November 20, 2017

Library Advocacy, Part 1: The National Effort

By Norman Oder

  • Libraries competing in tough environment
  • Citizen voices crucial
  • Long-term effort needed

Though new President Barack Obama has expressed rhetorical and legislative support for libraries during his stint as an Illinois Senator, the country’s huge economic problems, compounded by competing priorities in Washington, present major challenges for library advocates on a national level, American Library Association (ALA) members were told at the Midwinter Meeting in Denver.

Lynne Bradley, who directs the Office of Government Relations in ALA’s Washington Office, characterized it as a time of hope and opportunity, even as “competition is ever more difficult.” She noted that “no one else works on library appropriations but libraries.” 

Given that Obama has directed that nonwork-related federal programs should be cut, she said, “I think the American public, if they know more about LSTA [Library Services and Technology Act] and school library programs, will find we are very effective… and yet, we’re going to have to make that case ever more strong.”

Bradley said the Washington Office would be more active in alerting members to lobby their Congressional representatives, and the office on Saturday organized a panel on how to be more effective in advocacy.

Patience and persistence
Kendall Wiggin, Chair of the Committee on Legislation, noted that many ALA members had high expectations from Obama’s 2005 speech to the Annual Conference. However, he noted, “I think he’s tempered that when he’s spoken to the nation,” given the call for responsibility in the inaugural address. “It’s up to us to advocate for libraries, not just up to the leadership of ALA.”

Wiggin noted that much of the federal recovery funding will go directly to states. “Libraries of all types have to be on their radar,” he said. Also, he noted, that ”while you may not have seen libraries sprinkled through the recovery act, there are many opportunities there,” citing, for example, opportunities to hire older adults.

“I hope you’ll be patient with ALA, with the Washington Office,” Wiggin cautioned. “This is going to take time. This is not the WPA period.” That may have been a reference to the fact that public library construction is not included in the federal proposals, despite advocates’ wish for it.

Asked about public library construction, Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the Washington Office, noted that the bill includes funding for modernization and renovation of school and academic libraries. Wiggin noted that Sheketoff has been provided with a list of construction projects, and she’s been providing it to Congressional offices for future reference.

Getting personal
Stephanie Vance, who advises ALA on advocacy issues, pointed out that 76% of states have a budget gap and some 147,000 associations are lobbying in Washington. “We have to kind of be patient about what we’re trying to achieve,” she said.

Legislators, she said, have tough decisions to make, and “a lot of time, they make decisions based on what they personally think is important.” The solution: citizen advocacy: “Communications that matter most to the policy process are communications from you.”

Ken Gordon, former majority leader in the Colorado Senate, warned that, in his experience, too many citizens don’t know the identities of their legislators and remain too passive. Thus, he countered Vance’s optimism—that the time of dysfunctional government is over—with some cautions.

“What fills in that gap [in communication] are special interests,” he said. “These lobbyists are ubiquitous, and also tied into sources of campaign money.”

“Obama will not be able to do what you want him to do, what he wants to do, as long as the levers of power in the U.S. are money levers and not people levers,” he observed. “For it to be people levers, the people have to show up.”

Possible tactics
Wiggin noted, “Legislators are people just like you,” and, even if they haven’t personally spent much time in a library lately, perhaps family members have. As State Librarian in Connecticut, he said, “I try to know something about every one of those legislators’ libraries. Most of them have great pride in their towns and their communities.”

But how, asked a librarian from Philadelphia—where the mayor has recently tried to close libraries—to advocate for library issues when you live in a one-party town? 

Gordon suggested warning legislators that you’ll advocate for changes in redistricting laws. Vance suggested that a shorter-term solution is to reach out to coalitions to which those legislators do listen.

Click here for Part II of the story: State and Local Coalitions Needed.

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