A New Vision of Advocacy

Posted Monday, June 2, 2014 - 14:49
Reflecting upstream and downstream
Keith Michael Fiels

In any conversation with ALA members, advocacy consistently emerges as a number one priority. This coming year, we’re taking a fresh look at advocacy, and our vision for advocacy going forward.

Our new vision of advocacy needs to reflect both what I would describe as “upstream” and “downstream” advocacy. “Downstream” advocacy is what happens when a governor proposes the elimination of library funding or when a mayor cuts the library budget or when House leadership proposes elimination of federal funding for libraries.

When this happens, we need to put aside any concerns about being reactive. No matter what they say, bad things do happen to good people. When a library or a state is fighting for its support, we need to be reactive, we need to be effective—and we need to be quick. People need to chain themselves around library buildings if that’s what it takes to save them, and we need to do everything we can to support them.

At the other end of the advocacy spectrum is what I would describe as “upstream” advocacy. This includes increasing public awareness of the value of libraries, helping libraries become more engaged with their communities, and helping to create a more future-oriented narrative for libraries. All these things build stronger support over the long term.

Between these is the daily work of responding to community aspirations with forward-looking plans, building community coalitions to support these plans, and developing the campaigns and referenda that make library services better one project and one community at a time. At the same time, we need to advance legislation and policies that will improve library and information services in every state and across the nation.

ALA advocates across this entire spectrum: The Libraries Transforming Communities initiative is providing training and tools that will allow thousands of libraries to reach out to their communities in new and creative ways. The new Center for the Future of Libraries will help the public see libraries as forward-thinking and innovative institutions. The Campaign for America’s Libraries increases public awareness of the positive impact of libraries through traditional and social media (ALA's 2014 State of America’s Libraries report alone was the subject of more than 170,000 media mentions since it was issued in April). To date, more than 100,000 people, representing hundreds of communities across the nation, have signed the Declaration for the Right to Libraries.

ALA also provides training, resources, and encouragement to thousands of librarians and library supporters seeking to achieve local, statewide, and national advocacy goals. PLA’s “Turning the Page Online” training program is designed to give librarians, library staff, trustees, and supporters the skills and confidence they need to advocate successfully on behalf of their libraries. ALSC’s Everyday Advocacy helps librarians be informed, engaged, inspired, and share their stories and speak out. United for Libraries’ Citizens-Save-Libraries Power Guide for Successful Advocacy helps library supporters reach their local advocacy goals.

More than ever, ALA is there when funding is threatened, thanks to the Advocacy Office. When library funding was zeroed out two years in a row in Florida, or drastically cut in New York State this year, Capwiz software provided through the Chapter Relations Office helped library supporters save the funding. In dozens of instances, ALA and President Barbara Stripling have provided support and testimony when school libraries have been threatened. We don’t win every battle, but we’re winning more often now.

We still have a long way to go, and as we work on our advocacy vision, we’ll need your best thinking. Given how important advocacy is, how can we make a difference?

KEITH MICHAEL FIELS is executive director of the American Library Association, headquartered in Chicago.

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Comments

Keith- Your upstream/downstream analogy for advocacy is a good one. Good advocacy is a campaign that has to be waged on two fronts at all times. As in all good campaigns – we also have to be aware of strategy. This can be as simple as discerning the difference between “what could we do” and “what should we do.” While “downstream” advocacy may call for emergency measures, we shouldn't forget to think strategically. I have seen too many instances where we win the battle and lose the war. Advocacy is essentially about relationships. Taking steps that rupture relationships may prove counterproductive in the end. Sharman Smith, former State Librarian in Mississippi, used to ask “Is this the ditch you want to die in?” The answer may well be “yes,” but only after we've considered the strategic implications around making such a decision. Cal Shepard