Posted on 4 March 2015 - By Wendy Newman

Libraries don’t need more advocacy, they need better advocacy

Chess pieces

I'll begin confessionally: I’m on fire about advocacy for libraries and librarianship.  

I am a dyed-in-the-wool librarian, and I know that great librarianship – the kind in which we work with people and communities to go forward based on their aspirations and not just our traditions - changes lives. I believe this because there’s clear evidence.  

As someone whose life was changed by a modest rural bookmobile, I have experienced the transformative impact of libraries personally. I believe that libraries and librarianship are at risk today.  Not that I blame the victims - and I want to make that clear - but as advocates sometimes we’re not guided by the evidence of what works, but by an urge to promote, tell, “educate”, and convert.   

While this is understandable, it simply isn’t working.   Neither is working harder.  If we believe that librarianship matters to people and communities, and not just to us and our jobs, it’s time to raise our game, and become much more strategic, evidence-based, disciplined advocates.    

I mean strategic, in the sense of getting the greatest benefit from the scarce resources available (especially our time); evidence-based, in the sense of integrating research on what works, and doesn’t, from inside and outside the library sector; and disciplined, in the sense of a shared and unwavering focus on the long game, for the sake of members and communities, and not the institutional survival of libraries. In effect, not more advocacy of the “spray and pray” variety, but better advocacy.  

Though it’s still important, of course, to promote libraries to increase use by a wider range of members, our strategic focus today must be on advocacy for support. Why? We can double or triple our library use and still get no more support.  We’ve seen this again and again. So support (in terms of funding and policy) is the critical goal of our advocacy.   

Funding and policy support is the critical goal of our advocacy

Though it’s still important, of course, to promote libraries to increase use by a wider range of members, our strategic focus today must be on advocacy for support. Why? We can double or triple our library use and still get no more support.  We’ve seen this again and again. So support (in terms of funding and policy) is the critical goal of our advocacy.   

To get this right, we have to look at the research on perceptions of libraries and librarians – perceptions of our users, decision-makers, influencers of decision-makers, and supporters – and be guided by the evidence. We also have to understand how the process of influence works. We have to create plans with clear objectives and disciplined communications.  

All this rests on a simple premise: people do things for their reasons, not our reasons. The necessary breakthrough in advocacy cannot possibly happen while we are talking only with each other, or worse, with our most frequently-seen members. In fact, research shows that those who support libraries are not, in the main, card-carrying members of libraries.  

Instead, library supporters are civically-active people who believe in the transformative impact of libraries. They are motivated more by stories of impacts than statistics (though we still have to have those stats, and better measures of impact!) Their support is galvanised when they see passionate librarians involved in communities.   

Research also shows that politicians do not tend to see librarians involved in communities outside their libraries. How can this be, when we are such devoted supporters and servants of our communities? One clear clue: none of this happens within our offices, and little of it actually happens within our libraries’ walls. It is the outward-looking focus, and the deeply embedded involvement of librarians in the broader issues of their communities – geographic, academic, school, corporate – that is the key to relationship development and understanding.  

When relationships of credibility and trust are cultivated, the prerequisites for understanding and support are in place. Decision-makers and influencers can understand what is at stake, in terms of their own priorities, and see the library in a different context.

How I became an advocacy educator

A bit of totally boring history: I became an advocacy educator after signing up for a workshop called “Library Advocacy Now!” at a Canadian Library Association conference in the early 1990s. This program had been developed by the American Library Association and generously handed over to CLA to be customised to Canadian contexts.  

My teachers were Pat Cavill and Ken Haycock. This workshop squared with my own experience in advocacy for both local funds (I was a public library CEO) and provincial and national policy (I was on the executive of several library associations over time and had also been appointed to a number of national-level advisory commissions by the federal government).  

I became a volunteer trainer in CLA’s train-the-trainer rollout of Library Advocacy Now!  Eventually I joined the faculty of the University of Toronto’s iSchool and developed the first course in library advocacy in a graduate school of library science and adapted the course into a MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) called Library Advocacy Unshushed.  

In 2014 and 2015, this free and easily accessible MOOC drew over 7,700 registrations from 128 countries. With librarians everywhere deeply concerned about the future of this sector, and just as deeply committed to the future of their communities, many want to become more effective advocates. Add to that fears about institutional survival, and library advocacy is hot!     

Library Advocacy Unshushed

The MOOC includes video lectures, guest interviews with experienced advocates, short computer-graded quizzes, and discussion forums.  The sharing of stories is frequently inspiring, and participants are able to share their experience of what works, and to ask each other for help, too.  

What themes emerge from these discussions?  I’ll begin with what makes me uncomfortable. There’s still a discomfiting impulse to focus on “educating the members” to understand how much more there is to libraries than meets the eye, how many services or benefits that they’re not yet seeing.  

This may well be a worthy goal, but decisions about policy and library funding are actually made by a few people, generally not members.  Promotional messages are therefore not sufficiently strategic or targeted. Neither are increases in use in themselves persuasive, as I noted above.  

Indeed, advocacy isn’t about “getting the message out”, but instead about aligning our messages with the priorities of decision-makers and influencers, on a solid foundation of relationships of credibility and trust. The bottom line is clear and instructive: no relationship, no advocacy.  

Another pitfall is confining ourselves to protest mode. While there are times when we have to object, we have to understand the environment of “cause fatigue” that surrounds us, and instead engage other advocates in the proactive positioning of libraries as essential to a thriving future in their own settings.  

Demonisation of decision-makers may be part of our internal conversation habit, and it makes us feel better at some level, but it gets us nowhere strategically. Why not use that anger that results from betrayal as fuel, to give us energy to do what we must to change the advocacy landscape?

More concerning, I see some evidence of understandable burnout, and it’s hard to see with fresh eyes when we’re discouraged and tired.  On the plus side, I see a robust and growing consensus that we need to take a new look at advocacy.  

The research shared in the MOOC is surprising and frequently even counter-intuitive, but more and more librarians and supporters out there are prepared to act on it. I see in every discussion a deep passion for learning and for communities of all kinds, a respect for evidence, and a commitment to engage in disciplined planning and implementation. This is not a community of the faint-hearted! 

CILIP members who’d like to explore this with a worldwide community of librarians and library supporters are warmly invited to join us.  It’s not too late to register, and it’s free. Now that’s a deal. 


Image source: "Chess" by JasonBrown2013, used under CC BY-NC 2.0 / Original cropped and resized

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