A disturbing issue was revealed in the personal interviews conducted by the consultants. Although no one who was interviewed questioned the desirability of public library services, few non-librarians saw public library services as essential or as being a high priority service. One interviewee captured the general tenor of the interviews by referring to public library service as a "nicety."
It was clear that many decision makers do not recognize the important roles that public libraries can play in introducing young children to the world of books and reading, in supporting primary and secondary education, in stimulating economic growth, in developing an informed citizenry, in supporting workforce development, or in enhancing the quality of community life.
Virginia’s public library community seems to understand the importance of raising the public’s awareness of libraries as essential community institutions. The conversations in the focus groups repeatedly returned to the twin issues of advocacy and public awareness.
Public libraries have been positioned as highly relevant to their communities in some areas of the State; however, in many other communities, libraries have been marginalized. It appears that many decision makers at the State and County level recognize education as a high priority issue but fail to make the connection between libraries and education. The question is not whether additional advocacy and public awareness efforts are needed; the question is how to carry out these campaigns.
Some of the public library directors who participated in focus groups expressed the opinion that public libraries and public library development were not the top priority of the Library of Virginia Board or of the Librarian of Virginia. The roles survey conducted by the consultants underscored this point of view. Over seventy percent (70.97%) of the directors responding to the survey identified the Virginia Library Association (VLA) rather than the Library of Virginia as currently being the leading entity in advocating for public libraries. However, the directors saw a growing role for the Library of Virginia in this regard. While VLA was still ranked as the lead library advocate in the future, the Library of Virginia increased from just over three percent at the current time to over sixteen percent (16.13%) in the future.
Some directors participating in the focus groups came to the defense of the Library of Virginia and its limited advocacy for libraries. There was a strong sense that the services of the Library Development and Networking Division (LDND) are highly valued and an expression of a real sense of loss associated with staffing reductions within LDND.
However, several directors pointed out that public libraries are just one among a broad array of priorities for the Library of Virginia. The Library of Virginia is indeed a multi-faceted organization with many responsibilities that extend beyond public libraries. Nevertheless, there was a general consensus that the state library agency could be more visible in supporting public libraries.
The web survey revealed that it is library directors who feel most strongly about gaining greater support from the Library of Virginia. Survey participants were asked to indicate the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements on a scale of 1 to 5 with 1 representing "strongly disagree" and 5 representing "strongly agree." Just over fifteen percent (15.38%) of public library directors said they strongly agreed with the statement, "The Library of Virginia Board believes public libraries are essential to quality of life." In contrast, over fifty percent of general library staff and youth services librarians indicated strong agreement with the statement (52.97% and 56.92% respectively).
Directors did not portray the Library of Virginia as hostile. In fact over seventy percent of the directors rated their agreement with the statement at the mid-point or above on a five point scale. A score of 3.0 would indicate that a respondent was neutral, that they neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement. The directors’ mean response to this statement was 3.41 and only 2 of the 65 indicated strong disagreement. However, the less than enthusiastic endorsement also makes it clear that Virginia’s public library directors wish that their institutions were a higher priority for the Library of Virginia.
Follow-up conversations on this topic centered on the delineation of the differences between advocacy and lobbying, discussions regarding the range of the Library of Virginia’s responsibilities, and where advocacy for public libraries might appropriately fit within the Library of Virginia’s priorities. Most people agreed that public libraries have placed too much emphasis on the "full funding" issue and not enough effort on conveying the importance of the positive outcomes associated with increased support for public libraries. It was clear that greater advocacy by the Librarian of Virginia and the Library Virginia Board, while desirable, is not a "silver bullet."
The Virginia Library Association was seen as the leader in advocacy for public libraries both at the current time and in the future. This is not a surprising finding. State library associations rather than state library agencies do take the lead in advocacy for public libraries in numerous other states. However, most of the library associations that do so are either 501(c)(6) organizations under Internal Revenue Service codes or have separate political action committees. The Virginia Library Association’s 501 (c)(3) status limits what it is able to do in the way of "lobbying" or organizing lobbying efforts. A 501 (c)(3) organization is a religious, educational, or charitable organization. A 501 (c)(6) organization is a business or trade organization. One of the significant differences between the two is the degree to which political action is allowed. It is clear that Virginia libraries need a stronger voice. Whether that voice is a redesigned Virginia Library Association, a new entity, or an extension of the Virginia Public Library Directors’ Association is an open question.
In many states, library trustees and Friends are important players in advocacy for public libraries. The library trustees and library "Friends" who participated in the focus group sessions were relatively knowledgeable about their own libraries; however, they seemed less aware of the larger challenges facing public libraries at the State and/or national level. Trustees largely perceived their role as managerial or fiduciary while Friends saw their primary role as fund-raisers. During their interviews, representatives of VLA indicated that trustees and Friends have played a limited role in advocacy for libraries in regard to statewide issues such as state aid. Better communication of the key issues with Friends and Trustees and an active effort to recruit these individuals as advocates could pay handsome dividends in terms of legislative support.