Getting Political

I’m always on the lookout for articles, blog posts, and anything else with some variant of “things they don’t teach in library school,” as I’m sure many of you are as well. These things usually fall into two categories: “things they should teach in library school classes, but don’t” and “things you have to learn outside the classroom.” As an LIS student who is trying to make the most out of her education, both inside and outside the classroom, I try to keep an eye out for both.

Thus, when I recently stumbled across an American Libraries Inside Scoop post by Chris Kyauk entitled “They Don’t Teach You Politics in Library School,” it really got me thinking. Should they teach us politics in library school? If so, how? Would that kind of education lend itself to a classroom setting? And aren’t library students and librarians already politically engaged as it is?

It would certainly seem that librarians often tend to be a politically active bunch. And there are a number of library-related political issues (access to information, intellectual freedom, patron privacy, etc.). Numerous previous Hack Library School posts have highlighted library student political action topics , including the Occupy Wall Street Libraries and the SOPA/PIPA Black Wednesday protest.

Additionally, library students are often encouraged both inside school and in their outside-the-classroom experiences to develop library advocacy skills. Elevator speeches and quotable facts must be ready at the drop of a hat.

And yet, as Kyauk alludes to in his post, getting real political support and buy-in for library issues is ever-difficult: “the political spectrum is rife with roadblocks for any kind of library legislation. There are so many things that Washington considers a higher priority—including the 2014 elections.”


Our lovely friends at the ALA Washington Office can’t hold down the fort alone. We have to back them up! (Photo source: Elliot P., Flickr

While personal advocacy is one angle towards getting our message and value out there, it seems that real political engagement is another necessary piece. What are some ways we can start developing political prowess while still in library school?

  1. Get involved in local politics, and start bringing library issues to the forefront of debates. Go to a city council meeting. Talk to the librarians at your local institutions, find out how and why they’re struggling, and what you can do to help.
  2. Get involved with an organization like EveryLibrary, an organization that works on local library ballot initiatives.  (Consider applying for the EveryLibrary internship! Deadline: March 15, 2013)
  3. Find a particular library issue you’re passionate about (whether it be access issues, intellectual freedom, or basic financial support for libraries) and tap into networks, both in-person and online, that promote activism around it. Connect with like-minded individuals and spread the word. While funding for libraries is an increasingly publicized concern, the general public often doesn’t realize that things like censorship still happen every day in communities just like theirs.

What do you think? Should library students be “learning politics” in library school? If so, how do you propose we do so? In what ways have you developed your library political activism?

12 replies

  1. In our intro to LIS class, we do talk about library advocacy as an important part of professional librarians’ work (in terms of internal workplace advocacy, legislative advocacy, and even day-to-day explaining of what librarians do to people we encounter). But we don’t have a course or even a unit of a course devoted to discussing politics and libraries. I would’ve loved such a course. We have a course on information policy on the books, but I didn’t get a chance to take it, and I suspect it would’ve covered some aspects of the politics that underlie how libraries deal with acquiring, organizing, archiving, and making available all sorts of information resources.

    I love the way you break down the two types of things they don’t teach in library school, by the way. 😀


  2. I don’t know what school your in but politics was a major thing I dealt with everyday when I was at FSU. It wasn’t part of any syllabus mainly due to the outdated and archaic opinion that libraries are non-political places and that librarians should be non-political. Which as anyone who has ever volunteered at or even walked into a library would realize is a fallacy. Especially public libraries, but also academic ones as well. Its no secret that across the country in conservative states controlled by Republicans libraries are, and have been historically, underfunded, if there are any libraries at all. And don’t try and make a point about library closures in traditionally Democratic states as an example of how both political parties ignore libraries whenever it suits them. We all know that if Romney and the GOP had won in November then some of the first spending to get cut would be for IMLS and then many of your professors would essentially be out of the job as they would lose the primary source of grant money for library and information research which would completely take any argument they have for continued employment by the university away. As someone who has lived in Republican states their entire life (and yes Florida is controlled by Rick Scott and the Tea Party don’t let any narrow victory for Obama fool you) its amazing to me that there are any libraries left. Politics aren’t an official part of the curriculum also because many library school do not want to scare anyone way. And I’m not talking about offending someone’s personal beliefs I’m talking about the fact that the outlook for libraries in most states is grim when considering there is an entire political ideology built around anti-intellectualism and government of any kind, which does not bode well for the profession or anyone trying to enter the profession.


  3. At SU, one of our core classes is Information Policy. The course is a requirement for all iSchool grad students (Information Management, Telecommunications, and us LIS folk). We don’t do a lot of “library advocacy” talk, but we do go over surrounding policies (both formally established and informal) and discuss whether we think they’re fair or not. Is putting a content blocker on your libraries’ computers a form on censorship? Is Twitter removing a tweet merely content regulation or are they infringing on our U.S. notion of freedom of expression?

    The course has a global lean since we focus a lot on information as it is shared over the web, blurring the nation-state boundary. Who should have control over the web? Individual nation-states? Private companies like Facebook and Flickr? Or should we self-regulate in terms of flagging posts?

    I think politics should absolutely be taught in Library School. We’re guides. How are we expected to navigate if we don’t know the rules?


  4. Great topic! Advocacy skills are an absolute must. Especially for those of us who work in communities that suffer from devastating budget cuts. At our public library, we have furlough days and are closed for two precious weeks during the winter. Those two weeks could surely be of much educational and social value to the children in the high poverty community where I work.

    I am not sure that my all-online graduate program offers enough options for us to explore in this area. Even if it isn’t a major part of the curriculum, I am doing what I can to learn more about how I can advocate on behalf of the library where I work. I use my libraries to explore this curiosity of mine.

    At ALA Midwinter last month, an excellent advocacy institute was offered. I encourage you all to check out the advocacy resources offered on the ALA’s website. Check out Nancy Duarte’s Ted Talk on building a compelling story:

    And I can tell you one thing: having a background in creative writing and studying English for years has sure come in handy when it comes time to develop an argument and find a way to get people to listen.

    Imagine being asked to write a three minute speech that can help to secure $52,000 in funding for adult and family literacy. If it were a pie eating contest, I’d have no fear. But instead I recall the basic structure of storytelling. I do my best to highlight what really matters. During a time when there is an intense pressure to prove through numbers that we matter, the most compelling stories are still the human ones.

    I’d love to learn more about storytelling, public speaking skills, speech-writing, and community outreach. One thing that was stressed at the advocacy institute is this: relationships matter. Build up your interpersonal skills.


  5. Advocacy should absolutely be a part of library school education. LIS programs are by their nature more practical than anything, and there’s nothing more practical for a librarian than advocacy.

    It’s interesting- I’m in an archives specialization program, and part of the specialization is our own Intro course, separate from the ones regular LIS students take. And the subject of advocacy, as well as users, seems to have been one of the biggest difference between the two courses. Us archives students get more of the nuts and bolts of our specialty, while LIS students got more grounding in working with their broader communities. And yet, as we’ve seen in Georgia, archives need to speak up just as much as librarians.

    As someone who comes from a non-profit background, I would love to see more advocacy taught in LIS programs, on a daily basis, from top to bottom. But I wonder (particularly in the case of archives)- is the absence of such classes for some of us based on our institutions or our prospective profession?


  6. My LIS program at the University of Washington offers several classes related to library advocacy and surrounding subjects. In one of my core classes, Information in a Social Context, we read the briefs for several Library court cases including Google Books, Georgia U e-reserves, Haithi Trust, among others. I even got the opportunities to dig into Section 108 of the Copyright law for our final paper in the class.

    Besides the core class (which can have a slightly different focus depending on the staff member teaching it), our program offers a class on Advocacy in a Public Library and Information Freedom in Libraries (which I plan on taking next quarter).

    Also our school encourages us to take part in State Library Legislative Day (which is actually this Friday, Feb 15th). We are taking two car loads of students down to the State House in Olympia to talk to state reps and talk to library lobbyists.

    As a student interested in Digital Libraries, any issues dealing with copyright, intellectual property, and intellectual freedom are very pertinent to my career, and I’m glad my school offers many opportunities to get involved and learn more.


  7. I really like this post, Nicole! Getting political may not be for every one, at least not in a standard two party politics. But I think every one can get on board with advocacy. I haven’t had politics/advocacy involved in my classes at FSU (maybe a little in my current grant writing class), but there are options to get the education outside of classes.

    Joining student clubs or local non-profits are a great way to learn advocacy, practice outreach skills, and get experience planning events. I was very active in Amnesty International during undergrad, being President of my university’s college and an intern at their DC office, and have continued with Amnesty as a Student Activist Coordinator in the state of Florida. I know how to run a successful campaign, organize people quickly, run a petition through local and national government, so I’ve received a pretty good political advocacy training from my experience with Amnesty. We could discuss these methods all day in a class, but if we want to learn advocacy we just need to start doing it. There are other people who are passionate about the same things you are, so find them, make a plan and help create change.


  8. I think contemporary librarianship should be addressed through a core requirement. Perhaps, add the topic into Library Administration or a current issues course. Some real world role playing can lead to a better understanding of politics and people. Politics is one of those invisible forcefields that needs reason and who better to participate than a librarian!


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