends can advocate for voters to approve the budget in order to improve library services or to add new services.

Educational Campaign

Once approval has been obtained authorizing a vote on creating a special library district, the library should be ready to launch its educational effort. The question of how widespread your educational effort should be is one that can only be answered by library officials who are familiar with the community and any controversial issues that may impact the vote.

Some libraries choose to lead very low-key campaigns in order to avoid igniting controversy or opposition. Instead, they rely on library patrons, staff and volunteers to provide the support needed to pass the proposition. Other libraries go the opposite route after identifying significant opposition to the proposition. In that situation, it becomes vital to reach as many people as possible in the community with the facts about the referendum.

Here are some ways to inform the community and create awareness of the upcoming vote:

  1. Prepare a notice with information on the date/time/location of the vote; who is eligible to vote; and the date of the public hearing if applicable. Make sure to include a library telephone number voters can call to get more information. Distribute the information to all library staff, trustees and volunteers so they are prepared to answer questions from patrons and others in the community. Example
  2. Prepare easy-to-understand examples that explain how the proposition will financially impact residents. Compare the per capita cost of library funding to the cost of purchasing one bestseller or a research journal subscription. Compare the average homeowner library tax assessment amount to the cost of being open one hour a week (and indicate how many people used the library during that one-hour period). Examples of this type of fact sheet used by the North Shore Library and the New Rochelle Public Library.
  3. Testimonials work! Use real-life examples of how the library helped people in the community. Provide examples of how the library supports all segments of the community:
    • preschoolers who get a head start on learning through a variety of library programs;
    • students who participate in summer or after-school reading programs or use the library resources for research projects;
    • adults seeking information on medical treatments and prescription drugs, fitness and nutrition, stock market or financial planning;
    • community groups that use the library's meeting space for programs and events; or
    • seniors who depend on the library for reading materials and free cultural programs
  4. Reach out to government and school district leaders to ensure that they understand the facts about the proposition and to identify any potential problems or issues that could impact the library vote. Try to avoid situations where public officials might come out publicly against the proposition due to concerns over increased taxes or control over library services.
  5. Post the fact sheet prominently on the library web site.
  6. Prepare a press release with the information and distribute to all local media outlets. Make sure that library officials are thoroughly prepared to answer questions. Consider scheduling a meeting with the newspaper's editorial board to present the facts on the proposition and how the special library district will benefit the community (include library trustees or Friends representatives to speak about the benefits). Be sure you're ready for tough questions that might come from editors or reporters.
  7. Prepare PSAs to send to local TV and radio stations on a regular basis during the time period leading up to the vote. Contact station news directors (don't forget about your local cable access station) about appearing on public affairs shows to discuss the proposition vote.
  8. Use the library or town newsletter, if available, to present fact sheet information to the community. It also may be possible to include the fact sheet in a community organization or business mailing.

Advocacy Campaign

Groups or individuals not funded by library tax dollars are able to actively campaign for support of the library proposition. This includes Friends groups, library trustees and community supporters. In particular, the library Friends can be a powerful force in encouraging public support for the referendum.

Friends groups may create and distribute materials such as signs, posters, flyers, handouts and even paid advertising, urging the community to vote for the proposition. All print materials should include a statement naming the group that paid for the materials, and stating that public funds were not used for this purpose. Trustees and Friends members can attend public hearings and information sessions to speak out in support of the library. Make sure to keep these speakers updated regularly with facts and other proposition-related information during the campaign.


Libraries may only have a few months between the time a referendum vote is authorized and the actual vote. So it is important to establish a planning schedule to coordinate public awareness tasks.


Month 1

Month 2

Month 3

Prepare and distribute press release announcing upcoming vote




Prepare fact sheet (example 1 | example 2) distribute to library staff, trustees and volunteers




Create page on library web site to provide information that can update regularly




Identify key government, community and school district leaders to be briefed on the proposition




Include vote information in newsletter or special mailing


< -- X -- >

Friends launch advocacy campaign




Schedule public affair TV/radio show interviews


< -- X -- >

Prepare PSAs and distribute to local TV/radio stations



(send out weekly)

Schedule meeting with newspaper editorial board




Contact community and business organizations to schedule trustees and others to give presentations on the referendum vote


< -- X -- >

Display signs and other information in the library about the upcoming vote. Remind library supporters of the need to vote.

< -- X -- >

Friends groups schedule get-out-the-vote drives.



(last two weeks)

Be Prepared for Opposition

No matter how beloved the library may be in the community, there is still a chance that the referendum vote could trigger opposition or concerns. Consider the following:

  • Were questions or concerns raised by residents or elected officials before the referendum vote or previous to the library board's adoption of the proposed budget? If so, make sure to have an appropriate response if these issues come up again.
  • Has there been any organized opposition to recent school or municipal budget votes? This may impact on the library vote even if there is no immediate change in funding or tax assessment.
  • Has any individual or group raised concern about the library in previous months over issues such as inappropriate items in the collection, use of library computers, the lack of certain services, poor customer service, or a perception of inappropriate spending? Failure to positively address these issues could generate a negative perception.
  • Are there any emerging political or community issues that could distract voters from the library referendum? Take this into account when planning educational and advocacy campaigns.

Anticipating these issues and preparing an effective response is the best way for libraries to counter opposition. Always consider whether it is better to let a negative charge go by without comment or if it considered to be significantly damaging to necessitate a response. In some cases, non-response by the library allows the matter to drop and minimizes the possibility that the issue will become a major controversy.

There are several ways to respond to opposition or concern. Faced with significant opposition, library officials and advocacy groups should be prepared to mount a publicized response, using the local media, targeted presentations to key constituencies, targeted mailings or advertising. A letter to the editor or comment in a news story should probably be ignored unless vital information has been misrepresented. In that case, remember to attack the false information, not the individual. Anticipate common concerns and take the initiative to address them quickly and effectively using whatever means best fits the situation.

If the Vote Fails

In the event that the proposition fails to pass, be pro-active in assessing the cause and determine how to positively address the issue in the future. Thank all those in the community who supported the library. Reach out to educate and address the concerns of groups or individuals that opposed the referendum. Identify community leaders or other influential residents who are willing to speak out in support of the library.

Last Updated: July 29, 2009 -- asm [created January 27, 2005]; for questions or comments, contact us