EveryLibrary, the Chicago political action committee dedicated to generating local- and state-level voter support for librarians and libraries, has teamed with Follett, the largest provider of educational materials and technology for K–12 schools in the U.S., in a partnership focused on school library advocacy. Follett, headquartered in Westchester, Ill., is providing funding for EveryLibrary’s expanded school library advocacy focused in six states and for its new activist website, SaveSchoolLibrarians.org. Follett and EveryLibrary announced their alliance and the launch of the website on June 19, just before the American Library Association’s annual conference.
“It all started with a conversation I had with [EveryLibrary’s executive director] John Chrastka,” says Nader Qaimari, president of Follett School Solutions. Though Follett has been doing a lot of advocacy on the national level—including its work on the Future Ready Libraries Initiative and, along with other corporations, petitioning Congress to save IMLS funding—Chrastka offered another avenue to explore. “When we spoke to John, he explained his efforts were a little different and more focused at the local level,” Qaimari says.
Chrastka believed that the partnership would be a good fit. “We’ve admired Follett’s support for library advocacy for a long time,” he says. “We approached them with this opportunity to move from advocacy to activism, and they were very responsive.”
“Follett is a very good partner in this,” Chrastka continues. “With their Future Ready initiative work they are already helping to teach the skills to be a good school librarian, the competencies to become a great school librarian, and how to map one’s library programming mission to the school district’s priorities.” Once librarians have completed the professional development that Follett provides, Chrastka notes, “we want to help make sure those folks are employed and they have a budget that supports those goals.”
At the outset, the combined efforts of both organizations will center on Illinois, Florida, Montana, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Washington State.“We picked those states because we knew they had specific issues around funding and support of libraries,” Qaimari says. “And we thought it would be good to start small.”
Follett’s financial support means that EveryLibrary can now “work with several state-level school library associations on much more strategic projects,” according to Chrastka. That work will include “restoring librarians to their schools and supporting lobbying efforts at the school board level and the superintendent level for the state library association’s goals: to see better collections and programming budgets for school libraries.”
Chrastka outlined some of EveryLibrary’s planned efforts, beginning with Illinois, where a Rally to Restore Illinois School Librarians took place June 23 in downtown Chicago, during the ALA convention. Reports from 2012 indicated that the number of dedicated librarians in Chicago public schools was close to 450 at that time. During the 2016–2017 school year, DNAinfo reported, there were only 218 dedicated librarians in 178 CPS schools (36 percent of schools, according to CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner), or, according to the Chicago Teachers Union estimate, closer to 160 librarians in 661 schools (or about 24 percent of schools).
The rally was a project of a restoration task force that EveryLibrary and the Illinois School Library Media Association (ISLMA) had been collaborating on for a few months. “We are working with ISLMA on school-board level outreach to districts that have eliminated all their librarians,” Chrastka says. “We will make the case to restore those positions and to improve their collections and programs budgets.”
According to Qaimari, the ISLMA rally had “a really good turnout. They got some coverage out of it, which was really the goal there.” And Chrastka stresses that it’s “too early to say whether we’ve won or lost because the budget decisions we’re trying to influence are budgets that happen in the 2018–2019 school year.”
Citing another example, Chrastka says, “We’re kicking off a project with the Florida Association of Media Educators working on six school districts, to focus on their 2018–2019 budgets. We will do SaveSchoolLibrarians.org digital advocacy through petitions and email campaigns in five districts that have challenges, and another one that has a clear and present danger of losing all its librarians.”
Chrastka has just begun talks with the Montana Library Association, but he believes that, in that state, “we will be targeting funding priorities. Montana has a better-than-average legislative environment, where school librarians are in the law, they’re in the code, and we’re looking to advance a budgetary discussion there in conjunction with the [Montana Library Association] in support of our colleagues there.”
In the state of Pennsylvania, “We’re rolling out a project that’s helping to support the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association,” Chrastka says. “There is a bill that’s currently in Harrisburg that would require school librarians in schools of a certain size. They are trying to get it passed this season, and we’re helping to bring out the public around that.” Also, EveryLibrary will be doing some district-level advocacy “across the Commonwealth.”
In Nevada, EveryLibrary worked with the Nevada Library Association and the Clark County School Librarians Association on a bill during the most recent session of the state legislature. Senate Bill 143 mandates that every school in Nevada have a library and a certified librarian to run it. According to a March report on Nevada Public Radio, 44 schools in Clark County don’t have a certified librarian, and one school doesn’t have a library at all. “It was the first year the bill was introduced and we built up some political capital,”Chrastka says. “We’re going to spend the next several months in advance of the next legislative session building additional political capital among the public and doing some other training work with advocates and activists in the school librarian community, starting with the Nevada Library Association and Mountain Plains Library Association Joint Conference this fall.” Chrastka’s colleague Patrick Sweeney, EveryLibrary’s political director, will be providing in-person training at the conference in October.
Chrastka says that the scope and particulars of the project in Washington, in partnership with the Washington Library Association, are still being finalized.
One Click, Many Voices
The second integral piece of the Follett-EveryLibrary partnership is the website, SaveSchoolLibrarians.org. According to Chrastka, the new site was created as a response to increased demand for advocacy. He says that EveryLibrary’s work over the past 18 to 24 months has largely involved assisting school communities when there’s been a threat to a school librarian’s job, or the budget is being cut “in a way that isn’t fairly applied across the board—the library is being targeted.” To date, EveryLibrary, through its action.everylibrary.org site has helped support 22 such challenges and, Chrastka notes, “We’ve helped the local librarian or librarians see their jobs secured in about half of those cases. I wish it was 100%, but we’re batting .500 right now.”
However, he stresses, “The need hasn’t diminished. We wanted a site that is dedicated to helping to fix the funding formula problem.” Chrastka believes SaveSchoolLibrarians.org is a step toward doing that. He says that he frequently sees a disconnect in school districts across the country. “Superintendents, principals, and school boards say that they want effective schools that are focused on student achievement, and then they get rid of school librarians and defund programs and collections,” he says. “We’re dedicating this site and the resources behind the site to work on particular problems: somebody’s job is under threat, somebody’s collection or budget is going to get cut, somebody’s library is going to get zeroed out,” he says.
Follett’s financial participation is fueling the site. “The point of the site,” Qaimari says, “is to give communities the tools they need, and the road map, to actually influence change within their community, so that they can accomplish what they’re trying to accomplish.”
Qaimari thinks the biggest issue that library advocates are facing right now is that “most people are not aware.” When he learned his young son’s school in Illinois cut its librarian, he says, “I wasn’t even aware, and I work in the industry, so it mattered to me. But most people wouldn’t even know that that’s a big deal.” He continues, “My son, who is five, came home with a book that was written for an eighth grader.” Qaimari wondered why a librarian gave his son that book, and when he asked who the librarian was, he found the school no longer had a librarian. Qaimari points up the efficacy of the website: “I just looked on SaveSchoolLibrarians.org and almost 1,700 emails have already been sent to [Chicago mayor] Rahm Emanuel around this specific initiative because we created this site. It’s important for us to get the info out there as quickly and as broadly as we can.”
Tackling the problem from all sides is essential, according to Qaimari. “If you attack it at the national level—reframe what the school librarian’s role is, the perception of them—then, at the local level, talk about the effect school librarians have on the local community and how they can help the community, those two things eventually meet, and hopefully that leads to positive change.”
At this very early stage, Qaimari has been impressed with where the new partnership is headed. “This is our pilot year,” he says. “EveryLibrary is trying a number of different things to see what works. Once we identify different opportunities that are actually making an impact, then we’ll probably throw more resources and effort behind those.”
And Chrastka warns that the current political climate makes EveryLibrary’s and Follett’s efforts more important than ever. “In the DeVos and Trump era, they’ve told us very clearly that decisions about school funding are devolving to the states and localities,” he says. “So instead of having one spinning plate shaped like Congress, we’ve got 50 spinning plates shaped like state legislatures and, God help us, thousands of them potentially at the school district level. This is the work that’s necessary in this new political reality.” Looking ahead, he says, “We’re really trying to find the right level of support from inside the industry in order to do this. Follett is an early supporter of ours that adds real capacity. We want to prove the concept of what we’re doing.”
Chrastka has a gauntlet to throw down. “I would like to challenge the publishing community to look at its own advocacy agenda for libraries and to see whether this focus on solutions at the local and state level resonates with them,” he says. “If they are looking at the landscape of how things are happening with this federal government and national policy, and they understand that multistate solutions are the future, we’d really like to talk.”