Federal Advocacy for Archives: Pointers from a Former Hill Employee

Advocacy for archives. This is a hot issue in our field, and even though we believe without question that archives have value, this case has to be made to budget-conscious politicians, university administrators, and corporate boards. Many of us in the archives profession are not natural advocates, but we can learn to make our case for our institutions all the same – not just because we ought to do it, but rather because we have to do it.

If you follow the Hack Library School blog, you may have seen the well thought out post from Nicole Helregel entitled Reaching out to politicians about LIS issues, which she wrote in response to the House of Representatives passing a budget that stripped the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) of all funding. I highly recommend reading her post, as she did a great job of making the case for contacting elected officials.

Having worked on the Hill, I thought I would go a step further and give you some Dos and Don’ts for getting the best possible response from offices.

First, the don’ts:

  • Don’t call. This is directly opposite of what’s recommended in the HLS post, but here’s why I say this: Phone calls are the most likely form of contact to slip through the workflow tracking system and the most likely to have errors or missing information. The absolute best way to reach a Member or Senator is through an office visit, but that’s not feasible for everyone. I suggest email for those who need a way to contact representatives they can’t see in person. Letters are okay, but there will be a two-week delay while they undergo offsite testing for anthrax and other dangerous materials – not good in a time-sensitive situation.
  • Don’t use a form letter for the email. If you aren’t sure what to say, use a form letter as a guide, but make it your own. The offices for which I worked responded to form letters, but with form letters of our own. On the other hand, I was responsible for drafting individualized responses to constituents who wrote personal emails, making sure I addressed each point. That wasn’t one office where I worked that did that; it was all of them.
  • Don’t call or write representatives other than your own. Technically, they should never respond to you. Occasionally, the more conscientious offices will mail all the wrongly-begotten mail and email (if they print it out) to the correct Members through the blue inter-office mail envelopes, but some just trash them. You may want to give Tom Price a tongue-lashing, but unless you live in the 6th District of Georgia, by mandate, he cannot answer you, and to forward your message will require a transfer in paper form. Think of the trees, people.
  • If you do call, don’t insist on speaking only to the Member or Senator. They have folks on staff who specialize in different issues, and quite honestly, are really the ones you want to reach anyway.

Now that you know what not to do, here are some dos:

  • Do contact your Senators now. The House vote is over, so you can let your representative know your opinion on how he or she voted, but what’s done is done. On the other hand, the Senate can still make all kinds of changes to the legislation before they vote on it. The time to get in touch with any elected official is before the vote, so focus on your Senators for now. If you are unsure of who your Senators are, you can find them here.
  • Do keep an open mind. Sure, we all make assumptions based on a person’s political party, but you never know when your Republican Member may have found his career from a book character that inspired him, or that the Democratic Senator you are sure hates children faithfully takes her grandkids to storytime at the local library every time she’s in the district.
  • Do target your pitch. Whether you make your pitch institution-specific or area-specific, try to find a way that IMLS funding directly affects the Member’s or Senator’s constituents. The IMLS has a list of all its awarded grants. A quick search turned up that UNC’s library school was awarded a $491,908 grant in 2014 through the Laura Bush’s 21st Century Librarians Program for its Learning from Artists’ Archives Fellowships. That is certainly important to my library school program, and I could make a case about how training archivists to handle the range of artists’ materials is important to preserving North Carolina culture. However, as I haven’t seen either of my Senators express a special interest in art, the more effective statistic to share with Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis is that North Carolina libraries, museums, and archives received $5.8 million in IMLS funding in 2014 in order to serve North Carolinians. Each representative has different interests, so cater to them when you can. There are cases to be made for early learning initiatives, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programs, and digitization of special collections. Digging further, I see on Senator Burr’s Senate website, for example, that he has sponsored bills in the past regarding early childhood learning initiatives. For him, I want to mention the Read to Me, Charlotte program, which works to bring struggling learners to their appropriate grade reading level, and the More than Math curriculum that the Asheville Art Museum created with IMLS funds to use art to help students visualize math.
  • Do maintain contact with the office beyond the crisis. Yes, every office has frequent fliers. I’m not suggesting that you become one of them. You don’t need to write in on every issue and every vote. However, letting a Member or Senator hear from you on issues that are important to libraries, museums, and archives will eventually associate your name with them. Knowing that Mary Smith is going to write in every time may sound like a joke, but the staffer has to craft a letter to Mary each time, which causes him or her to think about the issue. If you want to up your game and really make an impact, visit the Hill during advocacy days. Pop into the office if you’re in DC and it isn’t an advocacy day. Ask the Member or Senator to visit your institution during the next District Work Period. Sooner or later, you’re going to have a relationship with the office, and that’s a good thing! I was always willing to take a call from folks I knew, even if votes were on or I only had a short time before my next meeting. Imagine how much easier it is to convince a staffer being pulled nine ways that your position on an issue is good for the district if he or she knows and trusts you.

In the end, advocacy comes down to building relationships and networking, but in the short term, please send off an email to your Senators to ask for restored funding from the President’s FY 2016 budget in the amount of $237.5 million.

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