When Barbara Stripling took the helm at the American Library Association (ALA) this summer, she arrived with a plan to make a mark. She anchored her “Libraries Change Lives” initiative with a quiet but forceful tool, the Declaration for the Right to Libraries.
It is a formal document that states the value of libraries to our democratic society and enumerates how libraries deliver that value in a series of ten broad statements—from “Libraries Empower Individuals” to “Libraries Protect Our Right To Know” to “Libraries Preserve Our Nation’s Cultural Heritage.” Referencing the format of the Declaration of Independence, the content is presented in a fancy type on burnished paper, with a border. It is a serious, solemn thing.
I signed the declaration in September, after Stripling’s appearance at the School Library Journal Leadership Summit in Austin, TX. The act of signing the document was moving. But, then, I am already sold on libraries. I wasn’t sure it would speak to those not yet convinced of the power of libraries. Was it going to be mere preaching to the choir?
Still, it keeps on building. There have been many in-person signing events since Stripling set the project in motion and the site to collect digital signatures launched in the fall. When LJ went to press in late November, Marci Merola, director of the ALA Office for Library Advocacy, noted that 4,260 virtual signatures had been gathered and estimated that over 6,000 hand-written signatures had been collected at the ALA office, with many more expected to come in from the field.
In the meantime, I have become a fan of the declaration—especially as signing events involve more and more people from all walks of life. One could argue with individual points in the document’s phrasing, or gaps, but overall it is a thoughtful articulation of the critical value all types of libraries provide to our society.
Signing the declaration is a commitment, an engagement with what’s at stake. And the public should know and care about what’s at stake when libraries become compromised.
Referenda season can be harrowing. Even where library support has been strong, the wait for the results is nerve-racking. In much less stable situations, bracing for the count is torture. The voting can be all too close as well. We absolutely need the responsive advocacy required to support embattled libraries facing budget challenges.
This fall, this good work was bolstered at the other end of the advocacy continuum, so to speak, by the quick and vocal work of the team at EveryLibrary. This political action organization was officially initiated just this September by John Chrastka. In its short lifetime, it has tracked referenda results, brought needed attention and support to libraries in tough elections, and, notably, turned on a dime to sound the alarm when the community supporting the small Lafourche Parish Public Library, LA, was set to vote on tapping millage already assigned to the library to fund instead a detention center, in a campaign punctuated by racism and stealthy political maneuvering. (The voters of Lafourche Parish rejected the proposal in a Saturday election by 54-46 percent.)
By contrast, the Declaration for the Right to Libraries can seem old-fashioned, but that is part of why it’s radical. There’s no question that it is the product of an urgency to make the case for libraries, and now it is also a long game. It is an anchor strategy that engages signatories in the prospect of libraries—perhaps, for the teens and young adults signing now, for years into the future.
As it gains traction, possibly the declaration will help embed an expectation for library service into a swath of future voters who will remember and even relish the simple but important stand they took when they once put their signature to something they believed in—and keep voting yes for libraries.