Vertical Advocacy in Libraryland

CC Photo by becketchai/Flickr From my readings and observations, there is a visible disconnect between library types when it comes to advocating and action. When the state budget battle was being fought in New Jersey this past year, this lack of affiliation was readily apparent.

When it came to the news that school librarians were being cut from many districts, the anger and the outrage over the news was pretty intense. But when it came to taking a step to act on the issue, the refrain was something akin to “Well, what is the NJASL (New Jersey Association of School Libraries) doing?”, a question left hanging most of the time without further inquiry.

During the advocacy effort, I went to a meeting of academic librarians at Rutgers. As the state’s largest university and with a lot to lose regarding the cutting of internet service, databases, and interlibrary loan delivery (all proposals in the Governor’s original draft), Rutgers would take a big hit with the proposed budget passed. While the majority of their meeting concerned strategy discussion and type of action to take, there was a brief exchange about public libraries towards the end. As a public librarian, it was intriguing to hear some of the ideas and perceptions of what the people advocating for public libraries should be doing. Most of it were things that had come and gone as ideas, whether rejected or being put into use.

While I freely admit that I did not have much of a clue as to what the academic librarians were contending with in their simultaneous struggle, it struck me that there was a lack of basic information exchange going on between groups that were engaged in the same cause. Even this simple one hour meeting brought me much closer to not only what academic libraries in New Jersey were up against, but also informed me as to their course of action as well as avenues of advocacy.

“Vertical advocacy” would be the best way to describe this phenomena; the practice of lobbying on behalf of one type of library while offering little or no help to other types of libraries. I am not without guilt in this matter; I should be paying more attention or even working to advocate for other types of libraries. But when the majority of your contacts are in the public library field, the overall information intake is going to be skewed towards the public library. To compound matters, from conversations and reading blogs and other anecdotal evidence, library advocacy is heavily favored towards the public incarnation of the institution. How or why the other library communities tolerate this is beyond me; but in writing this, I’m looking for a recourse.

The question that this entry leaves me with is this: is the creation of different subset organizations (such as SLA, PLA, ACRL, & AASL) the library world equivalent of “separate but equal”? As in, there are organizations that are supposed to be on top of issues for those types of libraries but often (too often, perhaps) it turns into a place to pass issues that never return to the light of day? Where has the communication broken down? What (if anything) can be done to change this?

Because this is a status quo that needs to be changed.

20 thoughts on “Vertical Advocacy in Libraryland

  1. I think you are describing how twitter and blog librarians only talk amongst each other via blogs and twitter and never really make any changes beyond influencing the tweets and blog comments of those who also tweet and blog.

    • That would be true in a closed loop. But the people who tweet and blog and otherwise talk online also talk offline with people around them. At my job, I talk with other professionals who are not doing any of these things and they provide me with their thoughts.

      So, nice try, but no.

  2. I think one issue is the divide and perceived hierarchy within the profession between academic, public, special and school libraries. It seems that we often focus on what is different or how we’re unique, instead of focusing on our similarities.

    There is also a tendency to focus on advocacy in the final hour, instead of advocacy being an integral part of our day to day work. I see advocacy in general being a responsibility of the umbrella library organization, but the specific act of advocating is the responsibility of each and every library (and librarian).

    • Advocacy should start with at the point of the induction of a new member of staff and training for a member of staff who can communicate the value of libraries to the community. But unfortunately managers mostly see their jobs as no more than what is tantamount to warehouse work, and out of anyone else with any qualification remaining a portion are likely to see the issue as political, rendering the few remaining harassed and unable to work properly! (Does anyone agree with my analysis 😉

      I think also Library Science is a quite young science, which is compounded by the breadth of the subject of the value of the libraries, so it is not an easy subject to advocate on. Maybe professionals feel threatened when approached in the subject as well, threatened by the thought of appearing not so professional, but they shouldn’t feel that way.

  3. Throw into the mix the different types of public libraries, which can vary greatly depending on geography & funding & socioeconomic issues etc.

  4. I’m a law librarian at a firm. I care deeply about what happens to public libraries, but I’m guessing most public librarians do not care or think much about what’s happening in the AmLaw 100 world because we do not reach the public sector. I’ve had discussions with librarians who do not even consider what I do to be library work. There are factions in the law library field, too: big firms, small firms, court libraries, law school libraries, government agencies, and corporate law departments (and I’m probably forgetting more!). I think it’s human nature to align with those who most resemble you.

    I joined SLA (rather than AALL) because I wanted to broaden my contact with librarians from different types of libraries. I will borrow a great idea from any library that manages to implement it to add value to their organization. I’ll try to make it work at my firm.

    I advocate for my library each and every day. Layoffs have hit the previously recession-proof legal industry very hard over the past 2-3 years, so proving the library’s value is more imporant than ever before. Our budgets are tighter, raises/bonuses/perks are no longer standard, and clients are refusing to pay for basics like Westlaw and Lexis. There’s really not much other librarians can do that will influence partners. Maybe continue to improve the general perception of libraries? Or academic librarians could help produce better law students who arrive with tools that help them contribute faster to the bottom line? It’s a hard nut to crack.

    It could be awesome to join forces by forming one mega association with regional subdivisions. I try to interact with different types of librarians via twitter and blogs. Sometimes I’m successful, but other times I can definitely sense that they don’t play well with others…or worse, they look down on you.

    Great post!

    • Thanks for the comment, Joan! Good luck with your future advocacy efforts!

      I think people would say that there is an advocacy effort going on at a higher level and that would be ALA. I’ll wait to see who wants to jump on that topic.

    • Oh neat! I hadn’t seen that graphic before! Awesome!

      And yes, I think there is a thread that goes through librarianship that is a bit more obvious than people give it credit.

  5. I wonder about the same thoughts you put forth in your last paragraph (re: professional orgs). Although all our student chapters at Pratt-SILS worked together as much as possible in planning activities, marketing, etc., students still somehow got the impression that we were competitive – you couldn’t be a member of SLA@Pratt if you were a member of ASIST@Pratt, etc.

    We’re starting it from Library School Day 1 and it’s rather sad.

  6. Andy,
    Something to think about: you are describing something like a network of librarians, across library “types”, that advocates for the good of ALL libraries, yet you have gone on record a bunch of times about how you aren’t an ALA member because they don’t do anything for you personally. I think this blog post shouldn’t just influence those who read it, but should influence the author: you’ve just advocated to yourself the value of joining the ALA.
    JP from

    • I don’t think so necessarily. It’s the anecdotes and writings from people within subdivisions that tell me of their frustration at feeling ignored within the overall organization. I heard it at Midwinter, I heard it at Annual, and I’ve heard it in time between. It’s a “known issue”.

    • More than a year ago ALA’s Office for Library Advocacy released its Coalition Building Toolkit to help librarians and library supporters become more effective advocates for all types of libraries. See

      I have used the term library ecosystem to illustrate the interrelatedness of our different types of libraries and the importance of advocacy on behalf of all types of libraries. See a brief text explanation of this at or watch the video that introduces the Coalition Building toolkit. There I explore the ecosystem concept in greater depth.

      • Thanks for your comment, Jim.

        I had not seen your video before, nor seen any of the toolkit. When I was watching the video, it was a great feeling to hear you say everything that I had been thinking for the last couple of months. I plan on exploring more of the Advocacy U pages later tonight, but that does bring up another question: what kind of use is the toolkit getting? While the area was placed on the national organization’s site, how much does it get used? I had not heard of it till I saw the video, so it concerns me that it is resource that is unknown or (worse) forgotten.

        Oddly enough, I had written about a library ecosystem after attending ALA Midwinter 2010. While I had not attended any of the conference speeches or workshops, I guess some of your ideas got through to people who I talked with.

        (In addition, your second link goes to a page that informs the reader to watch for updates in Spring 2009. You may wish to update or change this.)

  7. In regards to different libraries: not only do we not advocate together, we may advocate against each other.

    When a school library closes/threatens to close, where do the public libraries stand? To say (and I’ve seen and heard things from casual conversation to blog posts etc) “oh, this is what the public library can do now that the school library is gone” shows a failure of understanding about what the school library & librarian actually do. I think it’s said out of concern for the students, and it’s said because public librarians love to say “yes, we can do that!”, but sometimes not only is the answer no — no, a public library is NOT a school library — but to say yes does our entire profession a disservice. If we don’t respect the various roles of libraries and librarians, including their unique needs and missions, how can other people — the others who fund libraries?

    • That’s an excellent observation and question, Liz. And I wish I had an answer. I think propensity for librarians to be dismissive of other types of libraries is quite unfortunate and ultimately destructive.

      I’m sure part of the answer is a lack of education of the general public to why its important, but that’s something rife in the profession as it is.

  8. I think this is a case of “If they’re getting cuts, maybe I can survive a little longer.” Or maybe “Their cuts don’t affect me.”

    I’m an academic librarian. My university gets maybe 65% of the state aid dollars per a student that the larger, more well known schools in our state get. I would be happy to advocate for public libraries, except I’ve already got my hands full just doing my job. Sure, we should share more (and I do think that ALA helps that – I’m a member and it is worth every penny), but this is a case of saying we should do it differently and not offering suggestions on how.

    I’d also like to point out that one of the reasons why we tend not to mix is because we have such different goals. My job is to serve my students, the bit research universities serve their faculty, and the public library serves their community (to say nothing of corporate and special libraries). It’s hard to advocate across the board when we all have different things to advocate for. As much as we like to believe it, a library is not a library is not a library. We’re all very different.

    • Yes, we are all very different, but we are all connected by the same underlying mission, right? To provide service and materials to X where X equals our target community? My point is that there are uniting factors as to why librarians can and should at least lend some moral support to other types of libraries. It’s the lip service that is given that is really killing overall camaraderie.

      I don’t have any suggestions because I’m not entirely sure what would work. Hence, why I was asking others. I hoped to either get an inkling of an answer or inspiration for one of my own. I think your answer to my post illustrates why you don’t advocate for other libraries without providing its own recourse.

  9. Pingback: Big Tent Librarianship Goes to the ACRL « Agnostic, Maybe

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