This blog starts from the fact that libraries find themselves having to make the case for funding and support to decision-makers with a wide variety of positions, and looks at what sort of arguments could work in each case. It is with thanks to Antoine Torrens-Montebello, who sparked the idea for it.
In order to be able to offer their services to users for free, libraries rely on support from others – host institutions, funders, and in many cases, governments.
As such, libraries do need to work with people who, at least in democracies, have come to power because they have promoted a certain view of the world. But even outside of this, politicians inevitably have a particular set of attitudes and beliefs about people and society.
While we certainly need to avoid becoming political footballs, library advocates have to be able to explain their contribution to people with different opinions, including to those we may not agree with.
Fortunately, libraries are versatile institutions, and it is possible to argue in favour of libraries in many different ways, in order to convince others. This is not to compromise on our own values, rather to ensure that we can continue to deliver services that we know are important for the people we serve.
A simplified way of thinking about what these arguments are comes from the Political Compass. This provides a way of placing yourself (and others) on a chart along two axes – from economic left to right, and from authoritarian to libertarian.
In our version, we adapt this slightly, and look at axes from economic left to economic right, and from social liberal to social conservative.
As underlined, this is a highly simplistic approach, but a useful starting point. More sophisticated approaches are possible! In each section below, we’ll look at one part of the compass, and the arguments that can be used for libraries to convince people who are there.
Economic right, social conservative
This part of the compass is where you will find politicians who tend to believe in less regulation for business and a smaller state, but also who are relatively less focused on issues of personal freedoms or combatting inequalities. They tend to be more traditionalist or even nationalist.
For libraries, the arguments that are likely to be most effective will centre on the fact that we are institutions with a long history and tradition, as well as a key role in safeguarding heritage for the future. Politicians here may also be positive about ideas focused on libraries supporting community-building and social cohesion, even if this is more from the perspective of avoiding insecurity or social challenges.
Economic right, social liberal
This covers politicians who also believe in a small state and supporting the private sector, but more because they believe that this can and should be a way of helping everyone to achieve their potential, and are ready to regulate accordingly. They can be friendlier to immigration, readier to address social issues, and challenge tradition.
For politicians in this space, libraries can be presented as a great, efficient way of helping people to access a variety of possibilities, and deliver on their potential, if they are ready to take the initiative. The fact that libraries are services for everyone can be promoted as a means of being more effective in delivering services, while their cross-cutting function can be talked about as being innovative.
Decision-makers in this space may also be sympathetic to ideas based on individual rights and freedoms, and how libraries help to make this happen, as well as potentially as a basis for supporting community initiatives.
Economic left, social conservative
Here is where we come across politicians who believe in stronger state spending, including a generous welfare state, as well as broad nationalisation of services and industries. This is accompanied by a relatively strict view of society, and an expectation that everyone – including newcomers – should look to assimilate in order to participate.
When advocating to people in this part of the political compass, libraries may gain from underlining their role as part of the wider welfare state, for example as a key provider of (or portal to) education to people throughout life, a complement to public health initiatives, and beyond. Decision-makers may also be sympathetic to the history of public libraries in some countries, where they were an early form of public service, focused on helping people in the greatest need to develop their knowledge and skills.
Economic left, social liberal
Finally, this is the part of the compass for politicians who combine a readiness to spend money to support both social programmes and wider investments. At the same time, they also tend to be readier to accept and celebrate diversity and downplay nationalist or traditionalist feelings.
Here, libraries can focus strongly on their role in providing adapted services to everyone, as a very modern example of the welfare state at work. Indeed, our approach can even be contrasted with more focused actors like the police, schools or hospitals, and our locations – as dedicated non-commercial spaces allowing diverse communities to come together – can be celebrated. Politicians here are likely to feel warm about spaces where a strong mix of people meet, and equity promoted.
This is, as already mentioned, a highly simplified way of looking at how we can promote libraries to people coming from different political viewpoints, including those we may not personally agree with.
Of course, there also need to be red lines. There are policies and attitudes that we simply can’t work with, given that they stand in opposition to the idea that everyone has a right to be able to access information, knowledge and culture. In such cases, we need to work to find more moderate voices, and work with them, in order to ensure that our communities can continue to benefit from our services.
Overall, there is a strong potential set of arguments for libraries when working with politicians of a wide variety of tendencies, reflecting libraries’ own versatility. Do share your ideas and experiences in the chat below.