School Library Media Activities Monthly/Volume XXIII, Number 10/June 2007
The Importance of the Library Media Specialist as a Political Voice
by Diane R. Chen
Diane R. Chen is a library information specialist at Hickman Elementary in Nashville, TN. Email: DianeRChen@comcast.net
Do you believe the patrons in your library deserve access to people, materials, and technologies? Do you believe that your teaching makes a difference to your students? Are you truly committed to your profession? For most practicing library media specialists the first two questions can be answered with an instantaneous "YES!" The third question, however, requires more thoughtful consideration. What does it mean? What will an affirmation require from me? Who judges the degree of my commitment?
I believe that if I'm committed to my profession I consider the needs of my patrons first, and I also understand the important role my profession plays in society. I value my role in instruction, but more broadly, I choose to share the needs of my patrons with decision-makers. I guard the rights of my patrons in society and also respect and educate others about the various roles of my profession. I participate in the leadership of my profession and communicate regularly with decision-makers including legislators.
There are many committed professionals in the school library community. Some are visionary, dynamic leaders who focus on the big picture of our profession and inspire others to join them in shaping the future. They may serve on the hard-working committees within our state organizations and the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) Affiliate Assembly linking national visions to the needs of each state. The majority, however, are the library media specialists who work daily to teach students and teachers, integrate new technologies and materials, and ensure that the daily administrative and program tasks are accomplished by paid assistants, volunteers, and themselves. Their commitment is strong, but their focus is more local.
This article is intended for the library media specialists that make up the majority of our profession. Their voices are the most needed and most powerful when talking to legislators. Sadly, however, these are the comments I often hear: "Who am I to speak to legislators about library media centers? I'm just a library media specialist in my school. I don't have any special training in legislation and federal funding. Why should I be the one to take time away from my students? Doesn't the American Library Association (ALA) pay somebody else to do it for me?"
I will address the last question first. The American Library Association-Washington Office (ALA-WO) does employ staff to communicate daily with members of Congress. ALA staff members analyze issues and legislation to prepare opinions, talking points, and strategies. They visit offices and attend meetings to share our viewpoints. They provide training each year during National Library Legislative Day and at conferences. They communicate through a wide variety of formal and informal networks to reach the members of ALA and divisions such as AASL. They maintain the Legislative Action Center and powerful new tools such as RSS feeds including podcasts, blogs, and action alerts.
The ALA-WO embraces two-way communication and wants to hear from you, the majority, about state legislation that could potentially influence other states as well as specific ways you have been impacted by federal legislation. They need to collect your personal stories because they have learned that a powerful "story" means more than the packets of literature, position papers, and research documents that are placed in the hands of legislative staff daily.
Until I became involved with AASL's Legislation Committee, I was unaware of how much the ALA-WO actually needs the daily "stories" of our profession to share with members of Congress. These stories do impact legislation. For example, if the issue concerns the requirements for highly qualified library media specialists in every school, the Congressional staff when meeting with staff from ALA-WO provides data about how many contacts (letters, emails, faxes, or phone calls) they have had from their local constituents. Those who have received letters, photographs, newsletters, and contacts will consider the issue to be of interest to their constituents. Those who have heard a "story" about how this issue affects students will be more likely to remember the issue. Those who have been invited to visit their local library media centers will value the "story" because they have witnessed and internalized a reaction.
Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neal wrote "all politics is local" because he wanted to make government accessible and citizens to realize their importance in voicing their opinions. State and federal officials are elected to represent their local communities. When you invite them to visit your school, you take the big issues and make them local; you help them understand the links between state and national actions. A few key strategies that you can use to make politics local are as follows:
- Know your elected officials. Visit their websites to learn about the person behind the role. What is important to this person? Does he or she have a child in drama? Did they major in economics or English Literature? Do they sponsor certain charities and have special hobbies that you can help connect with a local library activity? Do you have any commonalities to build a relationship?
- Jot down a few vital facts about your elected officials to keep by the phone. What are the names of key staff members? When are their local hours for visiting in your community? What are the phone numbers, fax numbers, and email addresses to contact if you have only two minutes to communicate with them?
- Invite every official to your school. Invitations do not have to be for elaborate events only. Many of my representatives have enjoyed reading aloud to students. Some enjoy welcoming parents to school events like book fairs, concerts, and fundraisers.
- Consider every opportunity a photo op. Take photos with a digital camera. Immediately send one copy to their office with a simple caption to help identify the event. Prepare op-eds to tell about your program and relate the photo to the issue of importance.
- Toot your horn. Practicing educators are often too focused on the daily tasks to realize other people need to hear about their success "stories." Be proud of what you have accomplished but relate it to successfully meeting the needs of your patrons—their political constituents.
- Serve others. This sounds deceptively simple. Keep the needs of your patrons foremost. You can avoid being seen as "self-serving" by examining your message. Your elected officials also have needs and messages to be conveyed. What do you do that helps meet their needs, and where do your messages overlap?
- Visit the local office. Even when there is no problem or issue to be addressed, your face and your name need to be recognized by the local office staff and officials. Quick visits are appreciated. Leave photos, brochures, and notes from your students or about your program.
- Be the local expert. Make sure staff members have your business card and know that you are willing to answer any questions about school library media centers when applicable legislation is considered. You do not have to be an expert on all things, but you can help legislators understand the impact of legislation on the local program. You are the expert on your program and how changes could affect your students.
- Always tell the truth. If you don't know the answer but intend to find out, do the following: Ask for a short time to conduct research. Call the ALA-WO or your state organizations for help. Call or email the official with your results, even if they are inconclusive. Follow-up helps build trust and lets them know you are reliable.
- Practice productive phoning. If it helps to have a script, jot down three or four sentences such as "Hello, (staff person’s name). My name is (your name), and I am the library media specialist at (name of school) within (official's name)'s district. I simply want to go on record supporting (or against) House Bill Number (###). I would be happy to explain my position if you'd like to call me back at (phone number)."
- Inspire others to speak for you. Parents are effective advocates. Take the time to prepare two or three talking points and convey these to parents so they can speak on your behalf.
- Get involved one step out. Join a group one step away from your daily position. There are broader educational groups, multi-library type organizations, state-level school organizations, parent-teacher organizations, and national groups. Becoming active in other groups helps solidify your commitment as you practice sharing and advocating in a different environment. If you can't find a formal group, form your own informal grassroots network with other people of similar interests. If you don't want to go anywhere, get involved online through blogs, social communities, listservs, discussion boards, local newspaper opinion blogs, and the ALA-WO Legislative Action Center.
You are far more powerful than you realize. You are the voice of your school library media program. You are the expert in your area. You have the resources of your state and national organization available. You are committed to your students and to your profession on a daily basis. You know you have a powerful "story" that must be shared with legislators and advocates. Your students are worth giving a few moments of your time to learn a new skill—political advocacy. Your local community will benefit and your profession will grow stronger.
Advocacy New Approaches Blog by Stephanie Vance. http://www.advocacyassociates.com/advocacyblog.htm
ALA Grassroots Resources. http://www.ala.org/ala/issues/grassroots.htm
ALA Washington Office. http://www.ala.org/ala/washoff/washingtonoffice.htm
Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest. http://www.clpi.org/
The Democracy Center. http://www.democracyctr.org/
District Dispatch Blog. http://www.capwiz.com/ala/home/
YALSA's Legislative Advocacy Guide. http://www.ala.org/ala/yalsa/profdev/ LegAdvocacyGuide.pdf
Schuckett, Sandy. Political Advocacy for School Librarians: YOU HAVE THE POWER! Linworth, 2004.
Vance, Stephanie. Government by the People: How to Communicate with Congress. AdVanced Consulting, 1999.