bookburningIt can be hard to get enough funding for libraries. Troy, Michigan recently tried three times to get a tax increase passed to give the library sufficient funding to stay open. The vote failed twice, and had only one last shot on the ballot, days before the library would have to close. But as with two previous attempts, it was facing well-organized opposition who had managed to make the issue all about opposition to new taxes with no mention of the library at all.

So the library approached ad agency Leo Burnett/Arc Worldwide Detroit and asked what they could do with a $3,500 budget. The company produced a guerilla and social marketing campaign (PDF) in which they pretended to be a clandestine group urging people to vote to close the library so they could hold a book-burning party afterward.

They put up yard signs all over town, placed a classified ad asking for clowns and caterers for the party, and posted a Facebook page for their campaign where they made cute little inflammatory announcements like “Our agenda’s pretty simple. We want the library to close so we can have a book burning party. What’s not to get?” This had the effect of focusing the public’s attention away from the question of a tax increase and onto the question of losing a library’s worth of books. (They did reveal it was a hoax before the actual election.)

The campaign apparently worked; voter turnout in the election was 38%, double the anticipated 19%, and the vote won by a significant margin. And the campaign ended up winning an Effie Award, the marketing industry’s equivalent of an Oscar or Grammy.

Some will find this campaign technique obnoxious, but I have to admit it made me chuckle. It really is a clever idea, you could almost say a “hack” of the political system. Whether we like to read or not, book-burning is a hot button for almost everyone. The idea of destroying knowledge triggers a kind of atavistic horror in almost any educated person—probably why the imagery is so often used to fight censorship. With only a month to go before the election, this was probably the most effective thing the library’s backers could have done to regain control of the conversation and get their message across.

(Found via BoingBoing.)


  1. Libraries are the cornerstone of democracy. To imply that an award winning library is not a good value ignores the economic reality. The know nothings were ignoring the very real value of libraries.

    The referendum was needed to raise 1.7 million dollars. Consider that a library yields $5 return for every dollar spent and this is truly a case of pennywise pound foolish. and and .

    If you take a moment to think sometimes the library is the only source of information for internet access or ?

    Strong libraries lead to strong democracies.

  2. Libraries are history. They are an approaching irrelevance and should be wound down and abandoned. Spending more money on them in these times of recession is a disgrace. The income from selling off the buildings and land should go toward a future public welfare eBook access scheme which will be more effective, more efficient, and more economic.

  3. Nonsense. It may be difficult for you to accept but many people do not have access to fill in the blank at home. When times are tight library usage increases.

    How else can the unemployed worker seek work if he doesn’t have an internet connection or a computer? Where else can people come together for a common purpose? In many small communities if the library goes the community will soon die thereafter.

    It is the ultimate in elitism to call for disestablishing a resource that exists for the benefit of all regardless of economic status. Public libraries predate the founding of the US.

    Your calling for a “public welfare” ebook access scheme is a prescription for ending access to information for those least able to pay. Ereaders break. How are we going to assure that we have enough ereaders for all? A book can be repaired if the binding is damaged.

    The public library is a symbol for a community of a common purpose and a public good.

    Did you know that it is more expensive for libraries to provide ebooks than paper copies? (This results in fewer copies being available for the commons.) Your claim that it would be more economic ignores those who prefer paper over eink, and those who won’t buy an ereader.

    I own an ereader but I still use my public library. I want to make sure that EVERYONE has access to the services a library provides not just those who can buy their books from a retailer. The model that you propose would decrease access and increase costs.

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