Public libraries are a unique network of service providers that exist to ensure that all citizens have free access to information and materials that are critical to daily life. Increasingly, this means providing access to computers and the Internet. Nowhere is this more evident than in the conclusions of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Libraries Connect Communities 3: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study 2008– 2009.1 More than 71 percent of all the libraries included in the study (and 79 percent of rural libraries) report that they are the only source of free access to computers and the Internet in their respective communities. Libraries Connect Communities 3 illustrates, once again, the critical role of public libraries in bridging the digital divide. As leading providers of free computer and Internet access, we connect people across the country to e-government, resources for job seekers, lifelong learning opportunities, and tools for small businesses. This access, coupled with the expertise of library staff and online databases, can make all the difference in a community’s workforce development and economic future.
Yet, despite the ALA study and other clear evidence of the value of public libraries — and unprecedented numbers of library users—many libraries are scrambling to maintain their services due to reductions in state and local funding. In addition, as of the end of 2009, public libraries have not been impacted by federal stimulus money or newly appropriated dollars for e-government projects and workforce and early childhood development programs.
As ALA Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels wrote in a 2009 American Libraries article, in tough economic times it is often the case that “the library is the first to be cut or is disproportionately cut, regarded as a ‘nonessential’ service.”2 However, as he pointed out, this time things are different:
This time the increase in library usage is being widely reported in newspapers and magazines and on radio and television. This time we also know a lot more about how to fight impending budget cuts . . . We can no longer afford to be passive victims; we have to be outspoken advocates and encourage the public to advocate on behalf of libraries as well. If we do make the case for libraries, we are much more likely to receive needed funding or avoid budget cuts.3
Fiels adds that as we advocate for libraries, we must also take advantage of our secret weapon, “The energy and enthusiasm of . . . the millions of people who use and love libraries.”4
The power of the people was particularly evident in my own state of Ohio recently. When cuts to public library funding were proposed to balance the biennium budget this summer, thousands of library users called, wrote, and e-mailed their state representatives and the governor, literally shutting down e-mail systems throughout the legislature. The full wrath of library advocates sent shockwaves all the way to the statehouse and nearly all of our funding was restored. In fact, our efforts were so effective that the governor turned to public libraries to help avoid an education budget crisis this past December. In response, Ohio’s public libraries rallied their supporters for another grassroots effort. The governor thanked the state’s public libraries when the budget crisis was avoided.
There are some excellent resources available for public library professionals to become more effective advocates. Thanks to assistance from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Public Library Association (PLA) has offered Turning the Page, an advocacy training program designed to equip librarians with the skills they need to create community partnerships, build alliances with local decisionmakers, and ultimately increase funding for their libraries. Turning the Page inspires and motivates librarians to tell their library’s story and helps them tailor an action plan to advance their advocacy goals.
PLA also offers an advocacy toolkit, called Libraries Prosper with Passion, Purpose and Persuasion that includes facts, templates, and other resources to help staff members build support for their local library. Library directors, staff members, and trustees across the country have received advocacy training and are implementing best practices in government relations at the state and local levels.
Now it’s time for action on anational scale. I call upon PLA members and library professionals across the nation to use their local advocacy expertise to help build support in Washington, D.C. When the ALA Washington Office asks for letters, phone calls, and e-mails, we must answer the call. We must be organized and ready to unleash the power of our library Friends, supporters, and customers—people who depend on access to our services every day. We must channel this power and make it part of a well-crafted campaign that not only gains attention in Washington, but also gains sponsors for legislation to ensure public libraries will be eligible for dollars in broadband, workforce development, and other critical public service areas.
This year we can also be present and active on Capitol Hill. On June 29, 2010, library advocates from all fifty states and Washington, D.C., will meet at Upper Senate Park on the U.S. Capitol grounds. The rally will begin at 11 a.m. and there will be special opportunities for the state or organization with the largest turnout. It is critical that public libraries are front and center at this event. Too often campaigns are mounted to keep libraries open, to save Sunday hours, or to rescue entire systems (as we witnessed in Philadelphia last fall). Let’s mount a Library Advocacy Day to remember.
When you make your plans for ALA Annual Conference, add June 29 to your trip. Please consider working with your Friends groups, as well as neighboring public libraries, state libraries, and state associations to increase attendance at the rally. Through the power of our numbers we can get attention—and action— from Congress.
1. American Library Association, Libraries Connect Communities 3: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study
2008-2009, Sept. 2009, www.ala.org/ala/research/initiatives/plftas/2008_2009/librariesconnectcommunities3.pdf (accessed Sept. 28, 2009).
2. Keith Michael Fiels, “In Tough Economic Times,” American Libraries 40, no. 3 (Mar. 2009): 8.