Compared to other public sector warriors, librarians are invisible
The library profession’s advocacy efforts have had very little impact. Why we have not addressed this obvious problem more aggressively is a mystery. Of course, there have been some successes, especially at the local level. They have been good enough to show us that the great reservoir of public support for public libraries is still full and can be tapped. Still, the profession simply has not found a way to tap that public support to influence the political process.
The leaders of the American Library Association (ALA), including most ALA presidents for more than a decade, enthusiastically endorsed and supported ALA advocacy efforts and initiated many new ones. While some of these have drawn on that public support, most of them have apparently fallen on deaf ears, especially the deaf ears of politicians and the popular media.
Sure, there have been occasional articles and reports aired on television and published in the big nationally prominent magazines and newspapers. Yet compared to the teachers, postal workers, candidates for public office, and other public sector warriors with a media agenda, librarians are invisible and silent.
When libraries get mentioned on local editorial pages, they are “framed” in a language quite different from that used by librarians and their leaders and publicists. This is based on research by Amy Phillips, who just defended her draft doctoral dissertation (Framing the Public Library: The Public Perception of the Public Library in the Media) at Dominican University in River Forest, IL. Phillips’s work suggests that the public, or at least the editorial writers, haven’t caught up with the profession’s vision of what a public library is or ought to be. What we have here is a failure to communicate.
Many library leaders have discovered that if they go directly to the public ballot for funding, the library will do much better than if they have to go through the political and budgeting processes of local, state, and federal government. Libraries don’t do well no matter the position of a politician on the political spectrum. Governors with views as disparate as those of Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, and Jerry Brown, the Democratic governor of California, have savaged state funding for their libraries. Mayors Michael Bloomberg (New York City), Michael Nutter (Philadelphia), Thomas Menino (Boston), and Rahm Emanuel (Chicago) have all targeted the public library budget in their cities. The decades of energy and money invested in library advocacy have simply not reached most politicians, nor have they triggered a public response strong enough to get their attention.
This tells us that our years of advocacy and investment haven’t worked. We need immediate action to reframe the library message and the investment to garner it the media attention and public interest that will reach elected officials. We need a militant message tied to an aggressive media campaign to tell those who govern that the pittance of tax money they allocate to libraries is the wrong target for budget cutters. We must be far more aggressive as we deliver that message. We must dedicate our resources, even some of that $35 million endowment ALA has in the bank, not only to redrafting our message in terms that convince both the public and our representatives but also to paying for its delivery in the public airwaves. It has been done by those who work in many other public institutions, from schools and colleges to the post office.
We’ve been told that we are saving our money for that “rainy day” when the needs of libraries demand urgent attention. Look outside at library support, and you will see that it has been raining for a long time. The flood is headed for libraries!
John N. Berry III, Editor-at-Large