With the cuts facing libraries around the country, how to improve our advocacy methods has been a paramount topic lately. On Monday, I’m cohosting a webinar in the TL Virtual Cafe featuring Buffy Hamilton and Chris Harris on the crisis in staffing cuts many libraries around the country are facing and some proactive measures to take.
At the Texas Library Conference this week, I was privileged to hear the Spokane Moms,(Lisa Layera Brunkan and Susan Lloyd McBurney), two of a dynamic group of moms who fought in Washington State to preserve school libraries challenging our notions of how to do library advocacy.
While they were very focused on the power of bringing different stakeholders into a statewide advocacy movement, they also shared ideas that any librarian in any district could use to manifest the support they already have more clearly.
In the midst of their advocacy journey, they were told by a key legislator, “Don’t bring the librarians” to the statehouse. A stunning comment, but a wakeup call for our current advocacy methodology. Our message and methods have to change to be effective.
First off, we have to have a clear message and one that appeals to those whom we are trying to persuade. They pointed out that slogans like “libraries matter” or “schools work” are too vague.
The message has to be about students and it has to speak to what lawmakers are concerned about. And the Spokane moms feel that stakeholders at the state level are interested in global competitiveness and workforce readiness and college preparedness. That isn’t all that libraries prepare students for, but it’s one important thing we prepare students for, so why not highlight it? As they said, one of our messages should be: Do you want a Texas child picked last for college because they aren’t prepared educationally?
We’ve attempted to use data from many studies on the positive benefits to students from library programs to impact our state legislators, but they suggested these aren’t really working. This data is important at the local level for our administrators but other strategies are more effective at the state level.
The Spokane moms found that a key part of this message is engaging your major stakeholders: parents, students, administrators, teachers and legislators. (I would add businesses as well), and shared strategies for drawing on the advocacy of these groups.
This is a brilliant recommendation, whether you are fighting an advocacy “battle” or not. Why not have quotes from business people in your district on your library webpage praising the value of info literate employees? Or quotes from satisfied parents? Or quotes from local professors about the importance of library programs like yours for their students? And if you’ve built relationships with these stakeholders, when trouble hits, not only do you have support, but you have relationships with people who know what you do from experience with your program.
They also recommended forming a coalition. Seek groups that have vested interests in libraries and invite them into a coalition or support team. Technology companies, organizations at universities nearby that would be supportive(like the American Association of University Women or the university’s Alumni organization, for example), and places that hire your graduates. (And by the way, they pointed out a coalition can be just one or two groups!)
Again, it’s about finding stakeholders who ultimately benefit from the skills students learn in our libraries and classrooms through our efforts. And if you don’t know anyone, they recommend employing ‘wdyk’–figuring out “Who do you know who knows somebody?” (Social networking tools make this much easier!)
Your message should be focused on kids all the time, not librarians or their jobs. That message should resonate in your physical space, on your website, in your promotional materials–in everything you do. And the message also needs to convey what is key about a 21st century library program for students.
As Lisa said, a library IS a 21st century classroom, a place where students learn ‘multidimensional literacy’. We can’t use the classic message of literary enjoyment alone, because what students learn in libraries is so much more than that. The library is a laboratory in the school that can feed thinking and creativity, the “Google” petri dish of the school.
And we have to make it clear that libraries aren’t an enhancement or a luxury. They are a solution. Libraries are a solution, as the Spokane moms point out, for the digital gaps and participation gaps and inequities in our students’ lives. I think they are also a solution to the problems of information literacy, ethical uses of information, college readiness, and more. It’d be a good conversation for librarians to be having within their districts and with their constituents about the problems libraries provide solutions for.
In a statewide advocacy campaign, it’s also important to identify what the key concern are of voters in different areas of the state. (or if it’s a countywide campaign, areas of the county, etc.) What is important to voters in cities might not be the same as in the rural areas, in terms of library services. And if you are running any sort of statewide advocacy, you have to have a clear goal.
The most powerful part of the Spokane moms message was the importance for us to cultivate relationships outside of our school. The more our stakeholders know what we really do, the more support we will have on a daily basis, and if we face financial difficulties in the future.
But also, our programs have to walk the walk. We have to be sure we are challenging ourselves to provide the best, most current practices in our field. We have to be sure we are giving students tools that will prepare them for future ventures. We have to be sure, as Lisa said, that our libraries represent the “new terrain.”