Library Advocacy, or How I quit worrying and learned to love politics

2 06 2007

Part I in a two part series

Six months ago, when I was a very green library student, I had a life-changing experience. This event irrevocably changed the essence of who I was, and what I believed in. It shook me to my core. I had been saved. Saved from a life of apathy, ignorance, and (let’s call a spade a spade) selfishness. And saved from myself, too – my own insecurities and fear of failure.

What was the impetus for this change? Why none other than TxLA‘s Legislative Day. Legislative day occurs once every two years for Texas libraries, and I knew this would be my only chance to participate in political library advocacy while I was still in school.

I was deathly afraid. I told everyone I knew that I was terrified of Legislative Day. Me! Lobbying! At the Capitol! I nearly shrieked my fears at anyone who would stand still long enough for me to grab them by the shoulders and pour out my heart to them. At this point, I hadn’t even worked in a library before, not even one volunteer shift, and I felt like I knew nothing and would have nothing to contribute. Yet there I was, signed up to lobby at the Capitol for the sake of Texas Libraries. And it wasn’t as if I was being a hanger-on… I wasn’t signed up because all my friends were. In fact, I didn’t know a single other library student who’d volunteered. At this point in my life, I’d never done anything like this before. I hadn’t been to the Capitol since I was eight, and I rarely had anything to do with politics. I was petrified. I didn’t even own a suit. You had to have a suit to go to the Capitol…didn’t you?

Maybe it was my own complete overwhelming fear at the prospect of political advocacy that convinced me this was something I had to do. It was like rock climbing. The first time my instructor told me to purposely fall off the wall to learn how to trust my partner holding me on the ground… letting go and then falling – then feeling the jerk as the rope catches and you’re fine and laughing hysterically because you could have just died. That kind of feeling. So I signed up. And finally February rolled around and I went.

The evening before Legislative Day, there was an orientation at a hotel downtown. I rode my bike in rush hour traffic down Congress and to the hotel, where the valet at the hotel told me I could “check” my bike at the counter and they would stow it inside. I was shaking like a leaf from the adrenaline boost I’d gotten from riding in so much traffic, but I managed to remember to get my bag from my bike before taking my claim ticket and walking over to the room where the orientation would be held. I nervously went up and claimed my packet and the nametag that were waiting for me. And then I went inside the conference room.

I’m a very poor judge of room sizes, but it seemed like there must be 500 chairs lined up facing the stage. At the end of every row was a helium baloon with a number written on it. I had learned from the packet desk that these numbers represented our districts. I found mine, but the row was empty. I’d learned a few days before that Don Hammerly, a PhD candidate at the iSchool, would be the head of our delegation. I didn’t know Don, but I’d seen him before and I was so glad to have someone else from the iSchool there. Another iSchool student, Lisa Charbonnet, would also be there, and I felt much calmer since I knew Lisa well, and she was a brick (Lisa has so much more experience with this than I – she’s already finished one successful career in business and now is starting another in librarianship). Not wanting to sit like a wallflower in a nearly empty room full of chairs, I grabbed a bottle of water and went to stand near the packet pick-up in hopes of seeing someone I knew.

All around me, more and more librarians started arriving. They were loud and boisterous, and sometimes quiet, and all seemed to be part of a big family. I felt like a total outsider. What was I doing here anyway, I wondered. How could my being here possibly make a difference to anyone? I was staring at the ornate floral carpeting as if it were the most interesting thing in the world and trying desperately to remember why I’d ever signed up for this.

Then I saw a pair of shoes in front of me. Shiny brown men’s shoes. I looked up and there stood a *gasp* librarian, smiling at me.

I should take a moment to explain something. Perhaps this was one of my own personal eccentricities, but at this point I was still in complete babbling awe of librarians. I couldn’t even speak to one properly without going all giddy and flushing from sternum to hairline in that spectacular way that only the Irish have. I’m not sure where this rapturous awe came from, but it has taken many months of concerted effort for me to act somewhat normal around a librarian.

So there I was, smiling stupidly at this librarian who had obviously taken pity on me standing all alone, looking forlorn in this sea of joviality and familial greetings. He asked what district I was in, and if this was my first time at Legislative Day (“Does it show?” I almost asked). I really can’t remember much of the conversation because I was so in awe – this librarian had been doing advocacy for his libraries (he was the head of a tri-city library group) for 30 years. He talked about politics and library issues and told me what to expect. He introduced me to the many (many!) librarians who came up to say hello to him, and I quickly realized I must be in the company of someone of significance. I’m a dunce at names if I don’t focus hard when being introduced, and so I don’t remember his name, but I really appreciated him taking me under his wing until I finally saw Don Hammerly coming up the escalators. I thanked him for talking with me and promised I’d say hello the next day at the reception.

Don was great and made me feel much more at ease. He explained how we’d have a set of issues we were to focus on, and that we already had appointments with all of the representatives in our district. I was thrilled to hear how organized everything was – we had appointments! I was so afraid this was going to be like cold-calling, but I laid that fear aside. We weren’t trying to coerce anyone, we were simply there to remind our reps of the issues that were important to libraries, why they were important, and then to ask for their support. We even had talking points! I felt so much better about the entire process after hearing that. We walked into the conference room which was now nearly full. I found Lisa and we sat together on our district’s row.

Gloria Meraz spoke to the group – she was the one who had come to my school and talked about Legislative Day. She’s a very inspiring speaker and one of the reasons I became convinced that participating would be a great thing to do. There were other speakers, each giving us advice and trying to rile the librarians in the room to get them passionate about telling their own personal stories to our representatives. And then, at some point, out of nowhere, Gloria said “and I hear we have some students from the UT School of Information here tonight. Where are you?” We three, Lisa, Don, and yours truly, stood bashfully and waved at the hundreds of eyes that turned around and faced us. I felt a flush creep up my face as I stood there with a plastic grimace grin stuck to my face as I stared into the eyes of All. Those. Librarians. They were so… old. That sounds terribly harsh, but I think… no, I know… I was the youngest person in the room. I’m no spring chicken at 29, but all the faces of my fellow librarians, were kind, and be-spectacled, and inquisitive, and oh-so-much older than me. And perhaps this is just part of my librarian-related-awe, but they seemed so all-knowing. I felt like I had been placed on a scale and was being weighed for quality – would I pass muster? Perhaps they merely seemed so much older than me because I felt like I knew so little, and they, surely, knew so much.

But why was I alone here? Where were my fellow student librarians…those of the as-yet-unknowing brother- and sister-hood? Lisa and Don seemed so different – they were grown…they’d had lives and careers before and I felt very isolated again from everyone. But then all the faces started smiling, and then they started beaming. I felt tears prick the corners of my eyes because I could feel it – I’d won their approval simply by showing up. By participating. I felt as if, at that moment, all their hopes for the future of librarianship were placed on my shoulders. What a weight to bear! And Gloria went on talking, saying how much she appreciated the librarians-of-the-future for showing up and participating. And then other librarians started saying things like “let’s pledge to each bring a youngster next year – too many old faces in this crowd.” And finally we sat down and it was over, but not quite because just when you’d start to forget what a spectacle you’d been moments before, another head or two would turn, with eyes glittering, to send a wink or a nod or a smile in your direction.

Finally it was over. We had our plan of attack. Our marching orders. We had The Agenda. Don told us where to meet and in what order we’d be speaking with the representatives. Everyone said “wear comfortable shoes” but at this point my attention was waning and I just wanted to get home (this is foreshadowing, by the way). Finally we all drifted apart, and I claimed my bicycle. The valet on duty complimented me on it and we had a moment or two of bike-talk before I turned on my night-lights and rode off into the twinkling blackness.

Part Two will be delivered tomorrow…

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