#NYLA12: Grassroots Advocacy 101

This post is part of our continuing coverage of the 2012 New York Library Association conference happening this week in Saratoga Springs, NY. Image below by Urban Librarians Unite.

Photo by Urban Librarians Unite.

Session: Grassroots Advocacy 101
Presenters: Christian Zabriskie and Rebekkah Smith Aldrich

Christian Zabriskie is founder of Urban Librarians Unite, (ULU) a tiny organization that supports libraries, library staff, and librarianship in urban settings. He works as Assistant Coordinator of Young-Adult Services, Queens Library. He was also a 2012 Library Journal Mover & Shaker.

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich is Coordinator for Library Growth & Sustainability, Mid-Hudson Library System Owner, Sustainable Libraries, LLC. She was also a 2010 Library Journal Mover & Shaker.

Zabriskie and Smith Aldrich were kind enough to share their ideas, stories, and wisdom on how to be a radical library advocate. Make sure you make it to the end to learn about the No Slapping Rule.

“Extreme, not so extreme, and kind of innocuous”

“You gotta be ready to fight these days,” Smith Aldrich said. “When the opposition comes out if you’re not poised and ready you’re going to get steamrolled.” One of the first slides featured an infographic from the American Library Association report U.S. Public Libraries Weather the Storm showing that libraries are being used more and more and funded less and less.

Fight for what you’re worth. Be ready with a strategy. Be agressive, intelligent, and strategic about advocacy. Understand your audience, whether it’s politicians, the teachers’ union, or the grumpy guy down the street who doesn’t want to pay his taxes.

Zabriskie and Smith Aldrich shared some ideas for how to, as Smith Aldrich put it, advocate in “extreme, not so extreme, and kind of innocuous” ways.

Think Like A Soldier…A Soldier for A Library

Lay out your plans so you know what you want to accomplish, who will assist your efforts, who will hinder it, when you’ll push for action, and how you want to change things. Be specific about what you expect to change.

For example, in Troy, Michigan, there was a lot of anti-tax sentiment about the library. Soon a Facebook group cropped up that said there would be a book burning party at the library. Signs went up all over town promoting an upcoming book burning party.

It was soon revealed that it was all a well-planned hoax aimed at rallying support for the library around the idea that “A vote against the library is like a vote to burn books.” Not funding the library means not funding people’s access to information, access to recreation.

The lesson from the book burning campaign in Troy was that librarians must figure out who their stakeholders are. Identify people who are both influential in the community and highly interested in the cause. Check out the code for library use value calculator from our friends at the Maine State Library. This calculator helps library community members understand return on investment: how much they save every time they check out something at the circulation desk.

Zombies, Library Hugs, etc.

Zabriskie said that ULU promotes a strategy they call “leaning into the controlled crazy.” Find a hook, a story, put the advocacy into a narrative. By choosing an attention getting approach to an advocacy event you are aiming to get the attention of the community, the press, and community leaders that can help you in your advocacy.

Zabriskie talked about a librarian zombie march he helped organize. (Yes, zombie librarians.) About 50 librarians dressed like zombies on a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. (Zombies eat brains and if we close libraries, there will be a food shortage!)

Don’t forget to get permits, and keep everything legal and make sure that the events are kid-friendly. Make sure the tone is appropriate for kids, make sure the police know what you’re doing, and you’ll avoid violence and making the papers for the wrong reasons. They learned their lesson by having the march on a Sunday right before a big Tuesday election—they didn’t make the news. Plan your events with an eye toward the press. When ULU organized an event to have 200 people give a mass hug to the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library, they made CNN.

Image courtesy of CNN.

If public officials say they respond to every correspondence, overwhelm them so it’s impossible to do that and are forced to make a public statement in response. Smith Aldrich and Zabriskie showed an image of a postcard addressed to a councilmember in Sunnyside, NY, on which an elementary-aged student had hand written a sentence about why he or she loved the library. A child’s handwritten postcard? Extremely cuteand more likely to get read personally by a politician.

Radicals Need Swag, Too

Check out CafePress.com/LibraryAdvocacy for t-shirts, stickers, buttons, and more. You can use Cafe Press to host your own library advocacy designs. Anyone can go to the website to order one of your designed items.

The best advocacy piece you can possibly have is a really really great library. When community loves its library, no politician would suggest cutting its budget. That would be political suicide. Smith Aldrich talked about R. David Lankes’s advice in his Atlas of New Librarianship: “It is time to stop trying to save libraries.” She urged everyone to read Lankes’s August 2012 blog post, “It’s Time To Stop Trying to Save Libraries” (and she got everyone’s attention by calling out the “I am the goddamn batman post”.) Change the story and get people to realize that libraries are vital, viable organizations in your community.

The No-Slapping Rule

Smith Aldrich was clear: when people ask you questions that you find ridiculous, you cannot roll your eyes, you cannot slap anyone, you need to take their questions seriously and answer them. Have responses at the ready to such gems as: “People still use libraries?”, “People don’t read anymore,” and “Can’t you find everything you need online?” Clear up the myths about the library and what librarians do. That’s the No Slapping Rule.

Zabriskie told the audience to counter questions like this by declaring you are no more afraid of Google or computers than a builder is of a hammer.

They shared a favorite worksheet form American Library Association’s Advocacy University which walks library advocates through four steps toward developing a clear key message to broadcast to stakeholders:

  1. What is the main thing you want to say? (15 words or less)
  2. What statistics and anecdotes would support this point?
  3. Why is this important?
  4. What can the listener do to help?

Finally, Smith Aldrich issued a stern reminder. If you’re not out there asking and listening you’re not going to do well. Use what you hear from people and weave their stories into their messages and weave them into your message so they hear themselves in it.

For more of Mia’s coverage of #NYLA12, check out her posts herehere, and here.

This is a reposting of my November 9 post on Information Space (Info Space), the official blog of Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies.


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