Four Rules of Library Advocacy

Nov 15, 2016


by Doug Johnson
Reposted under a Creative Commons license from the Blue Skunk Blog

The American Association of School Librarians (AASL) has just released a collection of advocacy materials for school librarians. While I am pleased to see these materials made available, like any tool, they aren’t much good unless you know how to use them and realize that a brochure alone will not save your bacon. Here are some basic rules of advocacy. I am sure you’ve heard me fuss about them before.

Johnson’s 1st Rule of Advocacy: Don’t depend on national studies, statistics or publications.
My cynical side says that if one looks hard enough, one can find a study to support almost any educational program, strategy or theory, no matter how crackpot. And a lot of administrators have a cynical skeptical side. Your principal’s goals might be different from the goals advocacy materials say libraries help meet. And really, who trusts any study done in another state, let alone another country? Forget asking an administrator to read anything more than a page long. By all means use these fine AASL materials and others, especially as a discussion aid in face-to-face meetings. But don’t depend on them alone to make your local case. (See Demonstrating Our Impact, Part One and Part Two.)

Johnson’s 2nd Rule of Advocacy: Build relationships and inform so others will advocate for you.
One parent telling a school board how important he thinks the library program is to his child is more powerful than a dozen AASL brochures. One teacher willing to tell the principal that library services have helped her class be more successful secures library funding better than any mandate. One community group that works with school libraries to build information literacy skills is more effective than any set of state or national standards. But the kicker is that we need to make sure we build the kind of relationships with parents, teachers and the community that are strong enough that members of these groups will speak on our behalf. And that takes a great regular communication plan. (See Whose Voices Are Most Powerful?)

Johnson’s 3rd Rule of Advocacy: Never advocate for libraries or the librarian – only for library users.
The biggest mistake we make is advocating “for libraries.” When framing our comments from the standpoint of an impact on “the library,” these statements sound self serving. “The library needs a bigger budget.” or “The library can’t be used for study halls.” or “The cut in the clerical position will hurt the library program.”  Look how a simple reframing changes the tone of the same ideas: “Without an adequate budget, students will not have access to the newest children’s choice award titles, and reading interest will decline.” or “If the clerical position is reduced, I will not have as much time to work with teachers on collaborative units.” or “When the library is used for study halls, students who need to use the library resources and want to study find it more difficult to do so.” I hope the reason we ask for anything is because it has a benefit to our library users. We just have to make sure we connect the dots between what we want and why it’s good for those we serve.

Johnson’s 4th Rule of Advocacy: Don’t depend on the library supervisor to make your case.
A district-level library supervisor can be a wonderful voice for building librarians and library programs, especially when that person sits on administrative councils or teams. But remember, no matter how forceful, how charming or how much dirt he or she may have on other administrators, the library supervisor is a single voice among dozens, each with its own set of priorities. We’d love to be as powerful as you think we are, but we still pull our superhero tights on one leg at a time.

Any other rules you care to add?

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