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Holistic Advocacy, or The Case of the Annoyingly-Optimistic Librarian

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Courtney Block, Instruction, Reference, and User Engagement Librarian at Indiana University Southeast.

Storytellers. It’s what all professional librarians end up being in addition to our other specific roles or niches. But it’s not something they really prepare you for when you’re getting your MLS. There might be an occasional class, lecture, or even an entire course on public relations, managing, or marketing – but how often did anyone discuss how to be the library’s best storyteller? And how often did they discuss the perils and pitfalls of getting everyone in your library to be enthusiastic about storytelling?

I should probably point out that I’m not talking about tot-time. The kind of storytelling I’m talking about is advocacy. Pure, unadulterated, non-stop, advocacy. As librarians, we are all too familiar with the constant need to promote, market, advocate for, and tell our story. We are always highlighting the many services and resources we offer. We are always responding to the perpetual, “I had no idea libraries (fill in the blank here)” comments. And we are always making the case for the continued need for libraries in society.

The ways in which we tell our stories are often not grandiose. Which is fine – they don’t need to be. For example, perhaps we advocate via email with colleagues about information literacy, or explain to family and friends at social events that we can indeed help them find information on that topic, or perhaps we even market the latest database, tool, resource, or service to our local newspapers.

Advocacy comes naturally to the professional librarian. At least it does for me. Perhaps this is because I started my professional library career in public libraries, where I interacted with patrons and answered questions on a daily basis, or perhaps it’s because I’m currently the User Engagement Librarian at my organization. I’d like to think, though, that as librarians we have a natural tendency to advocate for our profession and the many contributions it provides to people and society. I like to think we’re just wired that way.

It seems like I’m making advocacy seem so easy, doesn’t it? One of the things we quickly learn about advocacy is that it’s tiring. Sometimes I just don’t have it in me to advocate for or explain one more thing for the day. So while it may be a natural tendency, it’s easy to get burnt out on advocacy – and fast.

That’s where system-wide storytelling support comes in. Getting each person in your organization to commit to being a storyteller themselves is necessary not only for alleviating your advocacy burnout, but also for enhancing your library’s user experience and enhancing the perception of the library to your stakeholders – be they members of the public or university administrators.

Consider this: front line staff who are initial points-of-contact for users are often not librarians. They might be student workers, professional support staff, clerks, or even pages. And while they may be very skilled and proficient at their jobs, they simply might not view each interaction as an opportunity for advocacy. I don’t mean to imply that staff run through a list of services and statistics each time they interact with a user. Rather, I’m arguing that there should be collaboration between professional librarians and all library workers to engage in advocacy efforts at every point of user interaction. Getting buy-in from all staff regarding the atmosphere you would like to promote is key to ensuring memorable user experiences.

It’s one of the things I try to do at my library, and it means engaging in continuous conversations with staff about what librarianship means. And to me, that means enhancing the user experience at every possible moment. During a time in which information literacy skills seem sorely lacking and the future of the IMLS is uncertain, engaging in collaborative advocacy efforts can help ensure that we don’t seem passive. In fact, it will display to patrons that every library worker carries within them a little spark of the spirit of librarianship.

I’m sure it seems like I might be painting another conveniently rosy picture. I know getting system-wide buy in for this might be a daunting task. Not all staff will be as impassioned as I am about being all “carpe diem” for advocacy. Perhaps not even all staff will be receptive to listening to my ideas – territorial issues abound, after all, in any organization. What I try to keep in mind during these conversations, though, is being open to staff ideas and suggestions on any and all library-related issues. I also try to investigate what the library means to them, and to use their own paradigm as a starting point to investigate how the user experience can be enhanced from their point-of-view.

The point I’m trying to make is that each point-of-contact is an opportunity to make or break someone’s perception of the library. And the best way to ensure positive user experience is to try and get all employees engaged in the same spirit of librarianship that is harbored by those of us who are impassioned (if sometimes overzealous). Holistic advocacy is what we’re shooting for.

Advocacy has implications for all libraries, but there are some special considerations for the academic library. Libraries ensconced on a college campus have opportunities and obligations to collaborate with other university departments as well as campus administrators. At a college or university, the library’s director is not the stopping-point for decisions that can be made regarding space or budget. This is not to say that visions and ideas between administration and librarians won’t mesh or that they won’t work together – I’m not saying that at all. I’m simply positing that advocacy is key in getting campus administrators to see and believe in that sense of librarianship, and the best way to achieve this is to get as many folks on board as possible, regardless of rank, title, or position. Not only will the quality of user experience be enhanced, but if the time comes for changes to be made or suggested by campus administrators, perhaps a robust advocacy strategy will ensure the best possible outcome.

I might view the role of advocacy through rose-colored glasses, but that’s okay. I don’t mind being viewed as that annoyingly-optimistic librarian, so long as you give me five minutes of your time.