April 24, 2018

Still Invisible: Despite decades of advocacy, libraries are… | Blatant Berry

John Berry IIIEnjoying retirement, I was watching my second old flick on TCM when Lillian Gerhardt called. She is the former editor of School Library Journal, and we worked together for a decade or more many years ago. Both of us were totally engaged, maybe obsessed, with libraries and the profession and addicted American Library Association (ALA) critics. I was happy to hear that, like me, she was still watching the association. This time she urged me to comment on “The Advocacy Continuum” by ALA executive director Keith Fiels in the May issue of American Libraries (p. 6–7).

Keith is my friend, and I was reluctant, but after reading the piece I realized Lil was right: it was more an apologia for ALA advocacy efforts than an essay on the subject. We all know what we mean by “advocacy,” but, in my view, after all these years we still haven’t figured out how to make it effective.

The profession has been pushing this effort for a long time. It has been the focus of a half dozen or more ALA presidents, and thousands of hours of work and debate have been devoted to defining, planning, and creating the message about the mission, place, and need for libraries in American society.

There is quite a record of activity, and some truly creative work has been done within and outside of ALA. But the sad truth is that the message about the need for and importance to society of libraries and librarians never seems to break into national media or local political consciousness. Of course there are some exceptions, but from my vantage point as a citizen and voter, and even as a faculty member and teacher in graduate school, the library message never makes it into my daily diet of media, discussion, and action.

None of ALA’s advocacy efforts penetrates the endless stream of digital communication on my computers and cell phone. They are never even visible in all the time I spend with entertainment media. Neither my local paper nor the local TV and radio have much to say about libraries and literally nothing to say about the crucial role of librarians in our access to information and entertainment. I hear about the schools, every major and minor commercial initiative, every two-bit scandal and crime, every neighborhood and citywide improvement or annoyance. But the library and librarians are simply missing.

Of course, I get the library message in my professional activity. I hear from librarians around the world as part of my work here at LJ. Indeed, I have concluded that we are exceptionally good at communicating with one another, but apparently we are incompetent at getting our message out to our neighbors and fellow citizens.

I wish I could explain why our profession is invisible in the communications of the society is serves. One thing is certain, we have to force our constant palaver about how good we are outside of the profession. We librarians all know our story, yet in our inarticulate timidity, we seem either to be unable or unwilling to deliver our passionate pitch to our neighbors on Main Street or our leaders in city hall, the statehouse, or Washington. (I have to admit that through ALA’s Washington Office, we are more effective there than anywhere else.)

As I read Fiels’s piece, I get the feeling that he is convinced we are doing what we need to do to get our message out. I hope he is right, but from the little town where I grew up to the New York suburbs where I live now, there is little proof that the library advocacy movement even exists, let alone has any impact on the decisions of citizens, voters, educators, or politicians.

If there is an “advocacy continuum” for libraries, no one where I live and teach seems to be conscious of it. Out there, despite their heightened awareness of civic and social issues during the current electoral campaigns, racial unrest, bad weather, and terrorist activity, libraries just haven’t made it into the mainstream of public discussion. They are still invisible to most folks, and I wish ALA, Keith, and I could figure out what we can do to change that.

John Berry

This article was published in Library Journal's June 1, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III (jberry@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.



  1. Thanks John. Can you give some examples of how things might look if the advocacy efforts of AALL, ALA, SLA and other library organizations and the library community were effective, in your view? What would we be seeing in the mainstream media and where would we be seeing it? How would society demonstrate the level of awareness that you’re suggesting? I firmly believe that each of us a role as an advocate in our own sphere of influence. My expectations about what success looks like are more tempered than yours. I don’t think libraries and librarians are missing from the discourse. They aren’t a constant, like “the schools, every major and minor commercial initiative, every two-bit scandal and crime, every neighborhood and citywide improvement or annoyance.” But in my experience they come to the forefront when they make news (good or bad). Recent mainstream media coverage includes the Ferguson Public Library (good), the NOLA Public Library (bad) and the Boston Public Library (bad….good). Is it realistic to expect something more?

  2. Too often, I think librarians end up preaching to the choir – library supporters and library professionals. The most successful advocacy experiences I’ve had have been with people who started out thinking libraries were obsolete, but then eventually I found a ‘hook’ – some service we provided or project we were doing that fascinated them. Then I’d use the opportunity to tell them more, and eventually, those people became the library’s biggest supporters. I just wish it would happen more frequently.

  3. Fred Stielow says:

    While not necessarily differing with you on the national scene, let me suggest matters can be different at the grassroots level. In Maryland’s Anne Arundel County, for example, the public library was largely able to get its way in a struggle for an appropriately sized regional library with a newly elected county supervisor. The local citizens responded with fervor to our call for support and ground laid with the county council paid dividends–even with a majority in the supervisor’s political party. It can work.

  4. Dear John,

    You aptly summarize our profession’s woes: Although we know why we are essential, many outside the field do not—and for that reason, media coverage and societal engagement remain elusive.

    You say you wish you knew the solution? Might I suggest that you solved the dilemma in this very same piece. You state, “I hear about the schools . . .” Indeed, two years ago (LJ, June 2013, bit.ly/1PWBJ4W) you confidently shared a new vision: “Libraries = Education” – which, as you pointed out, really takes us back to our original purpose.

    Here’s why the strategy works. According to Pew Research (bit.ly/PewDec2013) 1/3 of Americans don’t understand what we do (and the other two thirds don’t really either). Conversely, 100 percent of Americans know what schools do—which is what Libraries = Education accomplishes for us: a 100 percent understanding.

    All we need to do is speak the right language.

    In short, the strategy:

    1. Repositions libraries as educational institutions and library staff as educators

    2. Categorizes all that libraries do under three, easy-to-remember “pillars” (bit.ly/LibEduThreePillars)
    I. Self-Directed Education – our collections
    II. Research Assistance & Instruction – classes, seminars and workshops for all ages, taught by library instructors
    III. Instructive & Enlightening Experiences – events, partnerships, and building community

    3. Replaces traditional terminology with language people outside of the field understand (e.g., “education,” “instruction,” and “research” replace words like “information” and “reference;” “class” takes the place of “story time” and “program,” and “curriculum” replaces the unremarkable “services”).

    From the very words we use, everyone will understand that we are the provider of what the world values most, education—on equal footing with schools, colleges and universities.

    A forthcoming article, “Moving Up to First Class: Libraries = Education — Reclaiming Our Purpose in the 21st Century” (Public Libraries, July/August 2015), reports on the remarkable successes experienced by libraries across the country that have implemented this vision. In addition, this feature will be the basis of a LibraryWorks/Strategic Library webinar I’m presenting September 24, 2015 (2-3 pm, EST).

    For the most complete presentation of the approach, see Transforming our Image, Building Our Brand: The Education Advantage, ABC-CLIO (bit.ly/VJG_Books).

    Valerie J. Gross
    President & CEO
    Howard County Library System (MD)