March 17, 2018

Academic Librarians Could Be Better Lobbyists | From the Bell Tower

Some academic librarians are incredibly enthusiastic about lobbying for library funding and legislative causes. Just not enough of them. We all need to take this seriously.

It’s easy to be cynical about politics. Just look at the lack of progress and legislative gridlock in Washington, D.C. The inability of our national leaders to accomplish anything of much value or substance is enough to make anyone lose their faith in government. The vast funds our representatives take from special interest groups further erodes our belief in the power of the people to advocate for real change. Yet that is exactly what National Library Legislative Day (NLLD) asks us to do. It’s the one day of the year the American Library Association brings librarians together, from across the country and professional sectors, to make our voices heard. While libraryland is hardly powerless, compared to publishers, for-profit higher education, or any industry backed by big money, we are pretty much the 90-pound weakling getting sand kicked in our faces. Despite that, by getting organized and working with other associations who share our concerns, sometimes we can have a positive impact.

My day(s) at NLLD

When it comes to library advocacy I am hardly a champion. I do my best to keep up with the issues, and when asked to contact my legislators, send letters, or sign petitions, I oblige. Beyond that I’m content to let others lead the charge. We have colleagues who are incredibly passionate, and they do a great job of getting others organized and activated. They keep us aware of the issues, from national and state budget allocations for library programs to all types of library-unfriendly legislation. We are fortunate to have these folks in our midst. Far too many librarians are totally apathetic when it comes to advocacy.

In my role as ACRL vice-president/president-elect, however, I’ve been paying closer attention to the legislative agenda, and I’m committing to being more active and vocal. Attending my first NLLD in almost a decade was a good first step in making progress toward that goal. I remembered that it is a great way to get up to speed on the most pressing legislative issues confronting librarianship. If you are unaware of what’s happening and the potential impact, you are poorly positioned to make a difference.

Dose of reality

Day one is when you get briefings from the legislative experts, some from ALA and others who might be analysts or lobbyists. Yeah, we got lobbyists too. At 9 a.m. I was sitting in the first session, waiting to hear from the government expert on the state of politics in our nation’s capital. There I was, all bright-eyed and enthusiastic about the potential of advocating for libraries. My enthusiasm was quickly deflated. The expert told us that all legislators are now driven by three principles:

  • First, avoid doing anything that might make you look bad or get you in trouble.
  • Second, do everything you can to make the other guy look bad or get in trouble.
  • Three, raise lots of money.

I would have thought some of those principles might involve improving government, representing your constituents, advancing social justice, or other noble causes. Just being hopeful I guess. Fortunately things did improve. The next few speakers provided some great content on the status of library-related legislation, and by the end of the day I felt well-versed in the issues. Along with the informative and easy-to-grasp handouts, I felt ready to meet my legislators and lobby on behalf of the profession.

Day two

‘Meet legislators’ is not quite what happens on the second day of NLLD, although the intent is to get all the librarians into meetings with representatives and senators. What really happens is that we get to meet the assistant to the assistant. There were so many young interns working in Congressional offices that it felt like I was still back on my campus. But we’re librarians and we show up with lots of handouts but no money –and we know what talks and it ain’t handouts from librarians. Despite having no chance of meeting my actual legislator, I did my best to make sure the junior intern I did meet was getting all the details right. Another meeting I attended involved a group of academic librarians showing support for FRPPA (Federal Research Public Access Act) with staff members from the Senate Commerce Committee. Commerce plays a significant role in FRPPA’s future, so it was critical to make a strong case–knowing full well the publishers’ lobby would get their chance too.

My own Pennsylvania delegation was impressively organized, though there were only seven of us. Our state library colleague prepared a nicely printed brochure on how LSTA funds support library programs in Pennsylvania. It’s clearly helpful, when visiting the legislators’ offices, to be prepared to have little time for more than some quick chitchat and dropping off reading material. You can only hope that the intern you just met will get it right when he or she briefs the boss. Actually having someone, no matter how junior, show up at each meeting makes it feel like a victory. Nothing is more depressing than schlepping all over Capitol Hill only to find out your meeting was deemed so inconsequential that even the low-level staffer fresh out of college felt just fine blowing it off. That’s enough to make you permanently swear off NLLD. The good news is that this year librarians got more than their foot in the door, and there were reports of many good meetings.

It takes a profession

Individually, we can all play a role in library advocacy. Little effort is required to participate if all you can commit to is sending the occasional email or e-signing the petition. That’s fine. We can hardly expect throngs of librarians to show up for NLLD when most would have to take time off work and pay their own way. Compared to other professions that have the resources to hire the best lobbyists and subsidize members’ visits to Congress, perhaps the best we can hope for is strength in numbers.

Keep in mind that library advocacy happens beyond the nation’s capital, too. Your state library association may need your help to convince legislators to keep or restore library funding. It matters little where you choose to exert your energy as a library advocate, as long as you commit to getting involved on some level. I may need to pay more attention to what’s happening in my own backyard. Pennsylvania has only two libraries devoted to those with visual impairments. The state government has decided to close one of them, leaving Philadelphia with completely inadequate service.

In the great scheme of all things political, the library profession is a perennial underdog. Academic librarians can help make a difference. Not every time. But nothing changes if too many of us choose to ignore the issues of the day. Even if you never make it to NLLD, there is still plenty of work for all of us to do.


Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Bravo! Advocacy is definitely something libraries need to do more and more frequently and vociferously. I’d like to take a minute to take my hat off to NYSHEI, a New York consortium of academic libraries – it’s Executive Director, Jason Kramer, has been working steadily in Albany, lobbying for our needs.