To borrow a phrase from Judith Viorst’s classic children’s book, this could very well be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year for libraries, especially public and school libraries. As part of his FY2019 budget, the president reportedly wants to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
Public and school libraries are funded primarily by public sources, such as taxes, usually requiring a referendum that adds to the state or city taxes paid by residents. Other sources include private donations or grants and federal agencies, particularly IMLS. The doom and gloom of any of these potential funding eliminations are twofold: 1) the federal entities providing funds to libraries may themselves be jettisoned by the current government, and 2) voters may no longer see the need for additional tax dollars going to libraries, both of which might result—and have resulted—in library closings nationwide. In response, ALA is conducting initiatives to increase awareness of the value of libraries at the federal, state, and community levels and to promote the value of libraries beyond books.
Although ALA’s mission “[t]o provide leadership for the development, promotion, and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all” is still in practice, in a 2017 update to its 2015 Strategic Plan, ALA emphasized the importance of advocacy as a method whereby “ALA and its members work with libraries, the broader library community and members of the public to advocate for the value of libraries and for public support for libraries of all types at the local, state, federal and international level.” This includes “raising public awareness of the value of libraries, training and supporting library advocates, advancing legislation and policies that support information and library services in all types of libraries, and effectively responding to specific opportunities and threats.” During the 2017 and 2018 ALA annual conferences, library advocacy and library advocacy programs took center stage.
Leaning Into Advocacy
The two most recent ALA presidents, Jim Neal (2017–2018) and Loida Garcia-Febo (2018–2019), launched robust advocacy programs. Each program concentrates on influencing specific but equally critical segments of library supporters.
Upon his election, Neal said, “My commitment is to a successful and influential ALA, to a profession characterized by service, diversity, impact and leadership, to the readers and users who depend on our libraries, and to the individuals who work in and advocate in support of libraries. I will invest my experience in advancing our priorities of advocacy, information policy, and professional and leadership development, always striving for an ALA built on ethics, inclusion, conversation and transparency.” In October 2017, Neal instituted the 12-member ALA Policy Corps, whose main goal is to work with decision makers on the federal and state levels to represent the values of today’s libraries.
A long-serving advocate of libraries, current president Garcia-Febo holds both a B.A. in business education and an M.L.S. from the University of Puerto Rico. Now a library consultant, she is also an author, an educator, and a mentor to librarians and information professionals. Over the years, Garcia-Febo has held several prestigious positions, including on the ALA Executive Board from 2015 to 2018. She’s had numerous committee appointments within ALA, including to the Committee on Diversity, the Intellectual Freedom Committee, and the Nominating Committee. She is currently the chairperson-elect of the International Relations Round Table and also sits on the governing board of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA).
In June 2018, Garcia-Febo introduced Libraries = Strong Communities, which is “aimed at highlighting the value of academic, public and school libraries.” Its goal is to “create a groundswell of support at the local, state, national and global level.” The press release continues, “In an era filled with political and social strife, our nation’s libraries continue to play an invaluable role in providing resources and expertise that foster community engagement and transform lives through education and lifelong learning.”
Garcia-Febo says, “As cornerstones of democracy, libraries empower users to make informed decisions by providing free access to information. Libraries provide more than just books. They support community engagement and the delivery of new services that connect closely with patrons’ needs. As libraries transform we should seize every opportunity to showcase their magnificent work.” Unlike the ALA Policy Corps, whose mandate is to work with policymakers, this initiative will focus on the communities where libraries are located to promote awareness and support of library staff and to showcase the value of library programs and resources.
Going on the Road
Libraries = Strong Communities features a cross-country tour that began in October at the Pikes Peak Public Library District in Colorado. Additional visits include the Seattle Public Library, the North Miami Public Library, and the Los Angeles Public Library. The tour will end on June 22, 2019, during the ALA Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. Garcia-Febo shares the following:
We will have outdoor advocacy events at each location, and each event will be held in libraries placed in the middle of neighborhoods. Planning for each event will include academic, public, and school libraries as well as other library groups such as the state library chapters and ALA affiliates. Staff members from each library included on the tour, [and] ALA staff members from the Communications and Marketing Office, Chapter Relations Office, [and] Office of Library Advocacy will all be connecting with local community organizations, ALA state library chapters, government officials, ALA leadership in each state, library workers and library patrons. We look forward to seeing many library workers and community members advocating for libraries at these events. We also hope the local media attend the event to help us amplify the support for libraries.
In addition to this 9-month tour, plans are in place to provide library staffers with resources that will help them replicate this advocacy effort and promote the value of the programs and services they provide to the community. ALA members can access Advocacy University, which offers resources by topic (such as budgets, funding, and fundraising or public relations and dealing with the media), challenge (e.g., “I don’t have time to advocate” or “I can’t get my decision makers to listen”), and specific group (e.g., friends groups and trustees or special needs and underserved populations). The Frontline Advocacy Tools & Resources page provides a link to the Frontline Advocacy Toolkit, which features the following:
- Every Voice Makes a Difference: Training for Frontline Advocates, a webinar that teaches “how to empower all levels of library staff to become better advocates for their libraries and themselves”
- Every Voice Makes a Difference flashcards in PDF for public, school, academic, and special libraries
The site’s online tutorials include the following (plus additional ones focusing on college and university libraries and corporate, government, and other libraries):
- Introduction: Frontline Advocacy Begins with You—Why do libraries need frontline advocates? Why are you your library’s best frontline advocate? What does a frontline advocate do? How do you get started?
- Advocacy for Public Libraries—The message of the library’s value and needs must be spread by every library employee. Every staff member should think about the power of persuasion and be willing to communicate in a variety of ways. In the public library, everyone is on the front line.
- Where School is Cool! The Frontline Advocacy for School Libraries Toolkit—In the school library world, all library staff and everyone who has direct contact with the school library media center—librarians, media specialists, paraprofessionals, clerks, secretaries, volunteers, students, parents, teachers, site council members and principals—can easily be advocates—‘frontline advocates’—for their school’s library.
The Libraries = Strong Communities initiative plans to help library staffers effectively showcase their stories; a publicity toolkit comes complete with sample press releases, fliers, public service announcements, social media tips, downloadable artwork, and webinars.
Garcia-Febo sums up the program: “Libraries are uniquely positioned to help our nation come together. Libraries help communities thrive whether they are academic, public, special or school libraries. By working at the grassroots level, this effort will help to solidify communities.”
It’s a laudable effort, and Libraries = Strong Communities combined with the ALA Policy Corps should certainly help library staffers even more articulately and effectively promote what they offer to the communities that they serve—as well as secure and retain the funding required to survive.