A year and a half ago I wouldn’t have described myself as an advocate for much of anything. Ive always kept aware and informed on ‘the issues’ and I always vote—but until recently I didn’t sign petitions, or call congresspeople. I’ve spent the past year of my life coming to understand the economy of libraries while also becoming a fervent believer in them. This knowledge has made me passionate enough to call Washington about SOPA and to evangelize to Facebook Friends (largely non-library folks) about Library Card Sign-Up month. In my own way, I’m stepping out for libraries.
There are two basic ideas that I have found to be useful to me as a library advocate. First, you are the voice of the library to every person that you meet. Second, the most important library news and issues are the ones that are happening in your own back yard. The first idea is summed up in my previous post on elevator speeches. To quickly summarize, be ready to articulately talk about libraries (their issues, services, funding, etc…) at the drop of a hat. I’m almost certain that several of my friends are on the brink of strangling me if I again utter the words “you can get that from the library”—but it’s true. The library has so much to give and so many people don’t know about it. Make it your business to tell them.
To the second point, I’ve recently realized that libraries are like a food chain. In this chain, libraries are situated between funding and patron needs. In library school I’ve spent a lot of time learning about the patrons that the library feeds with service—but not much time learning about the government practices that feed the library. I encourage you to develop an understanding of your local and state politics and how they effect the library you use, work at or hope to work at. I do this by following local and state news through public radio and public television—and by following savvy Chicagoans and librarians on Twitter. Britt Foster (HLS Alumnus) recommends creating a network with like-minded causes (e.g. teachers unions, social services organizations, literacy programs). Having connections with other groups can help you stay in the know while providing a body of advocates to call on when your cause is in need.
In the past year I’ve answered more calls to action on behalf of libraries than any political cause in my life because it’s so apparent how much it matters—one particular instance stands out. I started library school with visions of working behind the desk at a Chicago Public Library branch someday. Recently, my city’s mayor made drastic library budget cuts leading to service and staff reductions that are making pickings slim in these parts. This didn’t happen without me contacting my alderman, signing petitions, and urging others to do the same to prevent the cuts. When the cuts went through, I experienced a time of being scared and discouraged. Eventually I got past it and became curious about how I could make my coursework more relevant to the information-related job I already have and a more varied range of library settings. Being uninformed would have left me ignorant to the changes I needed to make to stay relevant as an information professional in my area.
Libraries do not happen in a vacuum. While it’s tempting to focus our energy on information issues all the time, it’s important to understand the context of the libraries near you. I urge you to open your local newspaper and read about what your city council has in mind for the next year and start to ponder what that means for your library and what that means for you as a student and future librarian. If you don’t like what you see—work to change it.
As I feel I’m fairly new to the advocate space, I’d like to close by asking a couple of questions. What role is advocacy playing in your library school experience? What are your best practices for advocacy?