New York Library Association. - The eBulletin

From the President

by Barbara Stripling, NYLA President

Everyday Advocacy to Everyday Activism

You just made my world a little bit better.  We have often heard that expression from our patrons, perhaps in words, but often in a smile of discovery, a nodded thank you for reference help, or a giggle of undisguised joy during the reading of a story.  We, as library staff, connect our communities to experiences, information, and to the wider world.  We provide spaces where everyone is invited to participate in learning, reading, reflecting, computing, creating.  We know our value and we offer that value to our patrons every day.

Because we are so passionate about the value of libraries, we wonder why everyone does not share our understanding.  It is disheartening when initiatives that should naturally involve the library fail to do so.  Perhaps an organization in the community is focused on making sure that every third grader is reading on level, and yet there is no connection to the school library.  Maybe a university’s strategic direction is to ensure that every graduate has developed the ability to find, evaluate, and use information effectively, but the academic library has only peripheral connection to the planning.  

Given the mismatch between the authentic value of libraries and the widespread unawareness of what we offer, we, as the library community, must engage in Everyday Advocacy.  We cannot hesitate to assume the responsibility for advocating continually, not just to get the funding to operate, but also to change the mindset of our communities about what libraries represent and offer.

Everyday advocacy focuses on WHY our communities need libraries, on WHAT our libraries offer that includes and goes beyond resources, and on HOW community members can get engaged and connected.  If someone is checking out a book, we might say, “Did you know that we’re starting a virtual book club next week?  Here’s the website address.”  If a fifth grader is looking for a funny book, a natural conversation might include, “Here’s one that I know you’ll love and I have a whole list of funny books you can check out after that.”  These pitches should be prepared beforehand and practiced until they can be delivered confidently and naturally.  Even if a patron seems totally uninterested in the message, the advocate needs to have the grit to try again with the next patron and the next and. . .  

Effective advocacy is founded on sustained relationships of trust and empowerment both within and outside of the library.  Advocates listen carefully and they personalize their services and conversations for individual needs and interests.  That personalization builds trust and relationships.  We all have numerous examples in our library careers of responding empathetically to a situation.  As a high school librarian, I was committed to teaching each of my students to be an independent learner, but I would also respond to frantic students who needed some information for their next class by simply handing the appropriate book to the student and pointing out the relevant paragraphs.

Advocacy is the responsibility of everyone associated with the library. To be effective, advocates need to learn the characteristics of effective advocacy.  The Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association, has developed a website on Everyday Advocacy with guidelines, tips, resources, and tools that can guide our approach.  ALSC recommends action in several areas:  be informed, engage, be inspired, share your story, and speak out.  Advocacy University is a website of the American Library Association that is replete with advocacy resources and tools for every type of library.  Particularly interesting are the resources available to answer every hesitation that we may feel, from “No one has asked me to advocate” to “I don’t know what to say” to “I don’t know how to engage others.”

Now, moving beyond Everyday Advocacy as a major responsibility of libraries, a new mandate has emerged.  Given the increasing diversity of our communities and the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, our libraries can play an important role:  move our patrons to action, empower our community members to have a voice in addressing the societal issues that surround them.  In other words, it is time for libraries and library staff to move from Everyday Advocacy to Everyday Activism.

Our libraries are already set up for Everyday Activism.  We teach the skills of empowerment when we enable our users to find and evaluate information, to make choices based on authentic and accurate evidence, to discover multiple perspectives, to exchange ideas with others, and to create products that express their own ideas.  Libraries support activism by providing forums for public debate, access to multiple resources and points of view, safe spaces of conversation and discovery, opportunities for getting connected to community organizations, and experiences of engagement and learning.

If libraries are cornerstones of democracy, then libraries must empower their patrons to act as responsible members of that democracy.  We must commit to our role in enabling community members to pursue their dreams, engage with others who are not just like them, and act collectively to build a civil and civic society.  Indeed, when libraries move from Everyday Advocacy to Everyday Activism, they will have moved to an integral and highly valuable role in our communities.