Advocating with an Open Heart

Editor’s note: This guest post has been authored by Alejandro Marquez. Alejandro is a Collection Development Librarian at the Auraria Library which serves the University of Colorado Denver, Metropolitan State University of Denver, and the Community College of Denver.

I recently heard a term in passing called guerilla librarianship which I envision is similar to guerrilla theatre. I imagine it to be the idea of fast moving and small-scale actions. Library workers who are subverting the way things are normally done. Library professionals who aren’t allowed to do a LGBTQ+ display during pride month so they do another display on summer reads with only queer authors. Individuals who are taking action whenever and wherever possible to advocate for change behind the scenes. Other visible actions would be starting a union, writing editorials to the newspaper, or political advocacy.

I feel like there needs to be more action in the world. I don’t like reading the news anymore. Book challenges, anti-intellectualism, and DEI higher education legislation makes me hide away from it all. This is just what is happening in library land. I see the spike in anti-trans legislation, assaults on women’s health care, and Tennessee’s drag ban. It often feels like there is not going to be a white knight coming to save us.

As a queer and BIPOC librarian, it makes me fearful for the future. Growing up Hispanic and gay meant that I was always having to assess my surroundings. From this early age, I felt like if I could control myself, my actions, thoughts and desires then I wouldn’t face the disapproval of my parents, school, and society. I became hypervigilant. By trying to control everything, I was unconsciously trying to protect myself from experiencing trauma again. I would make myself invisible.

I feel like all of this political legislation is erasing all the marginalized communities that I love and care about. The worst part of feeling invisible is that I feel like I am the only one. Do others feel the same way? Do others care to try something? If this message is resonating with you, know that you are not alone. Take care of those beaten down. As the cliche airline phrase goes, “Put your own air mask on first.”

It begs the question, Where do we go from here? James Baldwin once said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” Black, Brown, and Queer folx have been around for millennia. They have been documenting their history and making their contributions to society. They weren’t afraid to go out on the streets and live their lives. They have left behind a rich legacy of photographs, diaries, books, and pamphlets. If we stand tall, it is because we stand on the shoulders of our many ancestors.

As library workers, our learning materials provide our communities a chance to connect with themselves and others. It is an opportunity to connect to our spiritual and historical ancestors both real and fictional. Marcus Garvey famously wrote, “A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” Libraries provide a space to connect with our collective history and hopefully heal.

The recent political legislation and systemic barriers are a harm to marginalized communities and a harm to everyone. Even people who we feel are on the other side of the issue. Just like I monitored myself growing up, maintaining rigid rules is exhausting. The world we live in is rarely binary but rather a spectrum of diversity. This inflexible thinking keeps us as a society from building connection, health, vulnerability, and joy which makes us human.

It is hard to show up every day with an open heart. It means feeling vulnerable, offering critiques, and speaking up. I invite everyone to be a hero in library land by creating the world they want everyone to live in.

Mysteries of Liaison Librarianship

I’m not saying I’m worried about faculty and students taking me seriously as a librarian, but harkening back to my days as a teenager who used to be a big fan of emo music: sometimes I feel misunderstood.

I recently read the article “The Librarians Are Not OK: A years-long attack on their status is bad for all of us,” written by Joshua Doležal, and published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Despite Joshua using the same title as Anne Helen Petersen’s empathetic and heralding CALM 2022 keynote, he gets at several things I’ve experienced in my early tenure as a librarian.

I’m an early-career librarian who is still sorting out what it means to be an academic librarian. I work as a liaison librarian, supporting several departments in our Faculty of Science. My entire ethos as a liaison librarian—and one that I share constantly when speaking to students—is that I want to make things easier for them, to save them time. And I do, if they and their professors let me.

I search for opportunities to talk to students about information literacy and save them time as they search for and access library resources. But there’s a misunderstanding of what librarians do. I recently had lunch with a faculty member and graduate student. We were talking about library services for graduate students, and neither had much idea of what library services are available to them. This isn’t their fault; in a lot of ways, libraries have a marketing and advocacy problem. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken with my friends, and they have no idea about the bulk of my job. I need to liaise with students and faculty in my subject areas, but if they don’t have any idea of what I can do for them, doesn’t that fall—at least in part—on me?

As librarians, we’re knowledgeable and we have deep professional knowledge. We’re the ones implementing and maintaining the systems that allow our patrons to find resources in our catalogue; we’re the ones ensuring our collections support curricula at the institution; and we’re the ones expertly and concisely instructing on how to find, access, and use all kinds of information. We need to make sure our community knows this and for more people to know what our work consists of.

Shirley Phillips writes in a recent Globe & Mail opinion article, that librarians she knew would “literally search the world over, using their knowledge and uncanny problem-solving skills to find needles in haystacks. But they also helped high school students with their homework. No matter the question, there was no judgment. They went out of their way to put people at ease, ferreting out their true needs, especially those who were ashamed to display what they thought of as ignorance in a knowledge-based institution. It was public service at its finest.”

I think so, too.

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!)