The Case for the Great Good Place, Ctd.

From Walk You Home:

One of the most important parts of library advocacy at the moment seems to be setting the record straight; explaining to people where they’ve got the wrong impression of libraries (be that because they’ve had a bad and unrepresentative experience and/or because they haven’t used a library in many years).

[…]

It’s been suggested that we should just ignore the naysayers and leave them to their ignorance. This is not an option! It’s really tiring to argue against all the misconceptions and misunderstandings of public libraries, but we have to. And it’s worth it.

In Lauren’s post, she goes through the comment sections of different online articles that talk about library funding. It’s a task I do not envy in the slightest, but her post is an excellent listing of typical comments with some excellent rebuttals. I just really like the fact that she took the time to find the comments and research answers to them.

As I said before in the LIS Syllabus post, advocacy is the new norm. It’s up to the profession to push back on comments that are misguided or wrong. We’d never let someone leave the library knowing that they had the wrong information, so why let public commenters have their words go unanswered?

This is not to say that you should fight all the internet trolls you see, but be on the active lookout for where you can make a mark in an online discussion forum. This will not result in a spontaneous conversion of the masses, but if it can change one person, then that’s one person more than we had before.

(H/t: Patrick Sweeney)

School Libraries: Endangered Species?

From the Not So Distant Future:

It seems like a no-brainer. For students’ reading skills to improve, they need to read. They need to have lots of access to books and technology. They need to feel comfortable around books, talk about books, and associate books with positive interactions. They need the support of librarians who can match them up with the right books, bring guest authors into the school, create book clubs, help them access electronic books, guide them to online book discussions, help them get past the digital divide by providing Internet access and information literacy training, and connect their teachers with the latest tools.

And we know this works — study after study has shown that schools with well-stocked, well-staffed libraries have higher achievement test scores. And yet, perplexingly, across the nation, librarian positions are being cut; elementary libraries have no librarian, librarians are spread among multiple schools, and libraries are being closed due to lack of staff, or opened only a few hours a day, manned by the occasional teacher.

I know that school libraries in New Jersey got clobbered by the budget cuts last year. You can read one librarian-teacher’s account of going from the library back to the classroom due to cuts over at Library Garden. It’s this really horrendous paradox in which we demand better academic achievement from students and then can’t seem to find our collective wallet when the bill comes in. I realize that money is not the solution to some of the education woes in this country, but when you have a bunch of evidence that indicates that a library is a relatively cheap and easy way of knocking up reading scores a notch, it really is a no-brainer.

For related reading, The Unquiet Librarian takes on the lack of mention of school libraries and school librarians in a Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy white paper, “Digital and Media Literacy:  A Plan of Action”. They appear to be re-inventing the wheel with a recommendation to create Digital and Media Literacy Youth Corps rather than support existing school libraries and librarians that are already in place and on the (relatively) same mission.

What will it take to bring school libraries back from the brink of budget extinction?

(Late addendum: Chicago’s Lack of School Libraries Sparks Dispute. [h/t: Resource Shelf])

Alternative Advocacy Ideas for Library Funding Skeptics

Last week, I found an article in the New York Times entitled “In Kansas, Climate Skeptics Embrace Cleaner Energy” that got me thinking in regards to library advocacy. Specifically, this passage:

Over dinner, Wes Jackson, the president of the Land Institute, which promotes environmentally sustainable agriculture, complained to Ms. Jackson, his daughter-in-law, that even though many local farmers would suffer from climate change, few believed that it was happening or were willing to take steps to avoid it.

Why did the conversation have to be about climate change? Ms. Jackson countered. If the goal was to persuade people to reduce their use of fossil fuels, why not identify issues that motivated them instead of getting stuck on something that did not?

(Emphasis mine.)

There are some very familiar refrains that library advocacy invokes in a public awareness campaign in the last year: books and reading, computer access, education programming, assistance for the unemployed and underemployed, and lending aid in the time of the recession. But, as I would commonly see in comments on library funding news stories, what librarians find as a compelling reason does not resonate with everyone. Consider some of these comments left on various library budget stories.

If the "public" supports libraries, the "public" can pay for them with their own "private" dollars. I AM the public, and I do NOT support the libraries, and I do NOT want my income confiscated to pay for them. They are completely anachronistic and need to be privatized. If they can stand on their own they will. If they cannot, they should not.

Think of it: [Every] town spending millions of dollars on buildings, computers, and infrastructure, and then staffing them, and then continuously buying books, DVDs, and CD’s so that one group of citizens can have free entertainment. OUTRAGEOUS.

We have to stop worshipping the needy. The needy need to get off their butts, get jobs, and properly buy their books, DVDs, CDs with their own money. (NJ.com)

Or:

Libraries are like unions. They are obsolete. Nobody uses them anymore. It is a huge drain on our economy and is no longer economically viable right now. Maybe in the future when we have funding we can reopen them. But, probably not, because nobody really uses them. I still don’t even know what they are for. (NJ.com)

Or:

Tired of all the whining and hearing it’s such a small amount. All of these so called "small amounts" are starting to add up. VOTE NO! User fees. If you use the service, YOU pay for it! As a homeowner, I’m tired of financing [everything] for everyone. (Columbus Dispatch)

Or:

Libraries will be like museums, to store old books. Hasn’t anyone ever heard of e-books?? Kindle?? Nook? iPad??
What about music CD’s and movie DVD’s loaned out by libraries you say?? These will go the way of the VHS move. Music is already downloaded off of the internet, movies are streamed through the internet.
Let’s put this 100-year dinosaur to rest !! NO ON MEASURE Q !! (The Herald, Monterey County)

While I have chosen some of the more extreme examples of opposition to library funding, I think they act well to demonstrate that the usual sort of reasoning for library support will not always be compelling. In reflecting on these comments in the new light of the New York Times article, I think there are other ways of enticing people to support the library without relying on the usual issues identified. I think there are a couple of other rationales that may appeal to people who are unmoved by our usual rhetoric. I’ll attempt to outline a few different approaches in this post.

Photo by ladybugbkt/FlickrAs much as the quote “There’s this American flag, apple pie thing about libraries” from Frank Pezzanite at LSSI shot around the library blogosphere, he really is onto something in that remark. There is a patriotic aspect to the library. In an “On My Mind” piece for American Libraries, Andy Spackman wrote about the influence of the Founding Fathers in planting the seeds for what would eventually emerge as public or free libraries.

Enlightenment-inspired Founding Fathers believed an informed citizenry was necessary for the preservation of liberty and the function of democracy. James Madison argued “a popular government, without popular information … is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy.” Jefferson placed the “diffusion of information” among the “essential principles of our Government.” He said, “I have often thought that nothing would do more extensive good at small expense than the establishment of a small circulating library in every county.”

While some might not be fans of Jefferson, there is enough influence by the other Founding Fathers in general to make a patriotic case for the inclusion of libraries in local and state budgets. That, in addition to providing for a well informed citizenry, the library also provides people with opportunities that they would not otherwise receive. Lending the material for self improvement is not the same as charity. For a country that has touted itself as the "Land of Opportunity”, it would be contrary to this idea to not offer current and future Americans the tools for them to succeed. It’s the story of the American Dream told time and time again of someone from humble means rising up into a successful life. The library fits into that role because it does not dictate what people should do or become, but allows for the endless possibilities of human destiny.

It’s a lofty argument and an appeal to a different sort of populism. But for all the citing of the Founding Father, the outpouring of patriotism themes and memes, and talk of the American Dream, the argument that libraries fit right in there could be compelling.

Photo by M. Angel Herrero/FlickrAnother path to consider is much more wallet based: property values. That is, that having a library is a selling point for someone’s property. While the current owner may not be interested in the current library, that does not mean that future residents (or neighbors) will not. In listing the proximity to points of interest on a real estate description sheet, the library could be another selling point for a potential buyer to consider.

There have been numerous studies and papers regarding the relationship between education and crime. These reinforce the educational importance of the library in the lives of the community as well as provides a positive benefit as a component in the overall reduction of crime in the area. With better education, in general crimes rates go down, wages go up, and (subsequently) property values increase. What is being paid to maintain the library is a pittance compared to the salary and benefits of law enforcement officers.

While I think this kind of argument has its high and low spots (depending on the listener), I think it can key in on financial arguments that avoid the “I don’t use it so I don’t the financially support it” mantra that gets tossed around.

Photo by Trostle/FlickrA third consideration for presenting something that might motivate people to support libraries is more religious based. In reading about Stephen Colbert’s testimony to Congress regarding immigration issues, he broke character to make this point.

Colbert said he cares about people "with the least power." He quoted the Bible, as he often does: "Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers … these seem like the least of our brothers."

[It’s a reference to the Matthew 25:40. You can read Matthew 25:31-46 for the full context. –A]

The philosophy of caring for others plays a significant role in the major world religions. There are many allegories and statements within religious texts and dogmas that express the spiritual goodness when a person acts to support another. While the Bible does draw a difference between compelled and uncompelled acts of charity (as would someone who might be listening to this approach might do), I believe there are enough other passages that outline the (for lack of a better term) holiness of providing for those who are in need. In matching it to a reason to support the library, it is a matter of pointing out that there is no charitable organization within the United States that does exactly what the public library does. While it is a government based entity, it does provide tangible aid at a local level. I am aware that this might be a bit of a stretch, but there is only so much you can do without steering it directly into a charity situation and all of the connotations that go with that.

I’m pretty certain that not everyone who reads this would be comfortable with this approach. Religion can make an issue more contentious than it needs to be and can potentially backfire badly as an alternative approach. While I’m certainly not the most religious person (yes, the blog title has layers of meaning), I can appreciate the sentiments being expressed within the passage in regards to taking care of those who are less fortunate than ourselves. This post is about finding other things that motivate people to provide support for the library and I feel that an argument based in religion (especially in religious tenets that address duties to others) is a potentially valuable argument for those who feel comfortable making it. 

 

These are but a few ideas that could motivate people to support the library when the standard benefit presentations do not work. It does us very little good to repeat the same talking points in the face of funding opposition; instead, it is the time to turn their arguments into advantages. This isn’t about making up anything to answer their concerns and objections; this is about looking to other less obvious benefits that can be presented that address those concerns.

This is the time to think outside of the advocacy box. In the face of opposition coming from new directions, some of the rote arguments will not work. Librarians can and should look to demonstrate their value in other ways that will spark the motivation for support that we are looking to gain.

Shine Like a Star, Star (Update)

Picture by jpstanley/Flickr [cc]

The story so far:

At the end of last week, Roy Tennant posted on his Library Journal blog an entry about “How to Become (and Stay) Famous”. He’s got some great advice for those getting notice (or looking to get notice) within the field and what it entails. He makes reference to an older post “How to Be ‘Famous’” by Karen Schneider that works as a good companion piece. The focus of her piece revolves around what this type of ‘fame’ means for the individual. In reading both articles together, it gives a good balance to the library ‘fame game’ in offering equal parts of how to get there, how to stay there, and what to expect when you’re there.

The one item I’d like to highlight from these entries comes from Roy’s post.

Make connections. No one becomes famous alone. Well, almost no one. Becoming famous can be a long, winding road that includes fellow travelers. Lend them a hand when you can and they will do the same. Some of these connections will grow into trusted life-long friends.

For the long strange trip that the Ben & Jerry’s group has been, the sheer volume of people that I have met along the way has been staggering. It has allowed me to indulge in my overriding curiosities about other people in the profession. I love taking whatever recognition that has been afforded me and being able to quiz my peers as to what they do, how they feel about librarianship, and what they are working on or towards. Though I might be biased, I find what motivates, what drives, and where the spark of passion for the professions exists to be rather fascinating. For all that people endure from their patrons, the governing bodies, their coworkers, and various ups and downs, I love the twinkle that people get in their eyes when they are talking about their Element (to borrow the phrase from Sir Ken Robinson).

So, fair and learned readers, what is your passion in the librarian field? What gets the twinkle in your eye?

Customer Service is NOT Advocacy

As tempting as it would be to make the entire body of the post only two words (“see title”) or just the graphic, I reckon there would be a call for further explanation as to what I meant by the title. And here is what I mean: excellent customer service is not advocacy for the library. I’m writing this post because I believe that there is a certain level of complacency and a false comfort in the idea that by simply providing good customer service people will take action on behalf of the library.

This is simply not so. 

The terms “advocacy” and “customer service” are not synonyms nor share the same definition nor are interchangeable. Libraries will not remain open because the staff in the library were nice or friendly to their patrons. No decision maker will be swayed by such proclamations of good care by staff. What is required is the ability of the patron to demonstrate the value of the library to them. Customer service is just the fancy frame that encompasses the importance that the library holds in the life of the patron.

While providing good customer service will certainly assist in making people more receptive to being asked to take action (which is what advocacy is), by itself it is not advocacy for the library. It’s dangerous for the future of the library to confuse these two actions; customer service does not lead to effective patron action. In providing the patron with an excellent customer experience, that creates the opportunity to let them know how they can help the library maintain its funding, keep staff members and hours, and (in some cases) keep their doors open. Customer service is important as an avenue for the advocacy that is required to illustrate the value of the public service institution.

In case people need a reminder, I made a graph. Enjoy and use liberally.

cs-advocacy

Shine like a Star, Star

Over my vacation week, I caught this post "The Librarian IS the Rockstar” over on David Lee King’s blog. It’s a great post about the library looking to showcase the talents of its employees, the people who work their magic and make the programs and services possible for their community. Libraries have talented staff members who (too often) remain in the shadows, unnoticed by the public and unacknowledged by the library. So why not elevate them to where people can see and appreciate the skills, knowledge, and talent they bring to the library?

Like all of David’s work, it’s an excellent post. But it was the comments that put my teeth on edge (and this comment in particular).

rockstarOther people refuted the commenter in their replies, but I think this kind of comment (and the thinking behind it) is a real problem in the library world these days. Why not indulge in a reasonable amount of self promotion? Why not highlight the talents of staff for the general public? Why not make one of the attractions to coming to the library a staff member?

There seems to be a recognition gap between showcasing the collection and the staff. Of course the collection should be highlighted for its unique holdings and, yes, there are a wide variety of services that a staff member can assist with. But as technology improvements continue their rapid ascent, people will be looking for what these innovations cannot grant them: person to person contact. (Everyone has heard the lament, “I don’t want to talk to a machine! Why can’t I get a person on the phone at [X]?”, right?) This is the sort of connection that people are looking for and one that the library can provide. Why not take that advantage and use it to greater effect by highlighting a staff member through publicity (either the library’s website, library print publicity, or local media)? Give people a person, not a place, to think about when they think about the library.

I’m not indifferent to the privacy desires of staff or the potential ‘stalker’ type of issues that can arise from people having their information. There is a fine balance between the two and I certainly wouldn’t want to put someone out there who was not comfortable with the exposure. But for those who don’t mind the exposure, the promotion pays in branding dividends. If you can put a human face to the library (and not a picture of a building, as is commonly done on Twitter and Facebook), then patrons can make the better connection to a person than simply identifying the place. In thinking beyond the immediate, when it comes to advocating for the library, it’s an easier emotional connection to say “Miss Jessica at the library needs you to write to your representatives” than “The library needs you to write to your representatives". Patrons will be doing it for the people at the library, not simply the library itself. It’s that kind of identification that the library really needs; that personal connection that emphasizes that we are a people business. 

Given the choice, I’d rather subscribe to the rock star sentiment than to the alternative Tyler Durden-esque mindset that seems to rear its head anytime the notion of breaking out and tooting one’s own horn in librarianship becomes a topic of conversation. Promotion is not akin to narcissism, especially when dealing with communities that simply have no idea what we do as an institution.

(This feels like it should segway into a conversation about the “celebrity librarians”, another topic that I feel is overdue for another round of discussion. I don’t understand the full fledged resistance to the application of the term, nor to having someone stand out enough that the general public would be aware of their existence. To me, it is folly to frown upon the idea when librarianship is in a struggle for recognition. We cannot hang on to this strange notion of professional egalitarianism while bemoaning our lack of visibility in the greater public realm. To have someone who can capture the attention of the media and general public on library issues is someone who can work to turn thoughts and opinions regarding libraries. That’s something that we could use right about now.)

Social Media & Library Advocacy

In the most recent New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell examines the social activism in the age of social media. If you have any interest in library advocacy, you need to go read it now. The gist of this article is that social media is excellent for reaching a multitude of people, but it lacks some of the strong bonds that turn interest into action.

The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.

This is in many ways a wonderful thing. There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.

Over at the New York Times “Room for Discussion”, an assortment of pundits have been offering their take on Mr. Gladwell’s article. I can’t possibly sum up all of their articles, so I highly recommend reading all of them. I’ll quote some to hopefully entice you to look closer.

Timothy Lee, “Power of a Personal Message”:

No social movement can succeed without activists willing to take serious risks for their cause. But other factors are also important. These include a critical mass of ordinary citizens who are at least sympathetic to, if not yet actively supportive of, the activist’s cause, and a strategy to reach and persuade as many of those citizens as possible. What makes the Internet revolutionary is not just that it makes it easier for activists to communicate with one another, but that it provides them with powerful new tools for informing and persuading their fellow citizens.

Evegeny Morozov, “Virtual vs. Real Protests”:

But we should not confuse mobilizing with organizing. The Internet excels at mobilizing people to rally behind political causes (obviously, not all of them democratic) – but someone still needs to engage in long-term strategic organization.

Michael Anti, “In China, Even Weak Ties are Crucial”:

When 1.4 billion people have a chance, however slight, to think and talk directly without censorship and self-censorship, it’s obviously revolutionary, even if it’s not a revolution.

William Powers, “Digital and Traditional Tools”:

Twitter and Facebook aren’t going to save the world. But when used alongside other tools of human connectedness — including some very old ones, like the face-to-face conversations, meetings and protests that drove the civil rights movement — the new technologies can be extremely useful. I’ve learned a lot from my digital life and made real friends there. But if I never turned off the screen and brought those gains to bear in the rest of my life, what use would they be? Digital networking and more traditional forms of communication aren’t mutually exclusive — they feed into each other.

Burt Herman, “New Media’s Trust Sources”:

Rather than the mass media of before, where audiences were grouped together based on how far radio waves reached or the distance newspaper delivery trucks drove, curators find audiences with shared interests. They filter the most relevant information and add context through their commentary and insight, like the explanations on the gallery walls of an art exhibition. The most successful curators build a following based on knowing what their audiences want.

Howard Rheingold, “Following and Leading Online:

The Web can be a morass of grossly uncivil discourse and misinformation, and it can be an accessible and inexpensive medium for community-building and political activism. The difference lies not in the technology but in the literacy — know-how is the critical difference. Lots of people have the know-how to organize demonstrations and riots, get out the vote and shut down institutions. Those who gain the know-how to transform networks into movements might gain the keys to power — for better or worse — in coming decades.

In reading all of these wonderful pieces, I’ve been reflecting on my experiences with social media. It has been roughly a year and three months since I started a Facebook group with the name “People for a Library Themed Ben & Jerry Ice Cream Flavor”.  Since then, I’ve been involved in other Facebook groups, used Twitter hashtags in conjunction with passing library advocacy news (such as #saveohiolibraries), watched the creation of an library advocacy website, marched on the State Capital, used CapWiz to generate emails to my representatives, hand written letters to government officials, and advocated to patrons at my own library for restoration of budget cuts. If someone was to ask me what out of those things works, I’d have to give an honest answer and say “It depends”.

When it comes to online advocacy, it really depends on what you are asking people to do. The Ben & Jerry’s ice cream group was rather easy: join the group! That’s one mouse button click on the interface. From there, I encouraged people to send in their flavor choices through Ben & Jerry’s flavor submission interface. People could suggest their ideas on the group’s wall. It gave any Ben & Jerry people a very easy way to gauge interest in the group: they could visit the page or check on the flavor submissions. Overall, not much was being asked of the people who participated except to join and share. There was an aspect of library advocacy attached to the group in raising awareness for library funding issues. For those who were really taken with the idea, they took the further steps of adding their own.

In contrast to the Save NJ Libraries group, it was a widely different group for its aim and purpose. There was funding, jobs, and entire library locations at risk if action was not taken. It was more than just join the group and share it; we wanted people to write, call, email, and demonstrate their support for the library. We shared information, developments, and stories playing within the local media to build morale and keep people in the loop as to how others were faring around the state.

For myself, it was wonderful to see that over 15,000 people joined the group; but in the back of my mind, I had my doubts. How many of those people are fellow librarians joining in solidarity? How many actual New Jersey residents are actively monitoring the group? How many NJ people are sharing the information to their friend? How many people in the group are contacting their elected officials? For these questions, I had no answers nor hunches; there is no way to measure it and my gut feelings did not feel reliable. While some would argue that the larger the number the higher the probability of active members, I would answer and say that probability does not translate into measurable results. It also relies on the false premise that each person who joins the group has an equal chance of taking further action. Each person who comes into the group has their own level of potential involvement; where the group makes a difference is whether they can provide the energy and engagement necessary to overcome those who have (for lack of a better term) less than median potential involvement.

In my opinion, this is what can make or break a social media campaign. It’s not about the believers, it’s about getting the fence sitters to hop on over and toss in their effort. And, from what I have experienced and read about, it’s certainly not easy. To those who organized or were activists before the arrival of the internet, this fact is nothing new; what is new is the perception that the ease of online information sharing and activity should make this easier. It does make the organizing easier, but there is still the action and energy requirements to make any campaign work. I can put something on the Facebook wall that 15,000 people should be able to see, but what I really need is for them to act. (I think there is still a strange reluctance for librarians to ask people to act on their behalf, but that notion needs its own blog post.)

At the 2010 ALA Midwinter Conference, Sara Kelly John told me a story about telling Al Gore (who was speaking at the conference) that she was running for ALA President and if he had any advice for her campaign. He replied to her with a modified Poor Richard saying: “Early to bed; early to rise; work like hell; and or-gan-ize.”  Organization, as it was then and as it is now, will always be the spine of activism. I think that what will distinguish people at social media activism will be their ability to pick out which bonds are strong and which ones are weak. Their ability to recruit people, recognize the type of activist that they are (information sharers, recruiters, coaches, cheerleaders, influencers, and so forth), and utilize them in that role will be the key difference between success and failure.

For myself, I have taken each new campaign (whether small or large) and started applying these lessons. Social media is a powerful tool in the advocate toolbox, but an oversubscription to reliance on it for solving every problem is one of its pitfalls. Not every Facebook group or Twitter hashtag will get you where you want to go; but there are important lessons in their success or failure. It’s up to this generation of library advocates to treat each tool available to them equally and use them in a specific role in support of each other, all under the banner for the change or action they are striving for. The revolution may not be tweeted, but social media is an excellent tool in getting the revolution going in the first place.