Advocacy in Library School

Art by Andrea Davis defines advocacy as “the act of pleading for, supporting, or recommending; active espousal.”  I know I heard and used this term before I began library school but I honestly think my awareness of it has increased tenfold in the last two years of my program.

You may think that it is because I’m learning all about advocacy and how to be an advocate for libraries and the profession in my courses.  And sure, you would be partially correct.  I’ve had a few professors mention budget cuts to libraries and what it means for the profession and the likelihood of us finding jobs when we are done with the program.  But as advocacy seems to be at the forefront of the library profession these days.  ALA even has an Advocacy University section on its website.   And the library blogosphere always seems to be talking about it (see Andy Woodworth’s blog for some fantastic posts on the issue).  However, I often feel that my LIS education has left me lacking the skills to take on real-life advocacy; both DURING my degree as well as when I’m finished.    But is this actually something that should be taught?  How to advocate?  Are those skills that should be integrated into a graduate program?  And beyond that – what role should library school students play in advocacy efforts that are going on in the area?

This last question is one I’ve thought about a great deal during the last year.  Some of you may have heard about the budget concerns in Boston that were threatening to close several branches of the Boston Public Library last year.  [To find out more you can check out the web site that was created by concerned patrons of the library.]  I feel like whenever issues like this arise, the more people helping out and raising voices, the better.  Yes?  And my second assumption was that library school students who live in the very same city as these branches and who are going into the library profession would want to be involved in the process that was going on right in front of them.  This is where I found myself kind of disappointed.  My fellow students did not seem to want to be engaged as I thought they would.  Now don’t get me wrong, there were several students who were all over what was going on and were involved and engaged.  And I also realize that grad students have school, work, families, and loads of other commitments.  But I saw this as kind of a perfect opportunity to not only get involved in the community but get involved with reaching out to local librarians and patrons; despite which type of librarianship you were studying.  On the other side of it all, I thought that perhaps my professors would encourage us to get involved.  And this was not 100% the case either.  Again, there were definitely professors who were involved but I would have really liked to have seen the program as a whole become more engaged in what was going on in the library community right at our doorstep.  I was worried that, as the library school community, were guilty of thinking “that is someone else’s issue.”  But maybe I was asking too much of a graduate program?

My fellow hacklibschool editors have had some of their own experiences with advocacy in their communities.  Britt Foster spent a tremendous amount of her time advocating for Measure L in LA and wrote a fantastic post about what it means to be an activist librarian along with her most recent post on Activism and Advocacy.  And Heidi Kittleson, in her last days of her grad program, has been advocating for the iSchool, at the University of Washington, as its funding has been threatened.  She wrote about the situation in a recent Hack Library School post.  Also, check out the great post on Lyndsey Runyan’s blog about the iSchool situation.

So how does advocacy fit into the library school program?  Should it fit in?  Who is responsible for learning about it?  What is the role of professors and administrators?  Have you been involved in advocacy efforts in your community?  In libraries?

Categories: Advocacy & Activism

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12 replies

  1. Advocacy is a very important topic that MUST be discussed in school. It’s an issue that librarians, students, teachers and citizens have to take on because funding to libraries are being cut left and right. I’m lucky because some of the professors in my program are very in tune with what is happening in our community. Earlier this year, all the students got emails to participate in a read-in at a city council meeting, to show support for the library. Citizens, students and professors went to the read in, which resulted in the council to call another meeting on library funding because they saw the overwhelming support for it. Additionally, another professor, wrote a newspaper article advocating for the Friends of the Library organization here, in response to major budget cuts.

    I would be very surprised to hear if professors weren’t talking to students about advocacy in the classroom and trying to find solutions.


  2. I would agree with the previous poster. If you don’t know how to advocate, you will find yourself out of a job. Or there won’t even be a job to begin with. At the public level, libraries are politically the easiest and first to get cut in terms of city, state and federal funding. In academic libraries or special collections, if you’re not doing dynamic work and letting the higher-ups know about it, they will cut your program or reduce your staff. No matter what kind of repository you work in, it is of the utmost importance to let others know of your contributions and value, so they understand why its important that you continue doing what you’re doing.

    And on the flip side, the very nature of what we do provide access to information is an activism in and of itself. If you are passionate about providing this access to others, then you will advocate for their right to have the information and the right to provide it. Libraries and advocacy go hand in hand.


  3. Advocacy definitely needs a better look. ALA’s resources are mediocre at best, and are largely talking points. Case studies need to be made about successful library advocacy. We need to know what works and why. Integrating it into a library education is the first step in generating the research and resources needed to help us protect our institutions.


  4. I have to admit…I don’t know if it should be taught in library school. Don’t get me wrong – I think advocacy is important, definitely, and essential for libraries nowadays, but I’m not sure if it’s something that could be taught. Would there be a class on how to stand up for the library? I think it’s something you do because you want to. I didn’t have to take a class to know to sign the petition against Florida’s library budget cuts. I think it’s something people get involved with when they want to. Perhaps teachers could mention things going on, and students can always research ways to stand up for the library system, but ultimately I don’t think it’s something a full class could focus on.

    Just my opinion!


    • I agree, it’s not really a class that could stand on it’s own. Instead, I see it being worked into the curriculum, class exercises, discussion, things like that. My school offers a Library Fundraising and Philanthropy class which definitely relates to advocacy. I would say it takes a step further by examining ways you can raise money and connections to potential donors. Another class that’s offered is grant writing, a good skill to have in this field.


      • I think that’s precisely why we should have it integrated into the curriculum. Funding issues are something every librarian will have to deal with. Librarians should be empowered through their education to deal with that.

        Also, I think that learning the organizing skills that exist around advocacy will also help us be better at our jobs. The first step to advocacy is being involved in your community. Community involvement is a mindset that every library school graduate should have, having the skills to use that is just a natural extension of doing our jobs well.


      • Interesting discussion. For me, the choice seems to be learn to advocate or learn to make do with less. Public library budgets have been seriously cut lately, and there have been deep cuts to education in many places. I don’t know about everyone else, but I hope to end up at a public or academic library, and I find the current trend very alarming. Not only for myself, but for patrons (also me!).

        You may not be able to force action, but you can cultivate it through education. I wrote a paper about Judy Krug for one of my classes. It was a really fascinating assignment because I learned a lot about her advocacy for intellectual freedom, which was very inspiring. She was director of the OIF at age 27 and had an amazing career. A real badass.

        See if advocacy fits into the theme of any papers you have coming up and use that as a learning experience. That’s what I’m trying to do right now anyways. I’m also attempting to blog about it as I go to think through some ideas and gather materials. Might as well try to leverage the time and effort towards some advocacy.


    • I took a class last spring called Advocacy in Public Libraries and it was honestly one of the best courses I took during my MLIS. We learned about tax initiatives, grant-writing, outreach to community partners, talking points for government officials, etc. And, we had invigorating discussions with guest speakers who came to share their perspectives.

      I’ve been an active advocate in other areas of my life, but I honestly think that libraries are distinct characters. Sure, you can learn how to advocate for them, but the class I took allowed me to better understand all the ripples of areas of advocacy in libraryland. I’m thankful I had the opportunity to learn it.


  5. I think that advocacy as it fits in with a larger communications perspective is definitely a course that can stand on its own within MLIS programs today/

    Community organizers go through extensive trainings on advocacy tools, grassroots strategies and best practices, so why not librarians too? I come from a nonprofit public relations background and see so many incredible opportunities for MLIS programs to integrate more directed, targeted communications studies into the curriculum – communications with our patrons, our colleagues, our boards, our municipal and state governments, etc. are all fundamental parts of our everyday responsibilities and interactions. I feel there’s definitely a place, and would encourage further development of it, within our library school programs.


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