Thursday, February 23, 2012

Advocacy is not an option, it's a necessity

We all hear the story, the school library program is the first to go, or cutting out the librarian for an untrained (and possibly uneducated) assistant. Education cutbacks are always imminent, despite politicians' constantly spouting how children are our future. Perhaps if you are upper/upper middle class and you can afford private schools, the educational system looks like a brighter place. For the majority of Americans, though, the educational system is struggling. Trying to make the ends meet while dealing with vastly increasing class sizes (Michigan law recently changed to allow 35 students per class), and the undercutting of programs, systems, and services. So, what can the librarian, who may be seen as a luxury or unnecessary staff member (or at least the shelvers and shushers might be), do to keep their position relevant?

The American Association of School Librarians (AASL), a professional organization affiliated with the American Library Association (ALA), has begun to provide toolkits and aids for librarians to become advocates of their profession and their services. As they state on their website several times, and in several ways, advocacy shouldn't begin when we're in danger of being cut. Advocacy begins when you start your job, meet the principal and staff, talk with parents, create and implement programs, and present yourself as a leader in the school community. But, as Deb Levitov says, "true advocacy is deeper, more meaningful, and more effective than public relations or marketing alone". It's about developing the position of School Librarian as a leader within the learning community, whether it's a personal network at the school you're advocating to, or the state department of education and you're testifying before them.

This is probably the most daunting of tasks to me. I'm a natural salesperson (ask anyone who I talked into taking a 20 minute survey for the Utah Department of Health), because I truly believe in what I'm selling. I believe that education, school librarians, and children are worth fighting for, but how do you advocate your programs and services without sounding self-serving? Levitov sees this as bridge to cross as well, she quotes Catherine Byers that "school librarians can't be the lone proponent of [their] school library program. Other voices-parents, coworkers and students-must all play their respective roles in communicating the value of a great school library media center".

I think Fontichiaro and Mardis' idea of an elevator speech is a perfect starting point. An elevator speech is  "a short, persuasive statement that an entrepreneur makes to a potential investor in the time it takes for an elevator ride (Wikipedia 2008), an elevator speech both informs and persuades the listener to want to learn more in a short period of time (O'Leary 2008)". Basically, it's your pitch for the school library program. Less important than the actual wording is the time and energy you spend deciding why it's important to your community and situation, while tying it in with the common beliefs of AASL. Take what you have been given and integrate it into your belief system. Make it your own. Then, when someone asks, it's an easy answer to give.

The next step is to create an action plan, advanced planning for how you are going to advocate. Now, this is where I think people get hung up, because they see creating something else as more work that they really don't have time or energy to do. I see it as aligning your goals and ideals with the goals and ideals of the library. Advocacy in action shouldn't require additional work, it should be a natural part of your systems and processes. So, yes, creating a plan might take more work/time initially, but it should then just be a part of your everyday practice.

What is advocacy then? Levitov argues it's the following: A web presence, grant writing, getting on planning committees, showing evidence of student learning, and speaking out to legislators in your area. I think each of those things builds on the one previous to it. Start from the bottom, the basics, then move out to local, then state, and perhaps the nation, but get your own libraries cards in order first. . A blog (such as this one, perhaps), is a good way to show your thinking and document yourself, your processes, celebrate your successes, and reflect on failures.

So, where to start, really, the AASL crisis toolkit, if you're already in trouble (and, honestly, there are very few schools that you might start out at that aren't already in trouble), and the AASL health and wellness check to plan and prepare for the future, once you get your feet under you.  Advocacy is not an option anymore, we need to justify and support our position, as unpleasant and counterproductive as this sounds. The trade-off, though, is that you are creating the personal and professional networks necessary to sustain the programs in the long-term and instilling in students (the future generation of parents) the need to have a school library.


  1. I'll add to Levitov's take: advocacy is doing your best, every day, to deliver the best teaching, the best learning, the best resources, and the best relationships you can. It's not separate from daily work. It is infused into your daily work.

  2. I think all this will be really interesting as it comes into play in your new job. Will you have the same support in a foreign school library? Will your community there believe in the importance of the school library?

  3. I echo Natalie's sentiments. Please continue to blog as you embark on your new adventure!

  4. I think the key to advocacy, like you point out, is believing in what you are doing first and foremost. Your work will reflect this conviction.


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