EveryLibrary/HLS Intern Update #1

This post is part 1 of 2 from our EveryLibrary/Hack Library School intern Mallory Arents. Stay tuned for her second post in September!

Okay, so here’s the thing: working with EveryLibrary is a little scary.  Scary not in the way of shark infested hurricanes or flesh-eating viruses, but rather because the organization is kind of a big deal. EveryLibrary works on building voter support for libraries. In its first six months, EveryLibrary worked with five campaigns and consulted with about a dozen libraries in planning ballot measures for next year. EveryLibrary is unique in the library advocacy world because it directly funds local voter education campaigns, provides campaign consultancy, and adds capacity to local ballot committees. Every dollar that EveryLibrary has given to campaign committees so far has equated to $370 in public funding for libraries. That is 1.85 million dollars in public funding in just 6 months: UNREAL. Libraries are prohibited from engaging in political fundraising and direct voter advocacy because they are public entities. When it’s those very institutions on the ballot, who will champion their cause?  As the first national library Political Action Committee, EveryLibrary steps in where libraries themselves can’t. See what I mean about being a big deal?

Last summer, when I was gearing up for my first semester of library school, I made a promise to myself: Embrace the terrifying. I’m not here for the piece of paper or those little letters next to my name; instead, I want to expand my worldview and skill-set.  When you make a commitment like that, the scary transforms from an obstacle into a motivation.  I began my internship with EveryLibrary equal parts impressed and intimidated. I wondered what I could possibly add to the dialogue. Luckily for me, Executive Director John Chrastka is not only a library advocacy expert, but also a warm and encouraging mentor.

I first met John, and officially began my internship, just before ALA’s Annual Conference this summer. I showed up at his Chicago office and was promptly offered a drink of my choice: whiskey, water, or beer?  And with that, my shoulders finally relaxed and John and I sat down to hatch out a plan.  We talked about holes in current library advocacy efforts.  We discussed how a love of the library does not necessarily equate with votes. We talked about a need for librarianship to take the conversation outside of librarianship. We sipped beer.

I left our meeting no longer frightened, just energized and ready to begin. The thing I kept coming back to were those holes, the gaps in research and writing. A few years ago, OCLC wrote a great report on Library Funding and Ballot Support. They surveyed over 8,000 people to gauge how they view the library and how inclined they’d be to vote in favor of library ballot initiatives.  Excluded from careful analysis was the group OCLC deemed “Chronic Non-Voters.”  I couldn’t understand why. It almost seemed as though the report was stating, “These voices don’t matter.” Like a good librarian, these questions only fueled my curiosity to find out more.

I’ve decided that the focus of my internship research is to learn as much as possible about non-voters. Is it a random group or are they representative of larger populations?  Is it possible to infer that these people are using library resources?  What are the barriers to voting in local elections?  How do we distribute information about ballot initiatives and are there inherent biases in how we do so? You see, whether they’re voting or not, these voices do matter.  Beyond recommending the latest thriller, beyond offering a variety of technology classes, beyond protecting patron privacy, at our basic function, we librarians are just trying to keep the lights on.  Without ballot support that can’t happen. We need those votes! Our very existence depends on it.

What will come of my research and writing?  I’m not quite sure yet. Regardless of the outcome, I do hope that it starts a conversation, and not just in our echo chamber. I want politicians and lawmakers to care. I want teachers and Chambers of Commerces to care. I want social justice organizations to care. I want Miami to care. So yes, I’m a little scared, but what have we got to lose, right?

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