Questionable Promotion/Advocacy

I recently received an ALA Store catalog in the mail and was happily flipping through the pages, considering whether or not I should order my own supply of Love My Library buttons, when I stumbled across this t-shirt:

Sold by ALA Store, design by Andy Woodworth (Image source: ALA Store)

Sold by ALA Store, design by Andy Woodworth (Image source: ALA Store)

It has pictures of endangered animals (a giant panda, a mountain gorilla, a black rhino) and then the library symbol, the point being that libraries are endangered. I’m sorry to say it but something about this t-shirt does not sit well with me. It rings a little alarmist and reminds me of the Huffington Post “Libraries in Crisis” page which Turner Masland covered in an excellent Hack Library School post called HuffPo: Helping or Hurting?.

I’m sure the shirt was made with the best intentions and I’m all for library advocacy and spreading awareness. But I don’t think this is the right approach. In a press release from when the shirt debuted, the designer is quoted as explaining the concept as follows: “In a changing climate of funding and support, the public library is under a constant pressure that threatens its very survival. I hope this shirt is a reminder to librarians, library patrons and the public at large that the library serves as a valuable community resource for education, research, literacy and much more. If it goes away, society as a whole will be poorer for its loss.”

I agree with that sentiment completely. Libraries are facing tough times and building awareness of their value and services is a great way to combat negativity and dwindling funds. However, when I look at this shirt, the outlook is bleak. There is nothing about how libraries are a “valuable community resource for education, research, literacy, and much more.” There is only the sentiment that libraries are dying, going out of business, becoming extinct. This is not a positive message of awareness.

As burgeoning LIS professionals who are getting ready to strike out into the world, all the while struggling with how to perceive ourselves and how to present ourselves, I don’t think this is the message we should be sending. Or, at the very least, it’s not the message that want to be sending.

What do you all think? Is this shirt helping or hurting? What kinds of library advocacy do you participate in? What kinds of messages do you think we should be sending out into the world about libraries and their value?

9 replies

  1. There is definitely something off about the message they’re sending. For one, it implies that, like the animals shown, libraries are unable to advocate for themselves. There are awesome librarians out there fighting every day for improved services, with organizations like Every Library there to back them up- why not focus on that? You want to get people riled up, I agree, but it should be because you want them to share your excitement, not your worst fears.


  2. This is a tough call. I understand the writer’s discomfort with the negativity of the message, especially seeing that she may be a recent graduate from library school. I also think that it isn’t necessary libraries that are going instinct, but in the public library world, librarians.

    There is a level of indifference and/or ignorance on the part of the public as well as a complacency and bottom line focus on the part of librarians (especially nearing retirement and or in management roles) that bodes very poorly for public libraries and its librarians in some parts of the US; this reality makes an alarmist approach perhaps the only way to get the reality across. Doing great work and broadcasting it is of the utmost importance, but we may need to do a bit of both, negative or not.


  3. I agree this is probably not the best way to advocate for libraries, but it does get right to the point. Libraries are struggling and without community support, they are in fact endangered. Many libraries have already been forced to cut services, hours, staff, material budgets, etc, and many have shut down completely. The situation in Kentucky ( is a clear example of just how endangered our institutions actually are, and I think the intention of this “campaign” is to bring awareness to the severity of our struggles. However, I agree as library professionals, our main objective should be advocating for the importance of our services and showing our communities how vital libraries are for everyone. I think many service organizations are struggling right now, so partnering with local organizations and coming together to provide relevant programming is a great way to promote library services as well as other organizations within the community. Don’t just advocate for community support, build it. Seek out organizations who share the goal of community service and bring them together.


  4. I think it’s important to keep in mind too that this shirt was created in 2010 when many libraries where closing or were facing the fear of being closed; budgets were being cut and things were looking bad.


  5. As the person who designed the shirt, I stand by what I wrote back then. Today, there are still financial pressures out there, even if it has been shown that public libraries are not closing (branches yes, bookmobilies yes, libraries overall, no.) It’s not there for that nuance, it’s there to promote library advocacy in all its forms. It is there to make a strong statement.

    Personally, if you want happy sunny rainbow sort of items, the rest of the catalog has that. I wouldn’t judge it as the ‘face’ of ALA advocacy on the basis of one item. Compare it to the “I Love Libraries” section and you’ll see what I mean.


  6. The fact that this is a really grey area makes it perfect for debate. Nice post Nicole. Though the comments cover pretty much anything I would say, I’d just like to toss in the idea that this, like so much else, is a matter of perception. The role of “the library” is definitely changing, but whether this means that the library, as an institution, is endangered depends quite a lot on where in the profession you stand. As for me, I think that in a world full of deep funding cuts, it’s understandable how many in the profession might feel threatened. That said, those threats are leading to a lot of innovation, so I can’t help but think that the very issues that might be seen as threatening libraries are actually forcing them to evolve.


  7. I went to my first (one-day) library conference today, and the keynote speaker Jenica Rogers (who publicly blogged about refusing to purchase American Chemical Society journals for her library) emphasized that librarians really need to be more proactive about our work rather than reactive (always responding to crises as if most things are outside our control when in fact there is much librarians can do). I think your post is getting at a very similar idea of focusing on how librarians can and should shape the world of information around us, including engaging more carefully with the business side of things like refusing simply to accept vendors’ prices or legislative budget cuts.


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