Library Advocacy, the story continues

8 06 2007

The morning of Legislative Day, I woke up and rode the bus downtown to the Capitol. I still didn’t have a suit. I wandered to the group meeting point at the Texas State Library and Archives building next door to the Capitol, and found my way to the delegate gathering area. I felt even more self conscious in such close proximity with professional librarians who were all dressed to the 9s in pinstripe suits with briefcases. I sat down and started playing the wallflower again until I recognized some people from the night before and went over to say “hi.” Finally Lisa arrived – she is the most networked librarian I know – and began introducing me to everyone and I started to relax.

Once the rest of our group arrived, we headed across the street to the Capitol for our first appointment, which was inside the Capitol Annex. I never even knew the Capitol had an Annex; it’s a huge underground structure built to house all the delegates and representatives and their staff because the main capitol building is far too small. We walked past the main building, and then up to these odd pagodas in pink granite with greenish copper roofs (same as the main building) that were essentially glorified elevator stations. We rode down in the elevator and then were released into what could only be described as a warren, or perhaps an ant mound what with all the legal/political aids running around through the twisting corridors. I would never have figured out where to go, but thankfully everyone else had been there before and we wound our way around to our first meeting.

As we passed by a courtyard, I saw men in khaki vests and cowboy hats with their arms raised walking around in a circle and looking at the ground. On the mosaic tiled courtyard floor lay three or four coiled rattlesnakes. People were clustered around the windows and some even ventured outside to watch a little excerpt from the rattlesnake roundup (hey, this is Texas, after all). One of my colleagues said “I wonder what they’re lobbying for…?” and I was startled because, surely, they weren’t here to actually do any serious lobbying were they? Not with rattlesnakes! They were just putting on a show…weren’t they? They weren’t even in suits! As we continued on – right turn, left turn, up a short staircase, around a bend – I got a glimpse of other groups who were petitioning their representatives for support. You know what? The only people I saw in suits were my fellow librarians. Everyone else was wearing matching shirts screaming their message lest the representative (or perhaps they themselves) forgot their party line. I saw other people in suits, sure, but none of the groups petitioning. I could tell the librarians from everyone else because we all wore these huge buttons that said “Texas Loves Libraries.” It was surprising to see how casually some groups took lobbying. Perhaps it was because they did it more frequently (TxLA only has a Legislative Day once every two years).

We finally arrived at our first meeting and we all tried to squeeze into the tiny waiting room of a junior legislator to sign the visitor book before being led down the hall to a larger meeting room. There we met with the aid of said junior legislator and Don Hammerly gave her our handouts, and ran through the issues we wanted our legislator to support. Those delegates in our group who lived in the representative’s district named themselves as such (because the legislators like to know how many of their own constituents are there). I don’t believe I said anything at this first meeting – I just smiled and nodded, introduced myself when asked, and trembled in fear that I’d be asked to speak! The others were giving personal stories of how the proposed legislation would affect them at their libraries and I couldn’t say anything like that because I didn’t even work for a library. After a short 15 or 20 minutes, our meeting was over and we marched on to the next.

Throughout the afternoon it was much the same. Spend a great deal of time walking from one office to the next, try and cram in and sign the guest book, and speak with a very friendly and receptive aide who apologized for the absence of the representative. We eventually discovered that most of the representatives were called to the floor for a last-minute issue, which is why we were seeing so many aides. At each meeting, my fear grew a little less. Eventually I realized that, even though I didn’t work at a library, I was a patron of several libraries, and I could try to provide insight from a user-perspective. Once I realized that, I tried to speak more often.

Finally, after five or six meetings (they’re all a blur in my head), we went to our last meeting of the day: Eliot Naishtat, my own representative. This was the only real-live legislator we’d seen all day, and Rep. Naishtat’s office is located in the main building since he’s a senior legislator. I shook his hand and introduced myself as “a grad student in library studies and a constituent” and then we all went to his office for our meeting. We said the same things we’d been saying all day, but this meeting was a bit different. Rep. Naishtat was aware of our platform and already supported our legislation, so the talk quickly moved to other matters. We had been “warned” at our briefing that some representatives would try and change the topic to get our opinion on other matters, and that we were to gently steer them back to libraries. I got a small sense of this, but generally, Rep. Naishtat was asking us about other library issues, so none of us really felt the need to “steer” the conversation. We were just so pleased to be talking to a real representative for once (of course, his aide sat in on the meeting, taking notes so the Rep. didn’t have to worry about that).

Finally, it was all over. Everyone had been very receptive to our requests, and very polite and courteous. There had been no conniving, no wheedling, nothing of the sort (although I did see a very rotund man in a pinstriped suit carrying a basket of goodies into one representative’s office…I smirked because the scenario smacked of the fast-talking, wheelin-and-dealin luncheons I thought we were going to have to do to help “lobby”).

As we all rose to the surface and departed the Capitol, I realized I was exhausted. My feet ached and were blistered because I’d made a poor decision in shoes (I hadn’t realized how much walking would be involved!) I bowed out and said “farewell” to my fellow delegates, and as they walked back to the State Library building for the reception, I trudged off to wait at the overcrowded bus stop. I was physically exhausted, but mentally uplifted.

As I rode home on the bus, I gazed out the window and replayed everything in my mind. Being around these librarians had been so inspiring. That they cared for their communities was obvious (that’s why they chose librarianship, after all), but they went above and beyond that. They took time out of their schedule to pound the granite and squeeze into too-small offices and uncomfortable suits and smile and shake hands with 20 year old aides and tell them why libraries were important. I think some of the aides were a bit clueless about libraries before the meetings, but left with open eyes.

I learned from Legislative Day that a part of keeping libraries relevant is not just marketing – user surveys, usage studies, marketing materials, social networking – but advocacy. Getting out there and telling people about libraries – what they offer, now, in the past, and what they could offer in the future with support. I realized then that what I’d found so distasteful about the idea of legislative day was the persuasion behind it. I didn’t like cold-calling, and I didn’t like trying to influence people. My line had been, up to that point “Everyone has their own opinion, and I’m sure they have good reasons for feeling the way they do, so there’s nothing I can do to change that.”

Well, I was wrong. People have their opinions because of their own experiences, true, but also because of outside influences that shaped those experiences. Some of those “influences” were probably people – people who inspired or repulsed. I now realized that we, as librarians, needed to be an inspiring influence in our communities. We could shape our communities for better or worse, depending on our advocacy efforts, or lack thereof. We are all representatives of libraries. Representatives of the patrons who use our services, but equally responsible for those who don’t. By advocating for libraries, we’re supporting our communities in the present, and in the future, by ensuring free access to quality information, assistance in selecting information from among the ever-growing sea of sources, and teaching people to navigate those waters, whether their end goal is personal betterment and fulfillment, social connections, learning, or achieving a better quality of life. Every dollar we gain in governmental support will help improve our services. And every convert we bring into the library fold has the potential to be an advocate for libraries – bringing in their friends, family and colleagues. Likewise, every patron lost through poor services, poor programming, or poor facilities also has the potential to be a naysayer of libraries, undoing the hard work we have done.

That’s why apathy can’t be tolerated. We have to be the best, and motivated to be advocates every day…not just in the political arena, but to all our patrons, and our would-be patrons. That’s what being an advocate means.  I hadn’t realized it before. But every time I talk to someone now, if I tell them I’m studying to be a librarian, and they mention that they haven’t been to the library in years, I try and suggest some way that the library could be useful and relevant to them.  I know that many will just smile and nod, but maybe one or two actually will go check out those databases, or maybe our classes, or our media collections. And that’s a good start. Like I said, I see these converts as potentially exponential growth – viral advocacy if you will. And that potential inside each one will keep me talking, even though I still hate trying to change people’s minds. I’ll get better at it, with practice.

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2 responses

11 06 2007
Joe

I completely agree with your statement on being “motivated to be advocates”. I find myself touting library services to other people much more now as a library student, than when I was solely a library visitor. As you said, you never know if a few people may take you up on the invitation to check out the great resources their library has to offer. It could set off a wave.

“Viral advocacy” – what a great term 🙂

12 06 2007
librarynation

Thanks Joe! Of course, advocacy comes from caring deeply about the future of a particular organization and the populace it serves. I’m admittedly biased, but I think most people in a community see a library as a beneficial institution. Getting our patrons past the passively content into the realm of actively advocating is the hard part, and the burden is all on us as librarians and library workers. I think that part of the hiring questions should be “and how will you help us advocate for libraries in our community?” because it’s such a crucial part of our jobs. I think people go to work for nonprofits instinctively knowing this, but libraries have been around for so long, and are technically government agencies (usually) and so those who apply may not remember that they’re working at what is essentially a nonprofit whose mission is helping the public.

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