The past decade has seen a distinct expansion of library advocacy across the country, largely in response to budget cuts. As a result, librarians at all levels have been organizing and raising their voices to demonstrate the value of their positions and their libraries in the community. In light of continued tightening of funding, including steep cuts proposed by a new president, the battle cry of librarians has become even louder. We checked in on a few of the most recent efforts.
May was a particularly busy month on the library advocacy front. To kick things off, on May 1–2 a record number of librarians—more than 500—took part in the American Library Association’s National Library Legislative Day (and double that number participated online). During their time in D.C., librarians discussed issues and legislation affecting them with ALA’s Washington Office and met with representatives on Capitol Hill. Copyright, net neutrality, and privacy were among other topics on the table. An early bright spot of the event was the May 1 announcement of the federal budget for fiscal year 2017 (ending September 30), which increased federal library funding by $1 million.
But the bigger budget debate at the event was President Trump’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budget, announced March 16, in which he called for the elimination of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the grant-making agency that serves as the primary source for federal funding to libraries. Ahead of the 2018 budget, the ALA had already drafted its annual “Dear Appropriator” letters urging Congress for full funding of the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) at $186.6 million and Innovative Approaches to Literacy (IAL) at $27 million. In light of the newly proposed threat to funding, advocacy efforts shifted into a higher gear.
On May 10, the top brass from eight major companies providing services to libraries—Baker & Taylor, Follett, Gale, OverDrive, Peachtree Publishers, Penguin Random House, ProQuest, and Rosen Publishing—sent their own letter to members of the Senate, emphasizing the enormous impact and value of libraries and urging senators to sign the ALA’s “Dear Appropriator” letters by May 19. This corporate support expanded on May 17, when additional businesses and trade organizations teamed with the original eight companies to officially form the Corporate Committee for Library Investment (CCLI). Another letter, signed by 26 founding CCLI members, was delivered to the Senate, requesting that lawmakers sign the two letters to their colleagues on the Appropriations Committee, asking for the aforementioned amounts of funding for fiscal year 2018.
According to the ALA Washington Office, 45 senators (a new record) from both sides of the aisle signed the LSTA letter, besting last year’s support level by 33%, and a bipartisan group of 37 senators signed the IAL letter, up almost 20% from last year. Both letters were delivered to the Senate Appropriations Committee on May 25. Between the CCLI letter’s release on May 17 and the May 19 signing deadline, CCLI’s membership tripled, growing to more than 80 members, including Publishers Weekly. Membership now stands at more than 90 companies and organizations.
Additional appropriations-driven advocacy in March and April came from the ALA’s Fight for Libraries! and #saveIMLS campaigns. ALA reports more than 21,000 emails were sent to the Senate alone, and over 42,000 to Congress, while 26,000 #saveIMLS tweets were sent between mid-March and May 25.
The American Association of School Librarians (AASL) also reached out to Capitol Hill in March and April (April was School Library Month). Via the organization’s journal, Knowledge Quest, AASL president Audrey Church challenged members to invite a legislator to their libraries during the two-week congressional spring break. Church’s March 17 blog post on the topic echoed the popular picture book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff and Felicia Bond: “If you invite a legislator to the library... she will see an effective 21st-century school library program (perhaps very different from what she remembers from her K–12 years). If a legislator sees an effective 21st-century school library program... he will see a school librarian who is a master teacher, technology integrator, and collaborative instructional partner.”
Word of the effort was spread using the hashtag #Leg2SchLibrary. As of Church’s posted update on June 5, 45 AASL members in 18 states had extended invitations to their representatives or senators, and four members shared stories of lawmakers who accepted. Stacey Kern of Clark-Pleasant Middle School in Greenwood, Ind., received a visit from Rep. Trey Hollingsworth. “He was able to witness a library lesson in action, tour our fantastic learning commons, and engage in conversations with students and staff,” Kern said in Church’s update. In the same follow-up report, Kim Johnson, from South Carroll High School in Sykesville, Md., said of her visit from Rep. Jamie Raskin: “He got to experience an Hour of Code, see our #weneeddiversebooks March Madness display, and visit with lunch students. Then, we invited four government classes to come to the media center for a q&a with the congressman.”
CCLI was jointly formed by Gale, a Cengage company, and ALA. Going forward, in addition to federal funding support, the group plans to focus on several key issues including: reauthorization of the Museum and Library Services Act, supporting the inclusion of libraries in any infrastructure legislation authorized by Congress, and leveraging libraries to deploy high-speed broadband service to communities across the country. ALA will provide logistical support to CCLI.
Baker & Taylor was one of the initial eight companies to sign on to CCLI. For B&T president David Cully, rallying for federal funding is essential, as the money is a key driver for the ever-expanding mission of public libraries. “It’s pretty clear to me that America’s public libraries are reaching maybe deeper than ever before into all facets of the communities that they serve,” Cully says. “They offer vital services to patrons of all shapes and sizes that are really having a material impact on people’s lives.”
Though developing collections, both visible and digital, that are relevant to the community is a primary function of a public library, Cully adds: “That’s only the beginning of the work that they do. The themes that we see now are public libraries reaching out to the community to attract newer generations with the newest technologies, libraries investing in infrastructure to be more vibrant for young parents with after-school programs, libraries investing in technologies and content in collaboration with local school districts aligned around curriculum objectives, libraries reaching out to adults providing high school equivalency and GED programs, and libraries supporting language-constrained immigrants to our country in terms of communication skills and literacy. The funding that the federal government provides is mission critical for the incredible work that our public libraries are doing.”
Baker & Taylor’s sister company, Follett School Solutions, is also one of the founding members of CCLI. “I was approached by a former colleague from Gale, where I worked for 16 years, and also by former colleagues who are now at ProQuest,” says Nader Qaimari, president of Follett School Solutions, recalling how he came to sign on to the advocacy group. “It seemed like a lot of people I know and respect were behind this, and it was a pretty quick decision for us to get behind it as well.”
Assessing the importance of CCLI’s mission, Qaimari says: “Primarily we all know the benefits of libraries and the benefits they have within school districts, within communities, within higher education. But a lot of times that benefit is not evident to the general public in terms of the internet services they provide to rural communities, the early learning opportunities for younger kids and families, support for immigrants and the homeless and other things, on the public library side.”
As a more specific example, Qaimari points to the school setting: “I work on the school library side, and for us literacy has always been known to be the best predictor of student success over time.” He believes “the library is [a] basically nonjudgmental space where kids can go and explore what they’re interested in and move on through the stages of literacy,” adding, “We know the benefit of libraries and have been a huge supporter all this time.”
But there is another practical angle to this particular advocacy effort as well. “On the financial side of it, the companies that support libraries employ thousands of people,” Qaimari says. “Cuts to something like IMLS, which is not really that much of a budget item for the government, actually have big ramifications on all the companies that support libraries. My company alone employs 1,300 people right now across the country. If you multiply that by all the other companies, you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of employees who are working every day in and out of libraries.”
Though CCLI targets funding on the national level, Qaimari discussed his company’s role in several other major library advocacy efforts. Both Follett and Baker & Taylor are involved with EveryLibrary, the nonprofit political action committee that, according to its mission statement, is dedicated to working at the local level to “create, renew, and protect public funding for libraries of all types.” Follett and B&T “have invested a lot of money into that to help drive the agenda around school libraries and public libraries,” Qaimari says. “So if there’s a community where we find that they need to have a bond passed or we learn that a school district has gotten rid of all their school librarians, we engage with EveryLibrary to do the grassroots work to help make sure that the community is well-informed and they have all the facts so they can make the right decision.”
One of EveryLibrary’s biggest recent efforts—in partnership with Rosen Publishing—was to offer pro bono consulting to school library stakeholders at the state level as each state readied its planning for implementation of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which was signed into law in December 2015. Similarly, AASL—collaborating with ALA’s Office of Library Advocacy and the ALA Washington Office—has been proactive in helping its membership prepare for ESSA by providing a comprehensive workshop to each state through its affiliate organization. So far, more than 1,500 librarians have attended 39 workshops. On May 12, the U.S. Department of Education announced that 16 states plus the District of Columbia had submitted their state plans under ESSA and those plans were ready for peer review, the next step in the process. The remaining states are working toward the next submission deadline of September 18.
Beyond the Beltway
Follett School Solutions has created its own advocacy efforts internally as well. “Something we are doing that may be slightly different than others is that we are doing a lot of work providing professional development to the librarians themselves,” Qaimari says. “A lot of times librarians have not been as loud as they need to be. It’s just the nature of the job and the way they’ve been trained over the years. But we’re trying to show them that you need to have a voice within your district and you need to have that strategic clarity yourself.”
In Follett’s online professional development courses, librarians are encouraged to “get at the table with the superintendent and with the principal,” Qaimari says. “Make sure they know how you support their vision and how you support their strategy.” And through these courses, he notes, “we give librarians all the tools to do that by training them and giving them credentials. If this happens more often, then the conversation is a lot easier to have. Right now, a lot of these [funding and budgeting] decisions are based on ignorance of what librarians really do and how they support schools and communities.”
Qaimari believes his company is tackling advocacy in an effective way. “We’re taking it from two different levels,” he says. “One, from the ground up, to get the librarians their voice, but also at the national and local level so that the community they serve is aware of what they’re doing.”
“We are beginning to see in fits and starts that superintendents are taking note,” Qaimari adds. He cites another education trend where advocacy plays a big role. “It’s a really interesting time on the K–12 side, because as school districts are beginning to look at options beyond the textbook, they are realizing that the next option is to go and aggregate all these different resources and kind of build their own curriculum. Then they’re realizing they don’t really have anyone who knows how to curate content.”
This is the juncture at which Qaimari believes Follett can help. “We’re stepping in to say to the superintendent: ‘Actually you do have someone who can do the job; librarians are master curators.’ ” He notes that helping redefine the role of the librarian in the eyes of the superintendent will help make the librarian even more valuable. “We’re really pushing that hard, and I think that’s going to have the greatest benefit on the school side,” he adds.
The Future Ready Schools initiative, launched by former president Obama in November 2014, is another important advocacy focus on Follett’s docket. According to its mission statement, FRS is a project of the Alliance for Education, the Washington- based national policy and advocacy group devoted to ensuring all students, especially those who are underserved, “graduate from high school ready for success in college, work, and citizenship.” The goal of FRS is to reach that student success by helping educators use technology to maximize digital learning opportunities. School districts sign on to the initiative by taking a pledge, and more than 3,000 have done so.
“When we found out about Future Ready Schools, which thousands of superintendents signed onto, we read through the framework, and not once was it mentioned that a Future Ready School needs to have a Future Ready Library or a library at all,” Qaimari says. “We got involved in that whole initiative, threw a lot of money behind it, and had them rewrite it. It now includes a whole strand around Future Ready Librarians. That led to a lot of the professional development and conversation at the national level around the role of the librarian in a Future Ready District.” Furthering its professional development reach, Follett is sponsoring librarian attendance at eight free regional Future Ready Institutes that will take place between July and November this year.