May 12, 2018

Fire in the Belly: Powering Advocacy with Passion | Editorial

ljx170302editorialRMnew1web_squareThe Urban Librarians Unite (ULU) conference in Brooklyn last month clarified the need for library advocates to engage in new ways, expand the network of library support, and focus on tactics for further establishing libraries’ value in our disrupted culture. Outcry over the destruction of so many publicly funded cultural institutions is almost deafening. We must find ways to make our voices resonate.

ULU founder and executive director and LJ Mover & Shaker Christian Zabriskie, administrator at the Yonkers Public Library System, NY, put the question in context in an ad hoc open conversation about advocacy strategies and the threat to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). (See Lisa Peet’s coverage, “Urban Librarians Unite Conference Proposes Advocacy, Activism.”) He made the case that library advocacy must now be considered in terms of a larger cultural question, which he reframed neatly in a piece for the Huffington Post soon after. “This is about how we see ourselves as a nation, it’s about what it means to be American in 2017,” he wrote. “Do we offer a hand to our neighbor or do we shun and fear them? Do we want to see our tax dollars spent on education for local communities or do we want them tied up in missiles sitting in storage waiting to kill enemies…?”

Instead of firing missiles, dropping bombs, and killing enemies (and allies accidentally), let’s find better ways of offering a hand to our neighbors. One approach that I found quite compelling emerged in a session called “Building a Culture of Radical Inclusivity in Your Library.” Developed by Margo Gustina, trustee development consultant, Southern Tier Library System, and Eli Guinnee, executive director, Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library System, both in New York State, the workshop placed social justice at the heart of library work. It asked participants to conceptualize a continuum from “partisan” to “professional,” to envision where on that scale particular stances will be perceived by each library’s community, and to take that into account.

I’ve gotten to know Gustina and Guinnee from work on the New York Library Association’s Sustainability Initiative, of which we are all a part, but I hadn’t seen them in action in this type of setting before. They argued that it is critical to find ways to imbed a deeper sense of social responsibility into library work, from programs to policies. “Radical inclusivity,” they argued, demands a reset of our understanding of what is needed to support a democracy. It calls for services designed to foster a more equitable society, not just deliver equivalent services across the board. This struck me as inherently kind and mission aligned.

This type of deep contribution, which impacts every neighborhood, is what we should focus on, surface, and use to inspire support for libraries. The intensity of this advocacy moment galvanizes many to think of this as a “fight” or a “battle” as we call for the “defense” of libraries. I’ve used this language myself, but I’m not sure it works for anyone who hasn’t already bought into what libraries deliver.

I also think its violent nature can provoke reactive posturing that is disheartening. Instead, consider alternatives, such as the one presented by Corey Williams, a federal lobbyist at the National Education Association, who spoke at the recent Association of College and Research Libraries conference (see LJ‘s coverage). “Advocacy is akin to a muscle,” she said. “You can flex it once, send a tweet or email, but this is a marathon and we’re a mile in…. We need to get in shape.”

To power such a marathon, we should draw on the passion that drives our professional commitment. This is what library work is all about—its impact every day on lives across communities large and small. That commitment to public service is vital fuel for the long road ahead.


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Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller ( is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.