February 17, 2018

OITP’s Policy Revolution! Initiative (The Exclamation Point is Important) | ALA Midwinter 2015

640px-UscapitolindaylightOn February 1 the American Library Association (ALA) Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) hosted a session at the ALA Midwinter meeting in Chicago to answer the question, “What is a policy revolution anyway?” The answer: the Policy Revolution! Initiative (PRI)—the exclamation point is important, panelists advised—is a three-year grant-funded program to advance library policy at the national level, led by ALA OITP and the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA), with guidance from a Library Advisory Committee.

Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries program for nearly $1 million, the PRI proposes to investigate the questions, “What are the U.S. library interests and priorities for the next five years that should be emphasized to national decision makers?” and “Where might there be windows of opportunity to advance a particular priority at this particular time?”—and then provide a framework for library communities of interest across the country to advocate for their needs.

The three major components of PRI, according to a statement submitted by OITP’s Director Alan Inouye and Deputy Director Larra Clark, are “to develop a national public policy agenda, initiate and deepen national stakeholder interactions based on policy priorities, and build library advocacy capacity for the long-term.” This includes training library policy advocates to support ALA staff.

In addition, added ALA’s District Dispatch, “Just as important, if not even more so, is to work towards getting non-library entities to communicate the message that libraries are part of the solution to many national social challenges. Though the library community has high credibility in Washington, support by outsiders carries the most weight. And of course, entities with national or international prestige in the policy context are the most powerful communicators for us.”

PRI was born of a brainstorming session between OITP and the Gates Foundation to identify important strategic concerns for libraries in the arena of public policy and what the OITP Washington Office could do to advance them. The consensus, Inouye explained to LJ, was that “There’s a fundamental disconnect in terms of the evolution of libraries, especially in the last decade or two. Many decision makers are not attuned to what’s happening in libraries, and they still have mental models of yesteryear.” If policymakers’ understanding of what libraries are doing is limited, he added, it becomes exponentially harder to get more funding, advocate for policy changes, or encourage government collaboration.

Gearing up

The first few months of the initiative, launched in November 2013, were focused on organizing resources and personnel. Charlie Wapner, a former legislative fellow in the House of Representatives, was hired as ALA’s information policy analyst. OITP retained the services of DC-based law firm Arent Fox, with partner Alan Fishel serving as point person, to advise on political strategy and information policy legalities. The Adfero Group was hired to assist with strategic communications, and EnCompass consultants brought on board to help evaluate the initiative in progress. An advisory committee was created early on as well, made up of the chairs of the ALA Committee on Legislation and ALA OITP; the president of COSLA; Jim Neal, emeritus vice president for information services and university librarian at Columbia University, serving as a representative from the ALA Executive Board; and library leaders from various school, academic, and public libraries.

In preparation for writing up its public policy agenda, ALA also conducted extensive background research, gathering input from various library communities across the country. The end product, a 91-page discussion draft titled “Trends Report: Snapshots of a Turbulent World,” was released in August 2014. The report analyzes trends and challenges across a number of areas impacting libraries, including information technology, global context, rising economic inequality, the environment, education, and the workforce. Although not originally intended for release, PRI eventually decided that it could serve as a useful resource and has made it publicly available.


OITP released a draft of the National Public Policy Agenda for Libraries for public comment on January 23, shortly before the session convened at ALA Midwinter. The agenda, which Inouye described as a “metadocument,” is organized along three broad themes: services—how libraries make a difference to Americans; people—leveraging opportunities to serve specialized communities; and institutional issues—what libraries need to serve their communities. Opportunities for advocacy are suggested within each theme, but are deliberately broad in scope and open-ended so that they can be used in a variety of ways—it identifies issues and opportunities rather than setting out any particular programs.

In the planning process, Inouye explained, “one of the early conclusions was that a national policy agenda had to be for the [entire] library community, because if you go to Congress, the Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. Copyright Office, Google, publishers—they’re not really so interested in a policy agenda from any one library association or group..” He added, “The hope and intention is that…groups like the Urban Libraries Council and the Association of Research Libraries will say, ‘Okay, we can see our place in these parts of the agenda,’ or that when they have their next strategic planning session they consider this document when they discuss their priorities going forward—so that in some overall sense the library community is consistent.”

Inouye also hoped, he told LJ, that the agenda would provide a solid framework at a time when library advocates can often find themselves in a reactive position, responding to a barrage of issues raised by shifting governmental policies such as net neutrality rulings or the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization. “The things we can do on behalf of libraries is virtually unlimited,” he said, “but if we keep focusing on primarily responding to things, how do we ever get ahead and look at where libraries need to be in the future, and what different kinds of policies and orientations and relationships are needed?”


At PRI’s ALA Midwinter session, an animated panel discussed how the agenda might be used by various stakeholders. The panelists consisted of Inouye; Neal; Fishel; Senior Program Officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Chris Jowaisas; and three members of the Library Advisory Committee: Dan Lee, director of the Office of Copyright Management and Scholarly Communication at the University of Arizona and chair of the OITP Advisory Committee; Vailey Oehlke, director of Multnomah County Library, OR, and president-elect of the Public Library Association; and Ken Wiggin, state librarian of Connecticut.

Neal stressed the importance of understanding the political currents and contexts around such topics as control over access to information, the changing workforce, education, and the need for information on health care, as well as at the treaties, trade agreements, intellectual freedom, privacy, net neutrality, and copyright. “Will people think of libraries when they think of these demands and issues?” he asked.

“For some libraries this will be business as usual, for some it will be aspirational,” said Wiggin, and suggested that, in addition to library-specific funding available from the federal government, libraries should look to funds available for particular interest groups—rural communities, veterans, new immigrants, and older Americans—within the populations they serve. .

Fishel presented a number of mnemonics advocates could employ to help simplify some of the issues, such as ALA’s “the E’s of Libraries” (education, employment and entrepreneurship, individual empowerment, and engagement) and the INO scale: Are you Indispensable, Nice to have, or Obsolete? “When you go into a meeting and you’re trying to advocate in DC or partner in New York or Silicon Valley, a lot of that outcome depends on whether they think you’re an I, N, or O,” he said. “We’ve got to make it clear that we’re the I.”

Neal cautioned that while such simple messaging mandates can be helpful, “when we get into throes of negotiating legislative language, we need to be deeply knowledgeable about issues and articulate.”

It is also important, Neal added, to look past current concerns and consider how we will train a new generation on policy matters. This is “an all-hands-on-deck effort in the library community,” he said. “If we’re not at [the] table, how do we join that conversation?”

OITP will collect feedback on the draft agenda though the end of February at oitp@alawash.org and will release the next revision in March.

Ultimately, Oehlke said at the ALA session, PRI’s goal is that libraries not be an afterthought, and added, “We want the next [U.S.] president to be a librarian.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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