EveryLibrary – John Chrastka

STEVE THOMAS: Hi, this is Circulating Ideas, the librarian interview podcast hosted by me, Steve Thomas. My guest today is John Chrastka. He’s the Executive Director of Every Library, which is the new political action committee for libraries. You can find them online at Everylibrary.org, or you can follow them on Twitter @everylibrary.

John, welcome to the show.

JOHN CHRASTKA: Thank you Steve, it’s great to be here.

I wanted to start off with a quote from John Berry’s column in the newest issue of Library Journal from September 1st issue. It’s called “It’s Time to Fix Library Advocacy” and basically he’s saying that when the media writes about libraries they’re writing about it “wrong.” That they haven’t caught on to the profession’s view of what a library is, especially in terms of public libraries, but I think that applies to all libraries and since our budgets are getting cut, the politicians in particular have obviously not gotten the idea of what we want libraries to be and I wanted to read one quote from it and that’s, “We need immediate action to reframe the library message and the investment to garner it, the media attention and public interest that will reach elected officials. We need a militant message tied to an aggressive media campaign to tell those who govern that the pittance of tax money they allocate to libraries is the wrong target for budget cutters.” And I thought that was a timely column because when I read it we had already set up our interview here today and it sounds like this is something that your organization can help out with and I wanted to see if you could tell me about Every Library and how you think that fits in with John’s thoughts.

Sure, sure. John Berry’s been a real cheerleader for library advocacy, but he’s been also a real thinker and a visionary. I like his, his use of the word militant there. I haven’t seen the article yet, this is the morning that it comes out, but I’m looking forward to it and it’s kind of interesting timing as well because the dateline on that is September 1st, we launched Every Library yesterday September 5th. I’ve been using radical and I’ve been using the word tactic to talk about what Every Library is in terms of the broader library advocacy strategy in this country. The strategy for library advocacy needs to be as active as John describes. It needs to be as present on Capital Hill and as our friends at the ALA Washington office are doing, it needs to be in every state house, which our state chapters are doing as well. Every Library though is trying to address an area that isn’t being touched as radically, or as militantly, or as actively by the other national and state associations. And that’s the local ballot box. The local ballot box itself is where a heck of a lot of appropriations takes place for libraries, as well as authorizing language for library districts. A library that is currently a district, a public library for example, that’s currently in a district, has to go out on occasion to authorize, to get authorization from the public for its tax rate, it has to go out on occasion to asking for bonding in order to do, say construction or renovation or some significant capital improvement.

All of those taxes and levies and millages and bonding is about operating funds, it’s about expansion funds, it’s about jobs. The service the library puts out there, the infrastructure we have in the building, the collection, that is extremely material. Now, what’s going on in D.C. has impact that’s extraordinary. What’s going on in the state house needs to be paid attention to closely. But, what happens at that local ballot box, if that doesn’t have some sort of organization behind it, then it sits on its own merits and the merits are good, but sometimes the voter education doesn’t quite get out there. There are a lot of instances where a ballot initiative for, let’s just say the $4 million ballot initiative, bond initiative that they have, it’s going to be the first time since Carnegie died that they have a new library and it fails by 3%, it fails by 5%. I’m not blaming anybody for that, they haven’t had the support they need. The PAC is intended. Every Library is intended to fundraise around that nationally, to be able to provide monies directly to that initiative and then to provide campaign consultancy that is germane and specific to running a library campaign. I think there’s some great library consultants, some great political consultants out there, but nobody’s really focusing exclusively on libraries. This is a big enough industry and it’s an important enough profession to have to have that exclusivity of focus and I think John spoke to that in his article. We didn’t necessarily look at, he didn’t necessarily look at Every Library as part of that, but I’m really glad that glad that there’s a simultaneity to this announcement.

And I think, as you said, I think that on the site that a lot of the current non-profits and stuff are not really allowed by the IRS to directly do this kind of thing, so we need an outside organization like a PAC to do this kind of stuff.

That’s right and that is, that would true if we were talking about environmental issues, if we were talking about public health, if we were talking about the conduct of any profession. Any association that is a 501C3 cannot do certain activities. That is part of the IRS code, it’s part of the reason that they are a non-profit and that the dues or the contributions to that, to those organizations are tax deductible for the individual who are doing the contributions. The 501C4 structure, which is what Every Library will have is set up explicitly to allow for political activity as one of the key things that it can do. If you read the IRS code for 501(c)(4), it’s kind of a catch all, a little bit like they threw a bunch of different things in there. See if you scroll down a little bit as you’re reading it, but the area that they talk about is lobbying. Lobbying is defined in a couple of different ways for (c)(4) organizations like Every Library. Some of them do it in a way that is about an issue and they advertise nationally, regionally, or locally. Sierra Club, for example, or an NRA. They talk about the environment is good, vote for the environment. Guns are good, vote for guns. But they never name an initiative. This (c)(4), this Every Library organization will work specifically to name initiatives, largely because those other groups are talking about candidates and they’re not allowed to talk about candidates, so they choose not to talk about candidates, they talk about the issue. We don’t have a candidate here, we have a valid initiative and that distinction is really important because we can talk directly to the voters about the importance of libraries, the importance of their particular library and for the first time ever we can say to them vote Yes on Proposition L, vote Yes on Ballot Measure 123, vote Yes on changing your millage to .5 from .3.

It’s an extraordinary opportunity to do that in support and in concert with the local library’s ballot committee.

And would you be able to support candidates, I mean would that be possible to do under your structure under the IRS? I guess if there’s the candidate that was particularly pro-libraries that some, that a group wanted to fund.

In its inception right now, Steve, we’re not going to do candidates and the charter for EveryLibrary will explicitly say that, that we will not be working on candidates, we won’t be working on the presidents, on a member of Congress, on somebody who’s going for the state House of Representatives, or for that matter, a mayor, a city council person, a county commissioner or a library trustee. It’s not about candidates here. Candidates are extremely important and we should all as voters become informed and find the people and talk to those people who are going to be setting policy, who are going to be setting appropriations, who are going to be setting the tone for your communities, absolutely. But, this PAC is going to focus exclusively on ballot initiatives. That gives us a great deal of flexibility. We start straying into the candidate world, I don’t know, it’s the, the line that I’ve been using it’s an important one. It came to me a few months ago and I’ve been turning it around, it’s the idea that any library initiative anywhere matters to every library everywhere. Any candidate does not necessarily matter in the same way that the initiative does, because the initiatives are about appropriations, they’re about money, they’re about funding that is keeping the doors open, employing librarians and library workers and getting the services out to the community. So, I think that it’s your main and it’s necessary and there’s an awful lot of them over the course of a three or four year cycle and there’s millions of dollars at stake.

Right and one of the ways you, that you’ve said that you’re gonna help with this thing is you’re gonna provide tool kits for libraries. Can you talk a little about that?

Absolutely. So in its inception here in September 2012, EveryLibrary is not, oh gosh it doesn’t even exist today. We’re hoping that, we’re fundraising right now through November 7th, which is the day after the next election, in order to raise some monies, $13,000 of which we’re going to use to set up the infrastructure itself. The filings for the IRS, the filings for the different Secretary of State’s office and such. We got to get that right. If we don’t have the PAC filings done properly and we’re working with a great law firm here in Chicago that’s highly experienced in doing political action committees and they’re giving us some wonderful advice and they’re going to be the attorney of record on this. Very excited about that. The other $37,000 that we’re trying to raise in our $50,000 goal, well the day after the next election there’s going to be a lot of unemployed political consultants. It’s the nature of things. The campaign’s over, you look for your next job. So I’m lining up right now the opportunity to hire a number of political consultants the day after the next election to be able to do a couple of things.

Voter segmentation work, message development and then mapping the national statistics about libraries, the value of libraries, the impact that libraries have into the messaging environment for local communities. That is, what we’re going to do with that then is build those toolkits for the 2013 primary election cycle and the 2013 general election cycle with the idea that we’re probably not going to have quite enough money yet to do what we want to do in 2014 which is fund those individual ballot initiative committees and PACs that are out there around the country. 2013’s going to be very important for EveryLibrary because you need to find two or three libraries that we can demonstrate some success with, in terms of actively participatory consultative full-fledged PAC environment. The rest of the community we want to be able to offer those toolkits to immediately. The tool kits that people can use artwork, lawn signs, bumper stickers, bus ads, billboards, good art as well as the messaging as well as the radio commercials and, gosh, if we can even put together some sort of video for the web and have it high enough quality that you could put it on cable access that would amazing as well. With the idea that we need to show some success and then fundraise very actively for the 2014 cycle where the toolkits will be available, there will be an active consultancy in place to help libraries figure out how to put things on the ballot, how to write ballot language that helps things pass and and how to manage a campaign from signatures all the way through the election day, while then also being able to fund different initiatives with seed money or sustaining monies with PAC to PAC to PAC to community transfers.

And it looks like in the meantime, you’ve already started on your site, you’re listing, you’re not going to be able to do anything to help them out necessarily, but you’re already listing some referendums that are coming up just for informational purposes.

Yeah, we can as a community and the library community do referendum round ups which I think is great, but the look back is a white paper, the look forward is political action and if I can do things to help highlight campaigns around the country that are in need of help. We’re also going to be putting up between the middle of September, I need about two weeks or so to get this together, the middle of September to the beginning of November, I’m going to be doing a call for volunteers and those volunteers are going to be able to use some distributed call center technology, kind of a call from the cloud, where we can actually do phone banking from your own home, or office, or cell phone and you could actually participate in supporting some of those local campaigns. I have not done my outreach yet, I expect that round of discussion, some of these libraries are running referendum in 12, to happen over the next two or three weeks and I want to find two or three libraries, five libraries depending on the cadre of volunteers to be able to go out and offer them at least phone level, phone support. The chance to have somebody from Syracuse call somebody who’s in Tallahassee and say, and I don’t know if either of those libraries are doing anything right now, don’t get me wrong, to say, “Hi, I’m calling, I’m a librarian and I’m calling from Syracuse, you’re a voter in Tallahassee and we have an opportunity on the ballot and we believe so strongly that your community needs a good library that we’re calling from around the country. That could be a great bit of signal boosting right there.

Right and I did see as part of your, the organization that you’re going to be doing, after you get the initial funding, is you’re going to be choosing a board and then you’ll be choosing an advisory board. Can you talk about how you’ll make up those two bodies?

Absolutely. The board of directors, the, okay, I love ALA, I love the Urban Library Council, I love OCLC, these are colleagues, these are friends, these are great library advocates and their governing structure is a membership organization governing structure. They are all individually 501C3s. The board of directors, smart people doing great work. Council for ALA, smart people doing great work. There’s a membership structure there that does not need to be repeated with EveryLibrary. It’s a 501C4, we’re set up under the, we will be set up under the laws of the city of Illinois, the board of directors will be three individuals and I’m currently in good discussions with those individuals and I expect to also be on the board myself. That structure is really to fulfill the requirements of the charter and to make sure that the fiduciaries are taken care of, but they’re not going to be involved in day-to-day. Who will be involved in day-to-day is the staff that we’re going to be hiring, the consultants we’re bringing in, people who are professionals about how to do political campaigns and people who are professionals about library issues and then most importantly the advisory board. I’m hoping to go out with the advisory board in early December and ask for nominations from around the community. The individual organizations that are out there will have a chance to nominate, whether or not they can do that is going to be up to them in terms of their ability to participate in the C4. But, I want to put it out there and I want to have it out to an open call. There’s a few people out there that I have on my wish list as well and some of you have already heard from me. The advisory board is going to be able to help us in this phase before we’ve got a lot of money, to be able to direct spending in a way that is most appropriate for the amount of money that we have and also to encourage fundraising as well. So, the chance to move an election though is kind of amazing when you consider that there are what, 60% of this country is served, public libraries serve under towns of 10,000. There’s a lot of opportunity to move votes, to do voter education,  to do get up and vote work for not millions of dollars, not even hundreds of thousands of dollars per campaign, but $3,000 to move 600 votes, you can do a lot with that, $5,000 to move 600 votes. So, I’m hoping that the resources that we have will be substantial and surpass the need for this, for any one campaign that we’ll be able to build a purpose of monies, to be facile, to be aggressive, to be radical, to be militant in some ways and that advisory board is going to be key. I want people who are, on that who are from all the different types of libraries, all different types of communities, demographic diversity on there, economic and type of library and perspective and age and the whole deal. So, you get a dozen or 15 good people together, you can move quickly, but also though things don’t just pop up on the ballot on November 6. The things that are on the ballot on November 6 have been considered, have been put out for signatures, have been, in some cases, vetted by a city council or a town council before they go out there, or a county commissioners. We’re going to be able to take a long view on this as well and really work towards those campaigns that are in the future. There’s never a good time to start anything, I hope to be able to support those 2012 campaigns as best we can. The 2013 campaigns with the toolkits, 2014 that’s really when this is going to be operational.

Right and that’s, that sounds great. I did want to ask when did you first get the idea to form this PAC? I mean, I’ve kind of heard the idea floating around from various people in the past, but what made you finally decide I’m going to do this.

Well, one of the things that I loved about ALA and working at ALA, full disclosure I was Membership Director at the American Library Association for the better part of a decade, I’ve worked with a lot of different constituencies in ALA to get things done for them, to try and make things happen for them and the place that I, early in my tenure chafed at was that I wanted to say, not I wanted us to say as an association, “Jack Reid is great, vote for Jack Reid.” And I didn’t realize early on that we couldn’t and “Jack Reid is great,” that’s enough to say as an association. “Jack Reid is great, vote for Jack Reid” is political speech and so as I, when I left ALA to go on and do consultancy to other types of associations, both professional and educational, I kept turning this around and realized at a certain point in the last year or so, probably at Mid-Winter in Dallas, that I had an opportunity to act and that if I didn’t decide to make it happen, then I had nobody to blame but myself. So, I started a legal structure that is being used very actively out there, this PAC structure is being used by groups that don’t care about libraries. We actually are being faced soon with a PAC environment that is going to be very negative towards libraries. Public libraries are a unit of government. Units of government are being looked at by the Tea Party types and the small government types and the  ? types as being something that’s a problem. If we’ve got a group of people out there who say that we want to shrink government to the point where it doesn’t exist, what does that mean for the libraries? That means bad things for libraries as an industry, but it means terrible things, awful things for the communities that they serve. So utilizing the PAC structure that is out there, it dawned on me that we’ve got to fight fire with fire. This is not again happening at the federal level, or the state house level, or working candidates, but the place we’ve got to make sure that we’ve got our act together is at the ballot box. This is the place that, I don’t know, my politics are not part of EveryLibrary, it’s a non-partisan situation, libraries are non-partisan, it’s pro library, that’s what it is. But I looked at what the Christian Coalition and other groups did in the late 80s and early 90s with school boards and the opportunity that they took to move small elections, really small elections, couple hundred people here, couple hundred people there to create school boards that they were happy about and they did it as a special interest organization. They have set a tone for education in this country that you can’t deny has an impact. You look at what’s going on in Texas in terms of school curriculum, my goodness, if we don’t look at the same impact that a couple hundred votes here and a couple hundred votes there have on library millages, levies, taxes, bonding, the referendum, we’re going to stand here 10 years from now and say, “What the heck happened?”

Right. Basically you have to play the long games. [laughs]

You do, you do, so I woke up one morning and said, “Ah, there’s a long game to be played, I think I’ll play it.”

And how are you getting the word out right now? Are you going to, I know that you did the, you were part of the White House petition for school libraries earlier and you used Facebook ads and things like that. Are you doing anything like that for EveryLibrary?

It’s nice of you to notice that Steve, that was a good campaign. The White House petition, that was back in what, February?

Yeah, yeah.

There was a chance with that for the library community and Carl Harvey from, who’s been President of ASL put up a petition on the Whitehouse.gov site talking about the value of school librarians and the importance of having school librarians in the reauthorization of the ESCA and the petition got some great attention, but it wasn’t getting the attention it needed in the time that it needed to get done. So what myself and a couple of other people did was took a look at how to use Facebook and just focus on Facebook. My colleague Jimmy Hamlin from Connecticut helped put together a great list of keywords and we went out and fundraised specifically to advertise to those keywords about this petition and that, combined with a lot of grassroots got it done. The scale of things where it’s one petition versus this which is a national political action committee, we’re going to have to be out there with fundraising for a while, we’re going to have to be out there to prove that the community itself wants this. The $50,000 goal over 60 days is what $803 a day. That’s doable from a fundraising perspective and it needs to be done from small donors primarily. People who are librarians and library workers and library supporters who are sort of on the inside and perhaps a little bit more in the know. People who are not just punching a clock, people who really care about things. For us to get to that point we have to then go out to larger donors, private donors, people who aren’t even in the library community, but who, if they are told about libraries in a way that says this is part of a progressive agenda, this is part of a civil society agenda, this is part of the, of an agenda that is about kids, or about immigrants, or about literacy, or about learning, or about just enjoyment, those larger private donors or corporate donors I think could be activated. So, yeah, we’re going to have a Facebook campaign, we’re going to be doing some work with keywords, we’re not going on Google or on Bing, and there will be some direct mail in the future, it’s important to do that in order to raise additional funds. To expend a thousand dollars on Facebook ads, you can reach a heck of a lot of people. I wouldn’t even know what to do with a thousand dollars quite honestly. And that’s leverage, that’s real leverage, because that thousand turns in maybe 10, maybe 30, maybe 50 and that’s an important way to spend some of the PAC money.

So, where can people go online to find out more and to get involved and donate and all that?

Absolutely. It’s Everylibrary.org, one word Everylibrary.org. Everything’s there, there’s a link to donate, there’s a good amount of description about what our mission and purpose is. We’re blogging pretty actively about it as well. The donations can be sent in. Individuals, corporations, unions and certain foundations are eligible to donate to a PAC.

We hear about it on the news a lot right now how unlimited money’s being used to influence elections. That would be pretty extraordinary for a library community to have unlimited money come in and influence elections. [laughs] So, I don’t think that’s all bad, it’s likely the PAC that we all hold our nose about and say, “Yeah, this one’s kind of for us and we can get behind it.” So check it out at Everylibrary.org. I’m reachable through there. The donations are open really through the 7th of November. We’re going to be going out for additional donations at that point after that in order to get operational for 2013. There’s some good people out here in the community and I hope they identify this as being something that will be valuable, not only for a current election cycle but for generations of library services to come.

Yeah, I think it’s a great thing and I hope everybody will go out and support this and get the word out for you and thank you, John, so much for talking to me for the show.

Oh my gosh, thank you for the opportunity, it’s been a pleasure this morning.