First Amendment, United States Constitution:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Many people incorrectly assume that large, corporate interests are the only ones that lobby in support of or opposition to various policy initiatives. In fact, there are countless others – community activists, volunteer organizations or just everyday citizens – who share their views with key decision-makers in the hope of influencing the legislative outcome. Although often overlooked, the last words of the First Amendment contained within the Bill of Rights guarantees that all citizens can directly advocate for any causes that they choose.
I firmly believe that grassroots advocacy is one key to the success of public libraries. In an increasingly complex world, with strong competition for funding, library trustees, friends, and foundation members must stand up and speak out for America’s principal source for the free exchange of books and other information sources. Our voices can be made stronger if we stand up and speak out in a unified voice. Critical to this notion is the idea that library professionals, business partners, citizen, and students must work together to make our voices heard. Once we convince community leaders and other citizens at large about the importance and necessity of public libraries, they can begin to speak out in support of our cause at the state and national levels.
Since the onset of the Great Recession in late 2007, governments at all levels have experienced budgetary distress. As a result, a variety of government services – including libraries – have seen their funding remain stagnant or even cut over the past several years. In my home state of Maryland, after a cut of nearly 7% at the beginning of the Great Recession, aid to local public libraries has been level-funded since fiscal year 2010. We have been lucky, all things considered. Unfortunately, other areas like the city of Los Angeles, the Queens Library in New York City, and others across the nation have experiences more dire funding losses.
In order to give library advocates the knowledge and procedural background necessary to be effective in conveying their message, the American Library Association (ALA) has compiled the “Advocating in a Tough Economy Toolkit.” Most recently updated in October 2012, this handbook provides citizen library lobbyists with a wealth of useful material. Topics covered include:
- How to directly engage with government officials and legislators
- How to conduct outreach to library customers and the public at-large
- How to effectively interact with the professional media
Of particular interest to me were the sets of talking points prepared by ALA staff. These data-packed details offer compelling evidence to elected officials as to why libraries are relevant and deserving of sufficient funding. For instance, it is important that advocates pass on the fact that the library is the solution to so many problems exacerbated by a tough economy. For instance, folks who are experiencing financial difficulties turn to public libraries for free access to books, audio-visual materials, computers, and access to the Internet. Moreover, most public libraries have seen usage statistics go up, even as overall funding has been challenged.
Now more than ever, citizen advocates in support of libraries must take the initiative and engage in a constructive dialogue with our legislators. If library supporters do not take advantage of the tool available and speak up, other interest groups will happily take our places at the table, and promote some other causes.
- “Advocating in a Tough Economy Toolkit,” American Library Association, Office of Library Advocacy, updated October 2012.