Taking Care of Business: Advocacy at the Local Level

By John Keister, Owner, John Keister & Associates Executive Search

Many of us advocate for additional library funds, for or against a legislative bill, and for general support of our libraries. We hold a Legislative Breakfast and other events where we can bend the ear of our legislators. Within our communities, we reach out to library users, develop groups such as the Friends, and generally do an effective job of getting out our message: libraries have been and continue to be one of the most valuable community assets. However, how many of us have made a serious effort to reach out and expand our constituency to include our local business community?

Why is the business community so important?

In addition to the possibilities of financial support for our local libraries, our state and federal legislators listen to business leaders. The library helps a business and then the business tell the legislator about the value of public libraries. That is advocacy in action. As for funding, the State of Illinois has an economic “pie” that appears of limited size, and libraries have to compete every year just to get a fair slice. It seems to me that we need to increase the size of the pie if we want a larger slice. Growing an economy generally means growing businesses. What organization is ideally positioned to help foster business growth? That’s right—our local public libraries!

How do libraries benefit local businesses?

Our libraries hold almost unlimited access to information and tools needed for business incubation and growth. Through interlibrary loan, businesses can access almost any print material anywhere. Then there are the incredible and valuable electronic resources and databases. Let’s not forget that ultimate better-than-Google search engine—the local librarian. Wow! You get all this for the cost of a library card.

I am a library advocate but I am also a business owner. When starting my executive search practice 31 years ago, I made extensive use of the resources provided by my local public library. The library became, in a sense, my partner. I was so impressed with my library that I ran for the board and served for many years as a trustee. That’s what led to my passion for library advocacy. So, to doubters, take heed: I am one example of how helping a business get off the ground can lead to gaining a new library advocate.

So why do so few of our large and small businesses know about the wealth of service our libraries provide?

Perhaps a story will help. I was the invited speaker at an industry meeting of software technology leaders. Naturally, I discussed libraries with several attendees before and after the meeting. One attendee in particular, Beth, founded a project management consultancy. She resides in the northwest suburbs and makes good use of her local public library. Here are a few of her comments about her library: it is a “great value,” a “fabulous facility,” and “if you’re looking for good information, the best is what you find in a book.” Beth conducts research on the Internet, but visits the library for materials and electronic resources. She also makes significant use of interlibrary loan. The library, with books on starting a business, writing a business plan, and marketing, helped Beth launch her business. She is the exception, however. Beth thinks that the general business perception of the library is “that it is for children and families.” What would she change? She encourages much faster interlibrary loan (next day delivery), an e-newsletter geared toward business, and the publicizing of business resources and services.

Businesses are an “untapped market” for libraries. We should develop effective strategies to reach out to, inform, and learn to better serve the business community. Think of library advocacy as a triangle with three vertices: community (residents), government (legislators, local trustees), and business (industry and commerce). Going forward, let us bring more businesses into our library tent.

About the Author

John Keister is a lifelong library advocate and resides in Vernon Hills. He is the owner of executive search firm John Keister & Associates. John currently serves on the Illinois Library Association Advocacy Committee.


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