How Your Grassroots Garden Grows

Article excerpt

Like gardening, library advocacy is not an occasional activity that one can indulge as time permits. And when done with dedication, both can produce a gratifying yield.

First, let me set the stage. Since I began directing Prince George's County (Md.) Memorial Library in 1977, the county has declined from being the largest suburban Washington, D.C., community to the third-largest, and has undergone a racial shift so significant that we have, in effect, a brand-new constituency.

It is also the only county in Maryland to pass a referendum capping taxes at 1980 levels. For PGCML, this has meant a staff reduction from 444 FTE and over 400 hourly workers in 1977 to 269 fulltime and 59 part-time staffers as of mid-1997.

Even as anti-tax proponents continue to be a powerful, vocal group, our suburban Washington, D.C., location places us in a media market where national news dominates; reporters care significantly more whether Hillary Rodham Clinton is having a good-hair day than whether PGCML is in the midst of a fund-raising campaign.

The cutting edge of economizing

Nonetheless, during my tenure we've built five new buildings - stocked them, staffed them, and run them - by winning three capital campaigns totalling $25 million, with more than 80% of the vote in each case.

The last thing someone interested in building a constituency does is to vent frustrations on library patrons. When we persuaded funding authorities to restore the first of three successive $2-million budget cuts, we promised to not close any libraries, alter our hours, or, per our institutional culture, whine about the difficulties of maintaining service.

Following each capital campaign, we have done precisely what we said we were going to do, in thee communities in which we said we would do them and in the time line we pledged. Having a track record, we believe, helped see to it that people who vote on behalf of these referenda will vote again, and that lawmakers will trust us.

While we have made some public-service adjustments, a substantial proportion of the cuts have been made in areas that are less visible. However, our development office is about as big as ever, and includes a development officer and a community relations specialist who practically fling out their business cards from the tops of buildings to make new contacts. We find a development office an expensive but necessary commitment for managing all the citizens we've gotten to mill around on our behalf.

Among those groups is the Business and Industry Group in Support of Libraries (BIGISOL), which was founded 16 years ago to finance our political efforts and network in state, county, and private-sector arenas. Functioning as our "biz-PAC," BIGISOL put us one step ahead, particularly since we always bear in mind that these are people who can't be bothered with minutiae. They want to know precisely what you're after and that it's going to somehow relate to their bottom line.

By empowering branch managers to cultivate good relations with neighborhood movers and shakers, we've enlarged our Friends network from four to 14 chapters. We've also developed an umbrella Friends group to ensure that parochialism wouldn't overwhelm the chapters.

The result is several hundred people who are involved in library issues. …