December 17, 2017

ALA Launches Policy Corps

American Library Association web logoOn October 3 the American Library Association (ALA) launched the ALA Policy Corps, an initiative that will bring together a core group of library practitioners from across the field and help them develop a deep expertise in public policy issues.

The Corps had its roots in the ALA 2015 midwinter meeting, where ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) led a forum discussing the goals of the Policy Revolution! Initiative (PRI). PRI, a three-year program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries initiative from 2013–16, was designed to advance library policy at the national level. One of PRI’s major objectives was to “build library advocacy capacity for the long-term.”

Led by ALA president Jim Neal, the Policy Corps will initially consist of a cohort of 10–12 participants representing a diversity of library types, geographies, and backgrounds. This core group will be offered a series of educational and developmental opportunities to strengthen their policy knowledge and advocacy skills, as well as the support offered by senior leadership and a networked cohort.

In addition to a March workshop, the pilot class will also be expected to participate in National Library Legislative Day on May 7–8, 2018, with a series of Corps-specific meetings taking place beforehand on May 6. In addition, they will be included in conference calls, webinars, a Listserv, and other sessions and meetings at ALA conferences.

Applications for the 2018 Policy Corps will be accepted through Friday, November 3. ALA members with at least five years of library experience, some advocacy experience, a desire to develop and apply policy advocacy skills, solid speaking and writing skills, an awareness of policy issues, the ability to sustain a five-year commitment, and support from their institution are encouraged to apply.

MULTI-SECTOR REPRESENTATION

The Policy Corps is an extension of the Libraries Transform campaign begun in 2015, and is part of Neal’s presidential initiative, grounded in ALA’s four strategic directions: advocacy; information policy; professional and leadership development; and equity, diversity, and inclusion.

“I have felt for a long time that we as a library community needed to be better prepared to participate in national level policy discussions and forums,” Neal told LJ. Because members of the field are often called on to sit on panels in front of congressional committees, are interviewed on policy matters by the national press, or are called on to partner with key organizations in the library and technology sectors, said Neal, “you want individuals available who have deep knowledge of a particular policy area, and a commitment to keep current on that.”

To that end, Neal and OITP assembled a working group consisting of 15 representatives from Neal’s Presidential Advisory Committee, the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL), OITP, Public Library Association (PLA), and United for Libraries. Each association contributed funding to the initiative, and working group members brought advocacy expertise from school, public, academic, and special library sectors.

The working group members are currently looking at candidate applications, exploring directions and goals for the group, developing assessment measures as activities progress, and working on the curriculum for a two- to three-day workshop in March 2018, which will provide an overview of key issues, major players in the legislative and policy processes, and paths to engaging national decision makers and influencers; the group will also bring in a consultant to help define and develop the curriculum.

“The policy corps really spoke to me,” said Clara N. Bohrer, director of West Bloomfield Township Public Library, MI; PLA past president; and a member of Neal’s Presidential Advisory Committee and the Policy Corps curriculum subcommittee. “I work firsthand in policy advocacy here in the state. I know how important it is, and I know if it is a strong collected effort you can really get things done. I’ve seen that recently in an initiative we did here in Michigan”—a concerted effort earlier this year to fight a state taxing initiative that would have taken funding from libraries and applied it toward local development. “With our initiative we went out and spoke to our legislators on [how] funds that came directly to libraries…should be kept with libraries, and should not be captured into these other areas.”

This library-led advocacy resulted in legislation that would allow dedicated library millages to be exempt from a number of tax captures. “I thought, that is so powerful,” Bohrer told LJ, “and it’s because our librarians, advocates, and public policy committee under our state library association made that concerted effort and we were successful…. We need strong advocates that can speak up for our nation’s libraries.”

Audrey Church, professor of school librarianship and coordinator of the school librarianship program at Longwood University, Farmville, VA, and immediate past president of AASL, is one of the working group’s two AASL representatives (Sylvia Knight Norton, AASL executive director, is the other). Over the past several years she has seen firsthand what strong advocacy has accomplished for school librarians, she said, from providing language about school libraries in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to making sure that the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ (IMLS) impact on K–12 schools was part of the message about the agency’s FY18 funding. Any future federal legislation, she noted, will need to include school libraries and acknowledge their importance for student learning.

“We need to be watchful and proactive whenever possible,” she told LJ, “and that’s one of the ideas behind this initiative, to have people ready and able to address whatever issues might come up so that we present that unified front for libraries and for our patrons.”

Neal, she added, “values all types of libraries and sees how they’re all interconnected, and that a success for one is a success for all, so it’s been a real privilege and pleasure to get to work with the group.”

A MID-CAREER COHORT

Applicants for the cohort do not need to be policy experts, but they should be mid-career professionals with some experience advocating for library policy at the local, state, national, or international level—”Individuals who have the self-confidence and the skills to participate in national forums, to get up in front of a congressional committee and talk to the national press, and have the facts and the chutzpah to make a difference,” said Neal.

While assembling a diverse group is important, individuals’ politics will not be an issue. Rather, the Policy Corps is looking for people who work in areas such as copyright and privacy issues, telecommunications policy, school libraries, intellectual freedom, and equity of access to information in rural and small town communities or native lands. Participants will also need to be able to make a commitment toward sustained participation, potentially training new members down the line.

Applications will be read over the next several months with all of these factors in mind—as well as evidence of a strong desire to move the needle on library policy. Ultimately, added Neal, “You’ve got to have a hunger for this type of stuff.”

LOOKING AHEAD

Bohrer hopes the corps will continue to recruit members to the cohort as existing ALA leadership begins to retire. While the future of library policy is anything but certain, “I want a group of people ready on a moment’s notice to be able to write an editorial or speak to congressmen or be able to articulate in articles—or whatever the venue or method we use—that they’re ready and able to go right away.”

Neal, she said, is a perfect example: an academic librarian who is well-versed and confident speaking on copyright and intellectual property issues without being a lawyer. When it comes to the cohort, she explained, “I just want that body of knowledge…to tell the stories as to how we impact the community, how things impact our libraries and the community.”

Those who have an interest in joining a future Policy Corps cohort but do not feel ready to apply now can still educate themselves in policy and advocacy by volunteering for local professional organizations or ALA round tables, noted Church.

“At AASL we’re always trying to grow our leaders and encourage them to take small steps that they feel comfortable with,” she said. “I think you grow in your participation in a professional organization. So you might not be ready for this at this point in time, but starting small and working on a committee, working on a task force, serving on a board—speaking from personal experience, it moves you forward, just taking those first steps.”

The program’s efficacy will be evaluated on an ongoing basis; future funding has yet to be determined. But its necessity is not in doubt. The field as a whole, said Neal, has “really done a good job over the last year or so in building a much richer capacity for on-the-ground advocacy in libraries. It’s not just library professionals—it’s vendors, it’s our friends, it’s our trustees, it’s people in our communities. I think we’re broadening the base of that basic advocacy, which we’re going to continue to do. But [the Policy Corps will] take another approach, which is to build this deeply knowledgeable cohort of individuals who can help in a variety of ways.”

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Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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