10 Reasons The #SaveSKLibraries Campaign Was Successful #skpoli

So, during the fight against the library cuts over the past month, one of the things I wanted to do was try to compile some of the best approaches and strategies that I’d learned in an Advocacy class while doing my Masters of Library Science, various tips from many of the very experienced library leaders across the country who were paying close attention to what was happening in Saskatchewan (and sharing their knowledge in conversations on Facebook and elsewhere) and some of my own personal thoughts from being a long-time observer of politics and political strategy.

I am happy to report that I never had time to do that post as the funding was fully restored last week.

But it leads to another question – why have libraries gotten their funding back when many other issues of varying levels of importance to people’s lives, proportion of the provincial budget, and size of potential number of citizens impacted haven’t (yet, for the most part) had their funding restored?

(Or, another example – Newfoundland saw similar drastic cuts to its libraries in their budget last year.  They had a large public outcry as well but that only resulted in their cuts being put on hold while a review was conducted leaving Newfoundland libraries with a great deal of uncertainty.)

Here is a list of some of the main reasons I think Saskatchewan libraries were successful in getting their funding restored.

(If you think I missed anything, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email or a DM on Facebook, Twitter, or any of the usual channels.)

  1. People Love Libraries on a Fundamental Level
    Whenever a survey is done of most trusted public services, it’s usually libraries or fire fighters that come out on top.  Why libraries?  Most people have very positive experiences with libraries relatively early in life and then that continues throughout their lives.  Most people, even if they aren’t regular library users, also see the value they provide for a relatively small amount of tax dollars.  Few other services (perhaps healthcare?) have the potential to impact our lives from cradle to grave in the positive way that libraries do.
  2. Libraries Are Politically Neutral

    As I said in another post, no matter the personal politics of those who work in libraries (and research shows that librarians tend to be to the left of most everyone except yoga instructors, environmental activists and union organizers!), librarians also pride themselves on overseeing a neutral, non-political space which believes in equity of access, freedom of information, and providing a complete range of information without judgement or bias.  That means that, unlike other cut areas, where protests might appear to be coming mostly from unions or other interest groups, the library protests clearly represented people from across the political spectrum as well as a very large contingent who were not normally politically active at all.
  3. The “Save Sask Libraries” Facebook Group

    Getting into more practical reasons, how amazing was it that the “Save Sask Libraries” group, started by two female friends in a rural community of just over one hundred people, grew from two members to dozens to hundreds to thousands within a single day – a response that no other group protesting the various budget cuts, either specific ones or in a more general fashion, has seen.  The group had incredibly strong moderation from a team of family and friends who knew and trusted each other, were able to devote an enormous amount of time and energy to building, encouraging, and monitoring the group, and maintaining a laser-like focus on saving libraries, even though there were many calls to use the group’s energy and numbers to focus on other topics.
  4. “Drop Everything and Read” Protests

    The “Save Sask Libraries” Facebook group became a clearing house for various actions – letter-writing campaigns to MLAs, posting responses that were received, telling stories of how libraries impacted people and more. Perhaps the single most effective action that was coordinated out of the “Save Sask Libraries” group were the “Drop Everything and Read” protests.  Originally an idea proposed by the wife of a rural librarian (whose own job was possibly at risk), the idea of having people show up at MLA offices across the province to read books in silent (or sometimes, not so silent!) protest had a long enough timeline from conception to implementation for the idea to grow and gain momentum resulting in something that became not just a protest but a celebration of libraries with each of the 85 locations being similar but each being unique too – some had signs, some had costumes, some had singing, some had lawn chairs, one even had a donkey!  6000+ participants made this the biggest protest in a generation in the province.  And one other note on this – most protests so far have been at one location – the STC bus depot, the Legislature, the Premier’s Dinner in Saskatoon.  This decentralized protest showed there was support across the province in places big and small.
  5. Other Advocacy

    Right after the budget, I was nervous that there was so much advocacy happening at so many levels and in so many ways but without much (overt) coordination. Sask Library Association, Sask Library Trustees Association, SILS, all 10 library systems (which, unsurprisingly, all have their own histories and internal politics), unions, a grassroots Facebook group, various bloggers, tweeters, and other social media posters (eg. on the comments pages of media stories), members of the media who may not have been actively lobbying but were often sympathetic to libraries, not one but two petition drives (technically three since the Sask NDP had one too though I’m pretty sure that was just to harvest emails), library associations outside the province, opposition MLAs as well as (presumably) some internal discussions if not outright lobbying from Provincial Library and possibly other internal lobbying by Sask Party MLAs. I would imagine some well-connected members of various local library boards were making calls and calling in favours, especially if they were involved with the Sask Party.  Again, it was all felt chaotic in some ways but it was amazing how everyone slotted into their space organically.  Early on, I know there was concern from some groups that some of the other groups were undermining lobbying efforts.  But my view was that everyone had their place.  The analogy I used a few different times was that we were out at sea – some organizations were like big luxury liners that moved slowly and quietly and others were like speedboats, able to speed along and react quickly – and all had their place.
  6. Respectful and Civil Approach

    Although in the earliest day of the “Save Sask Libraries” group, it felt like it could go either way, the group made the wise choice to focus on tactics and actions that were respectful.  For example, instead of creating memes making fun of Brad Wall or Don Morgan’s intelligence (which would’ve been very easy to do given the decision they’d just made!), the group’s members created memes that were, for the most part, based in facts and persuasive techniques. I’m not going to express a personal preference one way or the other as I believe everyone has a right to choose whatever approach they think will work best depending on the situation.  But as the recent “Stop the Cuts” protests outside the Premier’s Dinner showed, a more confrontational approach can end up hurting your cause as much as it helps if the media coverage suddenly becomes about protesters jumping on the hoods of cars (even if this was only very isolated or the dinner goers were just as guilty of “nudging” protesters with their cars as anything the protesters did.)  Generating scenes of angry white men in cars giving the finger to protesters is useful if you want to score points with other people who are already on your side. But if you’re trying to get people who look like and sympathize with (but may not share the bank balance) of the guy in the car, your technique might backfire. It’s hard to believe in hindsight but I know there were even some Sask Party supporters who were worried that the DEAR protests would be confrontational too.  (Honestly, the thing that generated the most controversy was that Swift Current protesters brought a “Reading Donkey” to their protest and some were troubled that it implied that protesters were calling Brad Wall a “jackass”.  But it turned out that Swift Current Public Library legitimately has a “read to the donkey” program for kids so it actually made sense…on many levels!) 😉 At least in the case of the library protests, I believe that taking an approach to reassure MLAs that it would be peaceful and show where we had commonality clearly led to much better results (how silly do some of the MLAs who refused to open their doors to constituents look?  How smart would they have looked if only one rogue protester had thrown a book at an MLA?). On a related note, I know that the Save Sask Libraries folks have also taken heat for encouraging group members to write thank-you letters to Brad Wall. Again, to me, this is “Playground 101” – even if someone hurts you, once they’ve said “sorry”, you’re supposed to say “It’s okay” and accept their apology (even if you might not really mean it and secretly harbour thoughts of getting back at whoever attacked to – which, in this tortured analogy, means that I suspect a lot of library protesters who are thanking the government right now are also thinking about how they can be involved in the 2020 election even if they’ve never been politically active or ever voted NDP  ever in their lives!)
  7. Book People Are Word People

    A big part of the power of the library protests was that the people who were writing letters to their MLAs and sharing stories of how the libraries have impacted their lives are (obviously) book lovers.  It’s no surprise that people who love stories have an advantage when it comes time to tell their own stories!
  8. Carla Beck

    All 11 NDP MLAs were very visible in the fight against library cuts, most notably via their active participation in the DEAR protests.  But as the Critic for Education, Carla Beck, did an amazing job of calling the government to account in the House, in Committee and in the media as well.
  9. This Was The Plan All Along

    Naomi Klein wrote a book called “The Shock Doctrine” about how politicians will use certain shocking events – either natural or planned – to manipulate, exploit and control the citizenry.  Along those lines, there are some who believe that the Sask Party’s latest budget was done in a very purposeful manner – numerous cuts across many different areas and some shocking (the complete closing of STC, the removal of funerals for disadvantaged) – which serves two purposes.  1) It makes it harder for any one issue to gain traction when people want to fight back against all the cuts.  2) It’s possible that part of the Sask Party’s strategy was to be willing to walk back cuts in a certain area (or areas) if they got enough pushback.  That way, they can save face by saying “Hey, we made a mistake but we listened” *and* hope that people stop protesting other cuts after winning one (relatively small) battle.
  10. Damage Control

    At their most basic, politicians exist to get re-elected which, in turn, allows the parties they are affiliated with to gain (or retain) power.  Tammy Robert called it in her column on the library issue – why would a political party risk doing so much damage to themselves over an amount that is literally a rounding error in the overall provincial budget? Eric Olauson may have revealed more than he meant to when he accidentally told a constituent he was going to “run her name in a party database”. I have no doubt that some politicians do, to a certain degree, check *who* is writing to them when they make decisions rather than giving equal weight to all constituents.  If Jason Hammond writes a letter to his Sask Party MLA and they see that I’m a union member, an NDP supporter who has a sign in my yard every election, etc., my letter’s maybe more likely to get a form letter response and filed under “G” in the bin in the corner.  But if one of my relatives out in Indian Head who has had lawn signs for conservative political parties and been identified as a Sask Party supporter *also* writes a letter (or even shows up at a protest, says “hello” to Don McMorris’ constituency assistant *and* posts a photo of themselves at the protest on Facebook to *their* circle of friends as one person I’m related to did), maybe they get a personal phone call or just have their letter carry a bit more weight than mine did?

So as much as I believe all nine things I listed above played a part in getting the library funding restored, I think that final point – the reality that the Sask Party saw they were taking a huge political hit – not just in urban areas where they’ve only recently had some slim electoral victories but especially among with their base in rural Saskatchewan which they’ve owned for a decade – played a huge part in getting library funding restored.

Now the interesting question becomes – what does this all mean in 2020?  Will people remember the attack on the libraries which I’ve called “the hearts of rural Saskatchewan”?  Will the economy recover or continue to sputter?  Will other Sask Party scandals emerge?  Who will the NDP select as their next Leader and will they be able to capitalize on the Sask Party’s many mistakes?

Time will tell…

[Edit: Bonus bullet point – The decision to turn off the library-to-library lending feature of SILS really quickly was both practical (regions were already laying off staff, STC was facing pending shut down as of the end of May) but probably also strategic as this is one of the single most useful, popular features in public libraries.  Turning that off made the cuts “real” to people who might not have otherwise been aware of exactly what the cuts meant (I mean, most people barely know how the library is funded at all) and how they would be impacted giving a real boost to advocacy efforts.]

Comments 6

  1. Jan smith wrote:

    Jase…the fight has only just begun. We have that organizational audit and only 1year commitment for funding. We need to keep this at the forefront to make sure the organizational audit proves libraries are the most cost effective deliverer of services and should not be moved into schools. We need to keep the rural a strong and vibrant force in the province and not seen as a burden. So on we go with phase 2 the org audit then phase 3 …. The fight to ensure that libraries and the people get what they really need in spite of what certain people believe they need and we will need public help there and in phase 3 which maybe , but I hope not, a repeat of round one then phase 4 which would be peace and everyone improving province wide services. Keep the faith and keep in touch.

    Posted 02 May 2017 at 11:38 pm
  2. HeadTale wrote:

    Hi Jan,

    Yes, I hope my post didn’t give the illusion that I think the fight is over. The #SaveSKLibraries campaign was successful but it appears that’ll be only one battle in a longer…I don’t want to say “war” as I hope it’s more positive and collaborative and productive than that but yes, we won the battle but there is more to come.

    Posted 04 May 2017 at 10:38 pm
  3. Ethel Smithe wrote:

    Your analysis makes sense except that your ordering is wrong. While the Save Sask Libraries page and Carla Beck may be important from a visual perspective, the reality is that this, and correctly pointed out, a large group of people who reacted implicitly to the idea that the library system might be harmed. We wrote letters (myself 5) by the hundreds, we phoned our MLA, we complained on social media, etc. This was a true reaction by people, regardless of political stripe. The minute this becomes about “Save Sask Libraries”, or the NDP is the moment that people stop participating in the fight. BTW…I haven’t stepped into a library in years and firmly believe in ebooks which I borrow all the time, but the idea that somebody/anybody in our province would not be able to go to a library and get a book is unconscionable. That is what this was about.

    Posted 04 May 2017 at 6:41 am
  4. HeadTale wrote:

    Hi Ethel,

    I numbered each point but my post wasn’t intended to be a ranked list of most important to least important factors. Instead, I saw it more as an overview of the many different factors (everything from pushback from citizens to our inherent love of libraries among many other reasons) that caused the library cuts to be reversed.

    As you rightly point out, a huge factor was the outcry from various people. But I’d disagree that this wasn’t inherently political. If you’re not political at all, the act of writing to an MLA or showing up to their office for a protest is an inherently political act. If you are political, no matter which party you prefer, on the library issue, it was very clear that there was one party standing up to defend libraries and there was one party that not only cut them but threatened their very existence.

    Perhaps not for you but I know quite a few Sask Party supporters are questioning their previous support for this government and thinking about alternatives (NDP or otherwise) in future elections.

    Thanks for writing!

    Posted 04 May 2017 at 11:33 pm
  5. London wrote:

    This is all very self-congratulatory, and people should be commended for their hard work on this campaign, but I posit that touting success and dropping the issues, while there are still rampant cuts to education, overlooks the political reasons why the government actually went back on its decision to cut libraries:

    1. Libraries are seen as a white, middle-class issue, as opposed to, say, buses.

    2. You can’t privatize a library. That’s a bookstore.

    Posted 11 May 2017 at 3:12 am
  6. HeadTale wrote:

    Hey London,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. My post outlines many interconnected reasons that the library cuts were reversed so thanks for adding a couple more.

    On one hand, I see your point that the library is a white middle class institution and that’s largely who leapt to the library’s defence. But Minister Morgan specifically cited the library’s role as “sanctuary” to justify the cuts soon after they happened which I took as an attack on the many socially excluded people who use the library’s services. To put it another way, I suspect a number of the library’s regular patrons are also people affected by cuts to buses and other services that disproportionately serve marginalized communities.

    As for privatizing libraries, there are ways that this is done – not by making them bookstores but by allowing them to be run by private corporations (as is the case in some US libraries) or by implementing user fees in various forms (paying for a library card was common in Alberta libraries during the Klein years, some libraries also charge for, for example, holds that aren’t picked up.)

    Again, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Posted 12 May 2017 at 8:54 am

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