Building Literacy: Public Library Construction

Advocacy Stories: Opponents

October 21, 2020 Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners Construction Team Season 4 Episode 1
Building Literacy: Public Library Construction
Advocacy Stories: Opponents
Show Notes Transcript

In this series of Advocacy Stories, we will examine the nuts and bolts of advocacy through the experiences of Directors, Trustees, and Consultants involved in the MBLC’s Massachusetts Public Library Construction Program. A basic rule of advocacy is to focus on your supporters and mobilize and energize them. However, this episode focuses on the experiences of librarians and trustees who faced significant opposition. 

Library employees must be very careful not to cross the line between providing non-partisan information and advocating for their library. If you have questions about advocacy activities and what is allowed and forbidden by the law, we suggest you reach out to the State Ethics Commission and/or the Office of Campaign and Political Finance. If you are outside Massachusetts, contact your equivalent state agencies.

Andrea Bunker  0:00  
Welcome to Building Literacy: Public Library Construction, a podcast for librarians, trustees and local officials who are exploring or undertaking a renovation, expansion, or new construction project for their library. My name is Andrea Bunker.

Lauren Stara  0:15  
And my name is Lauren Stara. And we are the library building specialists who administer the Massachusetts Public Library Construction Program, a multi-million dollar grant program run by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, which is the state agency for libraries. 

Andrea Bunker  0:33  
This podcast is Massachusetts-focused, but stakeholders in library building projects everywhere may find helpful information within these episodes. From fundraising and advocacy campaigns to sustainability and resilience to the planning, design and construction process, there is something for everyone. If there is a public library building project topic we have not covered but that is of interest to you, please email me at 

Lauren Stara  1:00  
or me at 

Andrea Bunker  1:04  
We are tackling the subject of advocacy in a series of short episodes entitled Advocacy Stories. In Massachusetts our nonprofit organizations such as friends, trustees, foundations or another entity like a yes to our library group that files with the state or the advocacy arms of our libraries. Library employees must be very careful not to cross the line between providing nonpartisan information and advocating for their library. If you have questions about advocacy activities and what is allowed and forbidden by the law, we suggest you reach out to the State Ethics Commission and/or the Office of campaign and political finance. If you are outside Massachusetts, contact your equivalent state agencies. In this series of advocacy stories, we will examine the nuts and bolts of advocacy through the experiences of directors, trustees, and consultants involved in the MBLC's Massachusetts Public Library construction program. A basic rule of advocacy is to focus on your supporters and mobilize and energize them. However, this episode focuses on the experiences of librarians and trustees who faced significant opposition.

Barbara Friedman  2:07  
Certainly, there are always the naysayers in any project. And in our project, we had people that told us that they were really in love with a small library and there was no necessity to expand. There were people that talked about the impact on taxes. And there were people that just don't appreciate what libraries do. So that is universal, I think in every town. I am Barbara Friedman and I am currently the Erving Library director who oversaw the building of a new library.

Andrea Bunker  2:46  
So the opposition may be well intentioned, they may be fearful, they may be misinformed, and/or they may not have had the means to support a capital project monetarily in the past or the present or the future. But these opponents and any misinformation spread by them cannot be ignored. 

Lauren Stara  3:03  
These people oftentimes can be blindsided completely by the people opposed to their project. There's an assumption that everybody loves the library and everybody wants this to go forward. And sometimes at the 11th hour, people come out of the woodwork to organize against a project. 

Andrea Bunker  3:22  
We will hear from both sides, those who have waged successful campaigns and those who are still working toward their goal of constructing a new or expanded library for their community because they weren't able to anticipate what information would be spread by the opposition.

Mark Contois  3:37  
The initial attempt to build a branch library in the late 1990s had failed, and it was pretty evenly split. At that time, we had to overcome that past experience. We had to learn from some of the mistakes we made and do better the next time around.

Andrea Bunker  3:54  
The Christa McAuliffe branch library in Framingham opened in 2016, almost 30 years after the initial attempt to build a new branch library. So we asked Mark what he believed thwarted that first attempt.

Mark Contois  4:07  
I don't think we did enough advocacy. And we probably could have done a better job in moving around the entire city. And sharing our plans and getting feedback long before the bill even developed. 

Andrea Bunker  4:20  
A lot has changed over the past 30 years, but one of the things that has not changed and has remained important is really connecting and reaching constituents when you're involved in a library building project campaign. While Mark might not have had to contend with social media, and the like and the internet in the late 1990s, when he was initially starting this attempt to build a new library. He did have to contend with it in 2016 because it's just a different way of reaching our constituents and our patrons and finding out what is being said about the library building project. 

Lauren Stara  5:00  
Yeah, and now we have the benefit of hindsight. And we can talk to people who were involved with projects that really struggled to secure a favorable vote. They underestimated the power of social media to really overwhelm some of their advocacy efforts. We've seen this happen anecdotally. But we also are talking to Libby Post, she's a campaign consultant. And she works on campaigns in many different states. And her belief is that under-estimating the electorate is one of the most common downfalls of a campaign for a capital project.

Andrea Bunker  5:40  
So it's really more than just under estimating opponents who might be on social media, it's really under estimating the need to even do advocacy.

Libby Post  5:50  
One of the biggest mistakes is under-estimating the opposition, you can't do that you have to take them seriously. But I think the other part of it is that not under-estimating the electorate, thinking everybody loves the library and so this is going to be a piece of cake. It's never a cakewalk. Ever. You have to work it. You have to make sure that you do everything you need to do to make sure that you get that 50% plus one or whatever it is that you need to win. And so I think some people just think, Oh, this is going to be easy. And it never is. I think complacency is probably the biggest pitfall for campaigns.

Andrea Bunker  6:25  
So in order to avoid complacency, it's important to anticipate what opposition there may be to your project. 

Lauren Stara  6:32  
Yeah, sometimes that opposition even comes in the form of municipal officials. The library director in Stoughton, Mass., Pat Basler, experienced that.

Pat Basler  6:43  
You just never know where your advocates are going to come from. And you should never assume that it's all the politicians, because, truthfully, it isn't always the politicians. In our case, not one elected official supported the project. We did a citizens petition by the trustees to get both the feasibility and the final grant articles through town meeting, because the elected politicians weren't supporting it at the time, you just can't assume that the normal leadership are the people that will move something forward. It's just interesting that you can't assume who's going to be your best advocate.

Andrea Bunker  7:17  
Just like Pat says, you can't assume. They could not have predicted that their biggest advocate was not a library user. Just like a project can have surprise supporters, sometimes opposition also comes from unexpected places and is direct. And in Weymouth, and you'll hear Mayor Robert headland, talk a little bit about where their critics came from, but their municipal officials were very supportive of this effort. It really is different in every single community.

Mayor Robert Hedlund  7:44  
It's a very fiscally conservative town. And we had people that complained and just made an assumption that this was going to impact the bottom line on their taxes, things like that. So we had to try to educate the folks as to we weren't seeking an override, we could do it within our existing debt service line item. And the council understood that. But there were some residents that, you know, rely on maybe on social media where they see rumors. Ironically, one of our loudest critics was probably our most prolific library user.

Lauren Stara  8:14  
It's interesting to note that a lot of times people who are daily library users end up being opposed to projects like this. And on the other hand, people who never stepped foot in the library are often the biggest advocates and financial supporters as well.

Andrea Bunker  8:34  
In both of those cases, in the case of Stoughton, and in the case of Weymouth, they knew what their opposition was saying. But sometimes you need to anticipate what you are not hearing as much as what you are hearing to understand the true level of opposition your project faces. 

Libby Post  8:53  
We had a construction grant round in 2010, and then the next one was in 2016. In 2010, social media was not a huge factor in those advocacy efforts. But we're finding in this most recent grant round, the one that we're in right now, social media is a huge factor. And in fact, three of the four projects that have failed to secure their local funding in this grant round so far, were derailed specifically by social media campaigns. 

Andrea Bunker  9:25  
So we did speak to one of the directors who was involved in that round of grant applications. And she learned the lesson of not anticipating what you're not hearing in a heartbreaking way. So although they had held several initial meetings about a potential library building project, the attendance was really low. And they didn't question that at the time. And monitoring social media with an online presence was a challenge because they don't actually have broadband or they didn't at that time. They just got broadband for the residents of the community. But at that time it hadn't reached their town. So it was really difficult to understand what was happening in that online forum. So without hearing any opposition, they assumed it would be a welcomed project in the town until just a few days before the vote.

Mary Anne Antonellis  10:15  
Looking back, we might have said, "Oh, nobody's coming. We should really sort of figure out a way to communicate to the community and get more people there." But we can't go back and change what happened. And then we got the grant. And it was getting close to the time where the town was going to have to accept the grant. And we had a public forum. And the room was packed. And the room wasn't packed with supporters. It was packed with people with lots of questions and statements about how much the project would cost and a lot of fear. And we were surprised and kind of taken aback. We were blindsided, and I don't think that it was any kind of intentional thing. Remember, this is going back to 2011. Communication was different than we didn't have the online resources of communication that we have even now, just last year, Shutesbury installed a broadband network that's available to the whole entire town. And a lot has happened with online communication between 2011 and 2020. So now we knew that there were people who were questioning the project, and were opposed to the project, and people who were going to try and defeat the project. And it was was within days of the vote. I would say we hadn't thought much about advocacy. We just thought it was such a great idea. There had been a previous plan to build a new library for Shutesbury that was in 2001. And that plan was a plan to put an addition on the current building. And there was opposition to that, but the opposition to that was more about that plan and how it was going to cut into this town common. So we thought that the opposition wasn't about a new library project, but it was about that particular plan. And that this new plan, which was a new location would have widespread support. And we were naive, and we hadn't worked hard enough to reach out to the whole community. And we anticipated that there would be some opposition because there's always some opposition, but we didn't anticipate the level of opposition that would arise.

Lauren Stara  12:34  
Yeah, in that town, it's a tiny little town, and they in two different town meeting votes, they have an open town meeting rather than representative town meeting, which means that everybody who wants to come can come and vote, and their project lost by one vote in one of the cases and by I think it was four or five votes in the other one. So in a town that small, every single vote really counts and every single comment on social media accounts.

Andrea Bunker  13:10  
We've talked a lot about social media so far, because it is becoming the place where critics of projects air their concerns and share information or even misinformation about capital project. One of the trustees of another library that struggled to secure local funding, Aida, describes how the online realm allowed the cultivation of an anti-library project sentiment without the library's knowledge. And I know Lauren, you worked very closely on this project.

Unknown Speaker  13:38  
Yes, I did. Rosemary worked more closely with Aida did than I did. But the critical thing to understand is that on social media, there are more channels out there than you might realize.

Aida Gennis  13:51  
So the opponents of the project, we spoke with them. During the course of this, they came up with five objections to why our project could not go forward. And much of this we were not openly aware of, because of the way media is now promulgated, and information is now disseminated. So with the Internet, and with social media, one can be fully aware of what a public body is doing because of the Open Meeting Law and the sunshine laws, that your work is transparent, yet your opponents, and it's fair, of course, don't have to abide by those same laws, because they are private individuals, and they can organize and develop an argument and a campaign that you were totally unaware of. And not that we were totally unaware of it, but there was much that we were not aware of. So there are now little neighborhood groups and people can join these different groups and spread information and you don't necessarily know about that yourself as a trustee or as an advocate for the library project. You can also develop sites that are not open to any but members. And you don't have to be accepted as a member, knowing who you are if you request membership. Also, if your language skill is English only, then you may not be able to join a social network group of another group that is usually in primarilyanother language to communicate. So those were things that happened.

Andrea Bunker  15:23  
Anecdotally, this appears to be a common issue in library building project campaigns. So we asked Libby post, how she deals with opponents on social media and social media in general.

Libby Post  15:34  
The social media stuff, they target people on Facebook, you target people on Facebook too. You know, there's a platform that I use called topler, TOPPLR. It helps you target voters on Facebook, so only the voters will see your messaging. And you have to budget money to go and do Facebook advertising, do Instagram advertising, and make sure that you're using all the social media outlets that you possibly can. You know, you need to know who your demographics are and make sure that you reach them the way that they go on social media. But TOPPLR is really good for Facebook, then there's another platform called El Toro, which is like Google ads, but to the thousandth power, they can help you target your folks as well. But the most important thing to do when you've got the negatives coming at you, is go right back at them.

Andrea Bunker  16:33  
So there really are two factors at play here. As Lauren mentioned, someone needs to attempt to monitor that social media as well as create content for social media, as Libby says. And you need to dedicate funding to target social media content toward constituents. It's important to remember that according to federal law, only 20% of a 501 c three is finances can go toward advocacy efforts. So the more money that your friends have, or your yesterday or library group has, the more money you can spend on advocacy, but it can only be 20% of that total amount that they have in their coffers. 

Lauren Stara  17:12  
We have one example of a library building project campaign that really tackled this issue of social media opposition, and that's in Greenfield, Mass.

Ed Berlin  17:23  
Hi, my name is Ed Berlin. I am Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Greenfield Public Library. I'm also presently co-chair of the new library building committee, and I was co chair of the library yes campaign, which headed up our very successful campaign to get the vote out for the new library in Greenfield, Massachusetts. We had a major presence on social media, there's no way we could have done this without one person really handling our social media piece. So we had another person monitoring social media. Whenever there was anything negative there, we were able to quickly respond to that. Our library yes committee met every single week. One of the benefits of the committee is it was a pretty diverse committee. So with all of us there, we were really able to get a sense of what was really going on in the city. And so we were able to maneuver and change our messaging depending on what was happening.

Andrea Bunker  18:21  
It really is about more than just monitoring. There is a lot to do with messaging. And being proactive and organized with messaging can really assist a campaign and getting ahead of the naysayers and the opponents.

Libby Post  18:36  
The other mistake is not staying on message and different people saying different things. What's important is for everybody to have the same message, the same talking points. So that when trustee a is asked a question in the supermarket, and trustee B is asked it at the dry cleaners, and it's the same question, they answer the same way. So that's really important. And not staying on message can kill a campaign. And somebody going rogue within the campaign group can also be a killer.

Ed Berlin  19:06  
Not only does our messaging need to be consistent, but our everything we put out needs to be consistent. We had a logo, which first appeared in our lawn signs. And then when we put out anything on social media, that logo was there, whatever we did involving Library Yes, it had the same logo on it so that people became aware when they saw it, they would know who it was coming from. So we had a social media person. By meeting every week and having those people on board, we could talk about what's happened the week before, what our issues are, what's coming up on Facebook, what do we need to do, what is the message we want to push forward, what messages out there do we need to combat. That's what we were able to do on a weekly basis. And it's a good thing we did, because, frankly, if we hadn't we wouldn't have been successful. I want to go back back a little bit to July 2019. At one of our meetings, one of our members walked in shaking her head and said, we're going to lose that her husband is a member of the Elks and associates with a lot of the folks in town who we identified as people who may not have been our supporters. And what she was hearing is that even people we thought who are supporters were no longer and it all came down to taxes.

Andrea Bunker  20:29  
On the next episode of Building Literacy's: Advocacy Stories- Taxing Conversations, because what any capital project boils down to is spending money. We would like to thank all of our contributors to this episode: Barbara Friedman, the former director of the Erving Public Library, Mark Contois, the director of the Framingham Public Library consultant to Libby post, Pat Basler, director of the Stoughton Public Library, Mayor Robert Hedlund of Weymouth, Mary Anne Antonellis, director of the MN Spear Memorial Library in Shutesbury, Aida Gennis, Chair of the trustees of the Wayland Free Library, and Ed Berlin, trustee of the Greenfield Public Library. Thank you for joining us. Send any questions or suggestions for future episodes our way at As always, until next time, but for now, we will leave you with this uplifting thought from Mayor Hedlund that also seems to be a universal truth.

Mayor Robert Hedlund  21:29  
Overall, the community was supportive. We had some naysayers that saw conceptual drawings and thought it was ugly. You can't find anyone now that says that the building is ugly. Sometimes conceptual drawings don't catch the real flavor of what the building is going to look like. So there aren't any naysayers left now, trust me.

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