June 2021 | XXXIX. Issue 2 »

My Turn: How Do You Think About Library Advocacy?

June 1, 2021
Nancy Kendzior, Geneva Public Library

I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately, and I challenge you to do the same. How do you think about library advocacy? Perhaps we can agree that traditionally this is defined by actively seeking to increase public funds to ensure that libraries have the resources needed to be successful and up to date. We may also refer to library advocacy as the effort to speak or communicate in favor of libraries to garner public support. As library professionals we consider ourselves library advocates because we understand the value and importance of library service and we communicate that value and importance in conversations to the community whenever we can. But as I consider the question How do I think about library advocacy? I think about the expansive variety of incredible ways this has actively demonstrated itself to me during my service to school and public libraries for almost 20 years.

I think about parent volunteers in small parochial schools, devoting an hour or two of their time every week to assist children in grades PreK-8 to select books and check out materials during their class visit to the school library. I think about all of the daily library functions performed exclusively by parent volunteers, including cataloging, displays, book fairs, and fundraising for author visits, as was the case when I served as a volunteer library assistant at St. Hubert School in Hoffman Estates. This was grassroots library advocacy at its best.

I think about new library assistants, just starting their coursework in library school and simultaneously working part time at a public library to gain hands-on experience. I regard their participation in story time and outreach activities, side-by-side with their degreed colleagues, to observe, learn and be mentored by their experience, as was the case when I served as a library assistant for young poeople’s services at the Barrington Area Library. The heart of library advocacy is pedagogy.

I think about school services librarians in public libraries connecting with schools, students and teachers in their district to form lasting community partnerships. I am wonderstruck by the hours of preparation devoted to selecting, reading, creating, and presenting exhilarating book talk presentations and summer reading promotions to assemblies of kids in all grade levels to engage kids and invite them back to the public library, as was the case when I served as a school services liaison at the Vernon Area Public Library and Glenview Public Library. Fostering youth excitement for reading is synonymous with library advocacy.

I think about libraries that have built strong collaborative relationships with Friends of the Library, community organizations, neighboring villages, rotary, women’s clubs and local businesses that have elevated them to the next level of service excellence as I learned was the case when I worked for the Wauconda Area Library. For example, the library’s “Smartest Card” promotional campaign in conjunction with library card sign-up month collaboration with local businesses served as a model for other libraries and communities. It was gratifying to serve for a library that had been named Library of the Year by the North Suburban Library System (previously a consortium of 650 academic, public, school, and special libraries in north suburban Cook, Kane, Lake, and McHenry Counties at the time) and had earned the moniker “the little library that DOES!” Their action of collaborating to produce or create something better—what better way to draw public support for libraries?

I think about the determination and resourcefulness demonstrated by libraries that strive to open new branch libraries in unique and creative ways in order to expand library services to their community. I am particularly in awe when this occurs without increasing taxes, as was the case when I was honored to serve as branch manager of the Randall Oaks Library and participated in the opening of the West Side Branch for the Fox River Valley Public Library District. The library leased 5,000 square feet of space from a recreation center belonging to the Dundee Township Park District and purchased 20,000 new items, including books, DVDs, and video games for the expansion. Additionally, the branch offered four computers with Internet access, three computers for children and three self-checkout machines. The community of 70,000 residents had been waiting a long time to have expanded services and more than 1,700 visitors attended the grand opening to eagerly check out the new branch. The practice of branching out and providing equal access to opportunities and resources who might otherwise be excluded, this is library advocacy.

I think about library programmers that creatively aim to reach library users outside the parameters of print and electronic materials. Whose purpose it is to promote literature, entertain, educate, socialize, and engage the participants in loving the library beyond the books. They masterfully find ways to tap into the interests of the community and find out what hobbies, authors, music, or trends might be surfacing to offer programming that will show they care what’s important to their patrons, as was the case when I had the privilege to serve as a programming librarian at the Bloomingdale Public Library for a community of residents of which 75% have library cards. What better way to show library advocacy than to plan, market and present creative programs that build interest and enthusiasm for wanting to know or learn about something more interactively, while also drawing a regular flow of llibrary users through your doors?

I think about library trustees, administration, managers, and staff members who work tirelessly to honor tax-paying residents who supported a referendum to create a new and beautiful state of the art library. Whose meticulous preparation for a transition to the new building was unexpectedly disrupted by a worldwide epidemic just two weeks ahead of moving day, as was the case for me and my colleagues at the Geneva Public Library. We were undeterred in our determination to quickly and seamlessly pivot to expand access to digital resources, launch virtual programs, and open drive-up delivery of library materials. We continue to evolve and reimagine library services throughout the ongoing changes to the Governor’s COVID Restore Illinois Mitigation plan. Despite on and off closure requirements, and health uncertainties, we continue to serve the community in innovative ways. Rapidly adapting services to adjust to new conditions underscores library advocacy in a profound way.

How do you think about library advocacy? I challenge all of us to look around and notice all the ways that library advocacy presents itself. But more importantly, we should ask ourselves how can we make a difference in library advocacy? Are we asking questions? Are we walking the walk? Are you being assertive and staying focused on advocacy purpose? For example, are we joining library associations and participating in library committees (ILA, ALA, PLA) to get involved in library initiatives? Are we expanding professional development opportunities for the library community? Are we supporting careers in librarianship? We say we support libraries, but in many cases, we are employing less and less full-time librarians, devaluing the MLIS graduate degree by not requiring this level of education in a majority of the open library positions, and reducing healthcare benefits to full timers who are seeking to sustain a livelihood in the profession. If we want to advocate for libraries, we need to build an employment framework that grows and supports library professionals as well. How do you think about library advocacy?

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