ALA’s Republican Problem

2016 Election Results by County

2016 Presidential Election Results by County. Courtesy of Mark Newman, Department of Physics and Center for the Study of Complex Systems, University of Michigan. CC

This is a blog post I’ve been meaning to write since American Library Association (ALA) President Julie Todaro’s report on ALA’s “historic success” in getting members of Congress to sign “Dear Appropriator” letters in support of federal library funding.  A few days later, she sent an e-mail breaking down letter signers by party. The talking point included with the e-mail was: Bottom line/sound bite: essentially one-third of the entire House now supports BOTH IAL (Innovative Approaches to Literacy) and LSTA (Library Services and Technology Act) at those levels in writing.

I took a different view and I think the rest of us ALA members should too. Here’s the breakdown provided in President Todaro’s 4/5/2017 e-mail for the House:

Support breaks down as follows followed by (D/R):

LSTA only: 23 of 144 (141/3)
IAL only: 25 of 145(145/5)
Both IAL & LSTA: 121 (119/2)
IAL or LSTA: 169 (163/6)

According to the US House website, as of 6/30/2017, the House had 193 Democrats, 240 Republicans and two vacancies. So, about 88% of House Democrats signed one of the two Library “Dear Appropriator” letters, but only 2.5% of House Republicans signed onto either. This is a serious support problem given that Republicans hold the House by a large margin. ALA’s gloss of that issue and the initial omission of reporting the party breakdown is very troubling.

Using ALA’s table of Senate Dear Appropriator letters, it seems that FOUR Republican Senators out of a caucus of 52 signed either the IAL or LSTA letter, for roughly 8% Republican public support. This matters more than the 40+ Democratic Senators who publicly supported LSTA funding because it’s a Republican controlled Senate.

Instead of celebrating success, ALA ought to be looking at what could be causing such a major difference in support.

I completely accept that libraries will never capture 100% of Congressional Republicans. There are two groups of Republican Representatives and Senators we will never get, despite our best efforts:

  1. Those who reject ANY federal role in supporting libraries and other cultural/memory types of institution.
  2. Those who mistake our profession’s efforts at inclusion and being a “place for all” as code for “special rights” for minorities of all kinds.

Based on the fact that IMLS and other library funding has passed a Republican-controlled Congress year after year, it is clear to me that most Congressional Republicans do not fall into either group above. So why do so many withhold public support? Why does it appear that supporting ALA efforts on library funding is good for Democratic officeholders but not for Republican ones? ALA ought to be finding out. Because if supporting libraries becomes a significant liability to Republican officeholders, then unwillingness to fund libraries will join unwillingness to sign letters.

This “ALA Republican Problem” extends beyond Congress. Look at the 2016 General Election Map by County again:

2016 Election Results by County

2016 Presidential Election Results by County. Courtesy of Mark Newman, Department of Physics and Center for the Study of Complex Systems, University of Michigan. CC

The vast majority of these counties have one or more libraries AND voted Republican in the last Presidential election. In many of these places both the current President and his party’s state and local candidates won a majority. While the red areas of the map amount to less than half the US population, it likely is home to a majority of America’s public libraries. Libraries that must work with Republican local and state officials. Perhaps staffed by some Republicans. In this environment, it is not helpful to ALA to continue to be seen as a creature of one political party — particularly a minority political party (in terms of Congress, state legislatures and governments).

What should ALA do in response to this “Republican Problem?”

It must admit that it has one. Stop celebrating winning support from the minority legislative party. Make it standard practice to report the partisan breakdown in support of given legislation. Don’t make us ask for it.  In a Congress bound by the custom of only voting on whatever a “majority of the majority” wants, only support of majority members is meaningful. It will be painful to track advocacy efforts that way, but it will be a much clearer indicator of how persuasive ALA’s efforts are.

Reach out to current Republican library supporters in Congress. While the number of Republican “Dear Appropriator” signers was tiny, it was non-zero. The number of Republicans who ultimately support library funding is higher – though some of that is because we’ve had years of continuing resolutions. Ask the signers and library funding “yes” votes why they made these expressions of public support. Look at their states and districts. Is there something that makes them or their districts different?

Start inviting conservative library supporters to speak at ALA conferences. For a long time, ALA conferences have had nearly all liberal speakers. Not all ALA members are liberals and many library funders are definitely not. Isn’t it time that we broadened our speaking slots? Anyone who supports libraries at local, state or national levels should be welcome on ALA’s stage. Support for libraries as public institutions and respect for all people ought to be our only litmus tests for ALA major speeches. How about inviting a Republican signer of a library funding letter? Or reaching out to Red State Library associations to find a Republican mayor, legislator or governor who they credit with supporting libraries?

Identify Red State library associations that have good relationships with their funders and see what advice they give. In my time on ALA Council (2014-2016), I heard a lot of complaints about disconnects between big ALA and the state associations. This could be one initiative among many that might bring big ALA and the state associations into closer collaboration.

ALA and librarians in general must make this effort while staying true to our professional ethics and the Library Bill of Rights. The first step to making this effort and solving our “Republican Problem” is admitting we have one. 


[alacoun] Summary/Breakdown of House IAL / LSTA Letter Supporters (4/5/2017) –

[map source]  Maps of the 2016 US presidential election results by Mark Newman –

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5 Responses to ALA’s Republican Problem

  1. Diedre Conkling says:

    Many of our members of the Senate and House, of both parties, do not sign Dear Appropriator letters. They don’t sign no matter what the subject is. Does your analysis take a look at how those who don’t sign these letters actually vote on the budget?

    • Daniel Cornwall says:

      Democrats definitely sign letters. Here’s ALA’s tally on this year’s IAL and LSTA letters:

      Support breaks down as follows followed by (D/R):

      LSTA only: 23 of 144 (141/3)
      IAL only: 25 of 145(145/5)
      Both IAL & LSTA: 121 (119/2)
      IAL or LSTA: 169 (163/6)

      As my original post stated, 80% of House Democrats signed onto one or the other Dear Appropriator letters.

      You’re right that more people vote for LSTA and IAL than sign letters. Although the past several years we’ve had continuing resolutions rather than budgets. So neither Representatives or Senators have had a chance to vote separately on library funding.

  2. MKC says:

    It probably doesn’t help that librarianship tends to have a strong liberal/far-left streak which probably further alienates conservative voters and lawmakers. Librarians can support social justice causes without ignoring and/or deriding the conservative members of their community. I agree with you and think that we need to take a long, hard look as to why libraries (and education in general) doesn’t have much support among Republican lawmakers.

  3. klmccook says:

    I have been thinking about this a lot. Many working class people simply feel less welcome in any educational institution as the aspersions calling them out for the 2000 and 2016 elections have turned them away. As a Florida voter in 2000 during the recount I was beside myself with anger. During the years that followed I made peace with people on boards on which I served who were Republicans and often found that even if they were library supporters they felt librarians did not like them. That’s not true, but it’s a perception.

    We can find ways–as this article shows in Montana–to reach out.
    –Kathleen McCook

    From the One Mule Tenant Farmer to the Hillbilly Highway: How Librarians can Support the White Working Class. The Library Quarterly 87 (July 2017).

  4. Pingback: The State(s) of National Advocacy | Federal Advocacy

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