I presented to the ACRL today online to kick off a conversation series. My presentation, “’Big Tent’ Advocacy: Shared Goals, Imagined Boundaries” went well. Or it felt like it went well: it’s hard to tell when the audience is online. I had a good feeling about it, so I was glad to get a chance to talk to the ACRL membership about something that is a dream of mine. For ACRL members, the session was recorded so you can go listen to it anytime. (I have no idea where they post such things.)
I have found that the best way for me to present is to use a script. I write it before entering a rehearse-tweak cycle that goes on till right before the presentation. Today was no exception as I was tweaking the script right until about an hour before the talk. By the time I hit presentation time, I can concentrate on breathing, pacing, and tone.
The only downside was my slide deck. I use Open Office for PowerPoint type things; when I save it in the PowerPoint format, it strips out all of the font changes. So, the look I was going for was completely not there, rendered into Arial and misplaced. I only glanced at it while I was talking, but when you’re on live, there’s not much you can do but make the audio even better.
For those who are curious, I’m posting a complete copy of my script. It doesn’t have some tangents I went out on, but it covers everything that I said. I hope it makes as much sense reading it as it would sound if I was speaking it. This was the first time I was able to talk about “Big Tent Librarianship” to any group of peers. I was a bit nervous about it since it’s pretty personal to me.
So, without further ado, here is the script of my presentation to the ACRL.
This is less of a presentation and more of the start of a conversation.
I’m not here to give you a new set of tools. I’m here to give you a new mindset.
This afternoon, I want to talk to you about the mission I have embarked upon. To unite the entirety of the library profession under one banner and one purpose: to work together to advocate for libraries of all types and sizes.
For me, this mission began on April 15th 2010.
At the time, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had just unveiled his state budget in the middle of March. It took a day or so before the news started spreading about what it meant for libraries. On its face, it was rather bleak: an overall 74% reduction to statewide library funding. It meant the elimination of interlibrary loan and the termination of group database and internet service contracts negotiated by the state library (which included all of the state colleges and universities), to name a few of the significant cuts. For academic libraries in particular, there would be an additional loss of funding that would have resulted in higher library fees for students or simply across the board cuts to materials and services.
On this basis, the New Jersey Library community mobilized. For my part, I started a Facebook group entitled “Save NJ Libraries!” as a means of organizing people, directing some online efforts, and having a common place to share information as it came out. I was working at the grassroots level and kept tabs on what was going on at NJLA, the State Library, the Save My NJ Library.org administrators, and other efforts around the state.
As such, I was invited to attend a meeting for Rutgers library faculty and staff as well as the MLS faculty to come up with ideas and to plan actions to fight these cuts. As the largest public university in the state, Rutgers had the most on the line from the funding cuts. It took place in one of the multipurpose classrooms in one of their many libraries, a working lunch for those involved. Sitting in the back of that room (because I was late, parking at Rutgers is a nightmare), I remember listening to a series of speakers talking about the situation and proposing different courses of action. They talked about educating the faculty and students as to what the cuts would mean to them, their academics and their research. They talked about reaching out to the alumni to get them involved in contacting the governor as well as the University president. There were discussions about flyers to give out, about creating signs and what they would say, and about taking part in some of the larger rallies on campus. I was pretty clueless as to what resources and actions that academic libraries could take; everything I was hearing was new and in my head I was drawing parallels to what the public libraries around the state were planning or doing.
As the meeting came to a close, I don’t know who said it, but there was a question that arose: what are the public libraries doing about these cuts?
Now, before I go on, let me tell you a little something about my background. My undergraduate degree is biology. I have always had an interest in the sciences; for me, it is the observation and attempted explanation of the world around us. I’m a big fan of science specials in which average people are unobtrusively recorded acting and interacting in their, for lack of a better term, natural environment. I wouldn’t say this was a Jane-Goodall-and-the-chimps moment, but it did cross my mind.
Rather than speak up, I remained silent and listened as the conversation unfolded.
And to sound like one of those science program announcers, I was fascinated by what I heard. I don’t remember much of what was said per se, but what I do remember is that the talk took on a very casual tone. As it progressed, it evolved into ideas of what public librarians could or should do, what people had heard they were doing, and maybe looking into taking time to find out.
I sat there, listening quietly as the conversation moved back and forth, and came to the realization: they don’t have a clue. They were speaking in tones that were overtly unsure. It was the information equivalent of radio silence. Here we are, an association of information professionals, and no one knows that is going on outside of their own immediate library circles.
I’m not telling this story to make light of my academic peers. Everything they said was in good faith and good intent, and I thank them for taking the time at this meeting to make mention about public libraries. I’m telling it because it would be a common observation in the weeks and months to follow.
I saw it during a state library association committee meeting when the members started talking about the cuts to education funding that were in the same budget. School librarians (who are classified as administration staff and not as teachers, at least some school districts in New Jersey, putting them beyond the protection of the unions) were getting cut all over the state. Entire school districts were laying off or reducing their librarians and their library staff, slashing the library budgets, and otherwise reducing the school library to a space with just books and computers. The conversations I had or were present for with other public librarians would talk about these events but almost in a detached way. “Oh, did you hear about the cuts in so-and-so district? Aren’t they terrible?” These conversations would die out without anyone uttering the question, “Well, what can WE do about it?”
For me, the silence, the empty spaces in these conversations was more alarming than the cuts themselves. Here I am standing in the presence of fellow professional librarians, people who have spent their lives searching, researching, locating, and otherwise connecting people to the information or materials or literature that they are seeking, AND YET we were dumbfounded as to who to talk to, WHAT to do, WHAT actions to take, or even HOW to find out about libraries that were in need of support. That we were faced with a question that goes right to the heart of the survival of libraries within our own state but either could not or would not take the time and effort to find out the answer from people who were in our own profession. These were peers who were looking for help themselves, sometimes to stave off closing their doors FOREVER.
Does that sound RIGHT to you? Does that sound how librarians should act? Does that sound like how a professional organization should function?
When I was approached about this speaking engagement to the ACRL, it was on the heels of a post I had written called “Vertical Advocacy in Libraryland”. It was my first foray into trying to articulate what I was seeing and feeling in those previous months. I define ‘vertical advocacy’ as the act of exclusively advocating for your type of library, sometimes to the detriment of other libraries. It’s a notion that I myself am guilty of as I reflect upon the things that I shared during the advocating and lobbying opportunities that were afforded to me. I think about the stories and ideas that I shared and how they were mostly in regard to or about public libraries. I mean, let’s face it. As a public librarian, it really shouldn’t be a shock that these would be the libraries I would be throwing my support behind to get funding or spending restoration.
But, the more I thought about it, the more those conversations continued to bother me. That eventually the library community in New Jersey would claim a partial victory in only having a 43% cut. And yet school libraries and librarians got slashed, sometimes out of existence. And yet public libraries continue to close in places like Camden, Jersey City, Newark, and Trenton. And I’ll be honest, I don’t know how the academic libraries in New Jersey fared, but based on the funding outlook from the state, I’m going to guess they took their own knocks. Those kinds of cuts don’t even make it outside of the campus newspaper. The whole thing didn’t sit well with me. I kept coming back to the question: “What can be done to resolve this disconnect within the profession?”
The answer to this question came to me in what would become a Library Journal Backtalk article entitled “We Need Big Tent Librarianship”. It’s not so much an article as it is a personal manifesto and the compelling and underlying reason that brings me here today to talk to you about shared advocacy values and goals. The term “big tent librarianship” is the idea that the profession has enough basic elements and underlying commonalities that we share a collective interest in the continued existence of all types of libraries. That, to use ALA Past President Jim Rettig’s term, there is a library ecosystem in which the different libraries depend on one another. That the school libraries lead into the academic libraries, that the public libraries interface with both school and academic, and that special libraries work to fill the niches and uncovered areas of the others.
The overall point is that we (and I say the royal we) are all connected. “Big tent librarianship” is an idea to bring library professionals of all stripes and types, creeds and degrees, places and spaces, and to bring them together to advocate, to take action, and to work towards the continued use and growth of libraries across the United States. That we as a profession are connected by a common thread of teaching information literacy as a life skill, the curation of personal curiosity and education, and the preservation of information access for those who seek it now and in the future. Now is the time to rally together for this future.
I believe that my talk comes at a fortunate moment. Recently, ALA President Roberta Stevens has charged a task force with the following question: "If there was no governing body currently in place, what structure would you envision that reflects ALA’s goal of an engaged and collaborative membership, the effective use of new technologies and the changes in outlook and expectations occurring with the new generation of people working in libraries?" It’s a ‘blue sky’ re-imagining of the organization and how it could or should change to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
I hope that this talk can be the start of that re-imagining. The lesson that I’ve drawn from my story and from the anecdotes that I’ve heard is that there are barriers to communication within and across the field. It is a matter left for each one of us to overcome; it starts with the individual.
In evolving into something new, I urge those who are listening to me today (and those who will listen to this recorded talk later) to work towards building bridges within the ALA organization. I urge you to demand better information sharing practices so that you can be more readily informed about current news in different areas and regions. And I urge you personally to take whatever steps are required to be informed and active in the role of advocating for every library.
For that last point, I’d like to offer a few suggestions as to how to do that because I believe it can lead to the other two changes.
The first is education. Or rather, a bit of self education outside your usual scope. A pair of trade sources that I would recommend would be Library Journal and School Library Journal. I’m not talking about reading these publications cover to cover (or every link on their website), but just give it a scan. See what interests you. Get a feel for what stories or issues that are going on right now.
I’d also recommend attending sessions at state conferences that are outside of your usual fare. Take an empty time slot and find something that catches your eye or relates to your position from a different vantage point. It’s not like you would be compelled to stay the whole time if its really not to your taste, but it will afford you a different perspective or an appreciation of different issues that are facing non-academic librarians.
Beyond that, I’d recommend reading blogs. Blogs tend to be more timely and nimble than state conference presentations or the trade publications as they can be published with a shorter turnaround and offer a personal point of view. I’ve highlighted some of the blogs that I would personally recommend reading and the specialties that they relate to. (After I submitted my powerpoint, I completely forgot about special librarians. I’d like to add Rachel Walden and David Rothman as recommended blogs to read.) You can subscribe by email or RSS feed. I personally use Google Reader and that’s the one I recommend, but there are other ones out there.
The second is communication. One way (and perhaps the simplest yet overlooked) is meeting and talking with other librarians. This can be through more formal settings such as conferences or meetings. It’s certainly less daunting when people are wearing name tags and have a common reason for being there. It’s about getting to know the other people in the organization that are involved in aspects that you may not know much about. It’s a significant step towards building bridges within the professional organization.
From my own experience, I’ve organized informal librarian social meet-ups all around New Jersey. I personally believe that this works better as it foster relationships within the profession at the personal level. That person across the table is no longer Samantha the woman who sits on the Teen Library User subcommittee, but Sam who runs all sorts of creative programs for her teens and works to find new ways to bring them into the library. I’m not sitting next to James the conference coordinator and library director, but James the family guy who likes to go bike racing. You get the point I’m going for. As I said before, it’s about making connections within the professional community.
I will admit that it seems very silly to me to sit here and tell the people listening who are clearly intelligence (and possess good judgment, I might add, in attending this talk) that one of things we need to do is talk with each other. But, as I recounted in my story, there can be some basic communication breakdowns. Something like this is a relatively easy, low risk high reward remedy. And as a people oriented profession, the first people we should be able to talk to is each other.
The third is action. Or, to be more specific, the importance of taking action. For the advocacy campaigns of the future, it is my belief that they will rely on everyone getting off the bench to help out. This will mean laying the groundwork to mobilize the membership of state and national library associations. It means establishing and refining our own internal communication networks.
It’s a bit harder to make recommendations on this point because of people’s personal preferences. I can imagine some would not mind being on the ‘front line’ in terms of picketing, rallying, giving handouts to the public or faculty or student body, and otherwise being out there. Likewise, I can imagine some being more comfortable with the logistics and command end in terms of organizing people, working on the message, making additional contacts, and coordinating efforts. Find out where your comfort level exists and thrive in that role. The importance here is in taking action. The importance here is in showing up.
In closing, I’d like to leave you with this final thought. Once upon a time, we were all sitting in a classroom at our respective graduate level library science programs. In that classroom, there were no academic librarians, public librarians, school librarians, or special librarians. We were just people who wanted to be librarians, who sat through the same core classes, and worked together on projects and papers. While we later took classes that reflected the interests of our own career paths, for that brief period of time we were all together. I’d like to urge you to go back to that time. To think about the shared purpose in those professional nascent days. To remember that are no actual barriers between us and that there never were. That we as a profession share those common roots and origins. In getting back to those aspects, we can once again work together to advocate for all kinds and types of libraries. Just as we worked together in that classroom back then.
I’d like to thank Eric and Valerie for inviting me to speak to the ACRL today. They have been immensely patient with me along the way and I’m thankful for that. I hope this presentation and the others to follow live up to the title of ‘conversation series’. I’d like to hear your thoughts.
 The blogs I listed on my slide deck (but didn’t write what I said about them into the script) were: