Tools for Community Advocacy


What advocacy can accomplish! Free ferry transport for bicycle commuters in Guaruja and Santos, Brasil.

I must confess, despite being an online student, to being slightly less than tech-oriented by nature. So, of all the courses required for my MLIS, the “Advanced Technology” requirement is the one I was the most nervous about. This requirement can be fulfilled by any number of possible classes dealing with the topic; I was  afraid that I would get stuck taking something that would make me feel like an idiot for not knowing how to program or build fancy websites. So when I heard the course title for this summer’s class, “Tools for Community Advocacy,” I figured this might not be too scary, and it sounded like it was right up my alley. I checked out the website of the professor, Jessamyn West, and decided I was good to go.

It turns out this is an immensely practical class! I understand why they require us to have some “advanced technology” knowledge as new librarians, but only halfway through, I have already decided that this class itself should probably be a core requirement. It certainly dovetails with what several professors in other core courses have already mentioned; that we are all likely, over the trajectory of our careers, to have to write grants and otherwise advocate for our programs and services. Yet, from what I can see, no other class is actually teaching us how to do this.

We began the class by looking at some of ALA’s Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services Resources. These include some great outreach toolkits for librarians working with issues such as bookmobiles, incarcerated populations, tribal libraries, and homelessness; in other words, challenges that might fall outside the norm of what we mostly deal with in library school. These are the types of challenges one might only discover after, say, starting a new library job in an unfamiliar community.

The ALA document, “Extending Our Reach: Reducing Homelessness Through Library Engagement,” makes a bold statement. The idea that we, as librarians, are called upon to not only “put a Band-Aid” on the increasing problem of helping the homeless who come to public libraries, but are actually in a position to help reduce homelessness through our actions, is a radical one. Yet, as we are in a position to advocate for, and serve, the entire community we represent, it is entirely possible that many of us, especially if we choose work as public librarians, will have to do everything in our power to help the growing number of homeless individuals in this country. (This is a particular problem here in Hawai’i; many of those beautiful sandy beaches have people living on them.)

The ALA document, “Extending Our Reach,” is a great example of the different aspects of advocacy that we are learning to apply in our course. It includes a short overview of the topic, complete with definitions of various key terms. It offers some statistics as a starting place, to make readers aware of the demographic scope of this problem (we also discussed the potential trickiness of statistics, as covered in the classic “How To Lie With Statistics”). In order to remember that these are real people we’re dealing with, quotes from homeless individuals are included to help tell their stories of how libraries helped them through difficult times. Partnerships are suggested with other types of organizations who are also struggling with this social problem. Towards the end of the document, some “model” programs are mentioned to provide ideas for possible implementation. And at the very end, ALA’s official policy statement on the matter, which includes some surprisingly radical positions (page 8, go look!).

So, in summary, this has been our process in the class for learning to advocate for any issue:

  • Choose an issue
  • Research (collect information about other organizations/individuals/businesses working on the same issue)
  • Assemble some relevant statistics
  • Tell stories about the issue
  • Use social media and infographics to help make your case

Did I mention we’ve been using my new favorite tool for online coursework, Slack, almost exclusively to communicate during this asynchronous course?

I leave you with one of my favorite quotes, from R. David Lankes’ book, Expect More:

“Bad libraries build collections. Good libraries build services. Great libraries build communities.”

Please share below what kinds of issues you find yourself advocating for!

Editor’s note: This article was first published on June 16, 2016.

Categories: Advocacy & Activism

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