Congress is on recess, members are back in their home states and they want to hear from you! During District Days, YALSA has all the tools you need to advocate for teens and libraries! Kate McNair, YALSA Board Member, interviewed Meaghan Hunt about how she connects elected officials to advocate for teens and libraries.
You are a special projects librarian for the Metropolitan Library System in Oklahoma City. Part of that job is working in government relations, what does that entail?
While some libraries are formally a part of their city or county governments, our system is a separate nonprofit organization, governed by a commission of representatives from each municipality in our service area. All that said, we are still funded by tax dollars, so maintaining strong relationships with our government officials is important.
At our library system, we encourage each library manager to build relationships with their local and city governments, and coach them to build confidence in doing so. At the system level, we advocate to state and federal legislators about how library funding impacts their districts and constituents. I attend co-chair the Oklahoma Library Association’s Legislative Committee and also serve as a delegate for ALA’s National Library Legislative Day.
In your government relations role, what are you typically communicating with elected officials about?
On behalf of my library system, I help to coordinate library visits and town hall meetings for elected officials, and ensure they are invited to groundbreakings, ribbon cuttings, and similar publicity events. We also share information about services that may be of interest to them specifically; for instance, re-entry programs for veterans, school partnerships, and so on.
As the state’s legislative chair, I help to ensure we have advocates at the state capitol every week during legislative session. Coordinating at the state level is a much different effort, since our association represents both urban systems and rural libraries– but we try to ensure that our members check in with their legislators throughout the year, updating them on how tax dollars are being used to educate constituents of all ages. I believe it is important for them to see public funds in action, doing far more than just checking out dusty books.
What tips and tricks have you found work best when communicating with elected officials and their staff?
Always contact offices as far in advance as possible. Many times it may come down to the wire when you’re scheduling, but you want to get on their radar very early, as these folks receive hundreds of invitations to various events each week.
A good start is filling out the official’s scheduling request form, if they are a high-ranking official and have one on their website. Others staff full-time schedulers or executive assistants who you can contact to arrange a meeting. These staffers tend to be very approachable– they deal with constituents all the time. Make sure they know who you are and make it a point to remember who they are (I once learned the name of a staffer’s pet and it was a great ice-breaker for phone conversations).
Having served as a government staffer, I can say that the nicer you are to them, the more return you’ll see. Treat them with the full respect you would the legislator. Send thank-you notes or e-mails to them. And my biggest tip? INVITE them to things. If the legislator is unable to make it but a staffer or field representative is, that’s often just as well. The staffer may take photos and will definitely report back, which is a fantastic opportunity to get them on board and educate them about the great work you do!
How did you feel the first time you emailed/talked to an elected official? Were you nervous? How have your feelings changed as you have become more experienced in the position?
I was beyond nervous, yes! I think everyone is. But honestly, the more times you do it, the more comfortable you’ll get. For the first decade of my career, I took a back seat and watched veteran advocates at work. Now that I’m more experienced, I feel confident speaking up about our library and what we do. For some people, it only takes one or two “tag-alongs” to get the hang of speaking with confidence to their elected officials. For others, those skills are built slowly over time. Either way, I promise the jitters wear off once you realize that you are the expert when it comes to your library’s work, and your legislator