Tag Archives: advocacy

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.

Mixed messages, missed opportunities? Writing it better

At the Bucknell Digital Scholarship Conference a few months ago, Zeynep Tufekci gave a great keynote presentation.  Tufekci, who grew up in Turkey’s media-controlled environment,  researches how technology impacts social and political change.  She described how the accessibility of social media enhanced the scale and visibility of, for example, the Gezi Park protests.  In her talk, Tufekci also advocated for academics to “research out loud,” to make their scholarship visible and accessible for a wider, public audience.  Rather than restrict academic thought to slow, inaccessible, peer-reviewed channels, she said, academics should bring complex ideas into the public sphere for wider dissemination and consumption.  Through her “public” writing (in venues like Medium and the New York Times, for example), Tufekci said she is “doing her research thinking out in the open” and trying to “inject ideas of power, of equity, of justice” to effect change.  There’s a lot of public demand for it, she told us, if you make it accessible and approachable.  We just, she said with a chuckle, have to “write it better.”

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, Steven Pinker explored the various reasons why academic writing generally “stinks.”  Is it because academics dress up their meaningless prattle in fancy language in order to hide its insignificance?  Is it unavoidable because the subject matter is just that complicated?  No, Pinker said to these and other commonly held hypotheses.  Instead, he said, academic writing is dense and sometimes unintelligible because it’s difficult for experts to step outside themselves (and outside their expert ways of knowing) to imagine their subject from a reader’s perspective.  “The curse of knowledge is a major reason that good scholars write bad prose,” he said.  “It simply doesn’t occur to them that their readers don’t know what they know—that those readers haven’t mastered the patois or can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention or have no way to visualize an event that to the writer is as clear as day.  And so they don’t bother to explain the jargon or spell out the logic or supply the necessary detail.”

Tufekci and Pinker, then, are on the same page.  The ideas of the academy can and should be accessible to a wider audience, they’re urging.  To reach readers, academics should write better.  In order to write better, academics must know their readers and think like their readers.  Sure, you might be thinking, I could have told you that.  We library folks are rather accustomed to trying to think like our “readers,” our users, aren’t we?  So what message might there be in this for us?  Is it that we should continually hone our communications whether in instruction, marketing, web design, systems, cataloging, or advocacy?  Yes.  Is it that we should stop worrying that if we make things too simple for our users we’ll create our own much-feared obsolescence?  Probably.  Is it that we should reflect on whether we’re truly thinking like our audience or trying to make them think (or work) like us?  That, too.

Just the other day, I was chatting with a friend who is a faculty member at my institution.  We were both expressing frustration about recent instances of not being heard.  Perhaps you know the feeling, too.  During class, for example, a student might ask a question that we just that minute finished answering.  Or in a meeting, we might make a suggestion that seems to fall on deaf ears.  Then just a few minutes later, we hear the very same thing from a colleague across the table and this time the group responds with enthusiasm.  If you’re like me, these can be discouraging disconnects, to say the least.  Why weren’t we heard?, we wonder.  Why couldn’t they hear us?  These are perhaps not so different from those larger scale disconnects, too.  When we might, let’s say, advocate with our administration for additional funding for a new initiative or collections or a redesign of library space and our well-researched, much needed proposal isn’t approved.  Perhaps these are all opportunities we might take to reconsider our audience and “write it better.”

So what does “writing it better” mean exactly?  While it likely varies for each of us, I expect there’s some common ground.  “Writing it better” is certainly about clarity and precision of ideas and language.  But I think it’s also about building and establishing our credibility and making emotional connections to our audience, while thinking strategically.  I think it’s about our relationships and values–to the ideas themselves and to our audience.  It’s about an openness and generosity of mind and heart that helps us to consider others’ perspectives.  What does “write it better” mean to you?

Push-Us-Over-the-Edge Friday?

By now you’ve probably heard all about #OAMonday: May 21st, when the folks behind the open access advocacy site access2research.org unveiled the site and kicked off the push to petition the White House to allow public access to the results of taxpayer-funded research. The message has spread far and wide throughout the academic and library community, with amazing results: so far over 22,500 signatures have been gathered in just 12 days!

I’m sure that most ACRLog readers have signed the petition. Librarians have been and continue to be on the leading edge of open access advocacy, and the ACRL Insider published a post in support of the petition on the very first day. I’ve seen so many tweets and retweets about the petition amongst the librarians that I follow that I’ve lost count, and clearly all of our hard work has made an impact.

But there’s still a ways to go, still nearly 2,500 signatures required to guarantee an official response to the petition from the White House. Maybe you’ve already signed, but how can you help push us over the edge today and in the coming days?

Spread the word beyond the scholarly and library community! I know this might seem like a stretch: if you’re like me, many family members, friends, and acquaintances haven’t heard about and may not understand the issues around open access publishing or why an academic librarian would be concerned about them. It can also be hard to ask folks to sign a petition, and I know I’m always wary of potentially adding yet another message requesting action to possibly-overstuffed email inboxes.

I overcame my own personal petition-emailing fears last week, and the results have been pretty amazing. A neighbor responded nearly instantly that she had signed the petition. My mother signed it, forwarded it to her friends and colleagues, then emailed me the article in the Chron about the petition a couple of days later. I think that including links in my email to this concise and well-crafted video featured on access2research.org helped, and now there’s another great video available, too.

What other ways have you found to spread the word about the access to research petition? Share your success stories in the comments! (And if you haven’t signed yet, please head on over to the White House site and do!)

Open Access Beyond Academia

I live in New York City and have been following the Occupy Wall Street activities here (and associated activities elsewhere) since they began last fall. I hadn’t been directly involved, but recently that changed, and on May Day I facilitated an open access teach-in with my fantastic colleagues Jill Cirasella and Alycia Sellie from the Brooklyn College library of the City University of New York (I’m in the library at another CUNY college, NYC College of Technology).

Our happy group of learners. Note our amazing sign, hand-painted by Alycia. Credit: OccupyCUNYNews

Our teach-in was part of The Free University of NYC: an event planned to reimagine higher education alongside all of the other May Day demonstrations and protests. The Free U set up shop in Madison Square Park near the Flatiron Building in Manhattan, and encouraged teachers to bring classes and anyone to sign up to facilitate a teach-in, discussion, or skill share. “Admission” was free to all, and topics covered ranged widely, from discussions of mounting student debt and income inequality, to the work of Occuprint, a group that’s collecting the posters and visual culture of the Occupy movement, to an occupied figure drawing class. Jill, Alycia, and I have been active in OA advocacy at CUNY, and when we saw the call for participation we thought that the Free U would be a great opportunity to continue to advocate for access to scholarly research for all.

We were scheduled for an early timeslot and the day dawned rainy and chilly, which meant that we didn’t draw huge crowds. But we had lots of great, lively conversation with the folks who did stop by, mostly graduate students and faculty at CUNY or other universities in NYC. We’d prepped for the possibility of a presentation, split between the three of us, but the opportunity for one-on-one interaction allowed us to tailor discussions to the specific questions participants had, like: “How can I make my own work available for all to read?” and “Will depositing my articles in an institutional repository hand over control of my work to the university?” I’m absolutely certain that we were able to change a few minds about open access that morning.

All in all it was a great day, and since then I’ve found myself returning to thoughts about how to bring the open access message outside of the academic library. In all of my mulling I was reminded of this great UK website Who Needs Access? You Need Access!. This OA advocacy site was launched earlier this year, and provides real-world examples of the benefits of access to published research from teachers, patients, nurses, artists, and others. I think it’s a great resource to use for our advocacy work.

And last week our own Steven Bell posted over at Library Journal about bringing the work of academic librarians outside of the library. Steven suggests a number of different venues and outlets we might consider, including the increasingly-popular Massively Online Open Courses (MOOCs), local talks at unconventional locations like bars or restaurants, and skill-share or other community educational opportunities, some free and some fee-based. Outlets like these could be another way for us to spread the word about open access beyond the walls of our libraries and campuses.

Are you advocating for open access publishing outside the library? If so, tell us about it!

What Are the Next Steps?

It’s a phrase often heard at the end of a meeting: what are our next steps? When I worked as a web editor and project manager we called them action items (which is, admittedly, corporate jargon, but also makes them sound kind of fun). What does each person at the meeting need to do to keep the work going, to move the project forward, to get closer to completion?

It’s also a question I’ve asked myself lately about open access in general and three OA-related issues specifically: the introduction of the opposing U.S. bills the Research Works Act (RWA) and the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA), and the Elsevier boycott. I’ve done the reading. I’ve signed the Open Access Pledge and the Elsevier boycott list at The Cost of Knowledge. I’ve contacted Congressional Representatives to express my opposition to RWA and support of FRPAA. I’m following @FakeElsevier on Twitter.

But what are my next steps? What should they be?

At my university there’s an Open Access Publishing interest group, and we found ourselves asking that very question at our last meetup. The group is more than just librarians — faculty in other disciplines as well as graduate students are members, too. But what can we do to widen the circle of OA advocacy to include more librarians, faculty in other departments, and graduate students?

Several of our college libraries have Open Access Week events each year, but could we have more events, speakers, or presentations? I suspect that faculty will listen most closely to colleagues in their field. Should we try to find an OA champion in each discipline and work with them to disseminate open access knowledge? What else can we do to win the ears of the graduate students (who are, after all, both current and future faculty)?

This post is more questions than answers, I know. But with the news about all three OA issues having spilled over from the usual academic press outlets and into the mainstream media, it seems like a good opportunity for librarians who advocate for open access to try (again) to widen the discussion to our colleagues both inside and outside the library. What are your next steps for open access?