"Is It Broken?"

I wind up asking that question when it comes to the American Library Association. The ALA is an organization with a long history. In looking at its current actions today, I just wind up with feelings of dread foreboding when I wonder if something may be wrong structurally.

The big worry that rises now is promotion. There are plenty of campaigns one can seen in print, hear on the radio, and watch on TV promoting green initiatives as well as public safety. In Nevada the Department of Public Safety does have ads distributed that help promote safety messages. Markedly absent from that marketplace of ideas, though, is libraries.

The current mess that Ohio libraries find themselves in helps illustrate this problem. It is hard to establish your credibility with voters if they don't think you exist or otherwise would not notice you. Mass protests in places like Iran quickly gain attention. What tools do libraries and librarians have to raise such hordes to make a point a heard? This whole line of thinking, though, reflects a reactive mindset. When you have to react and play defense, somebody else is able to define the situation in ways that may end up being adverse to you.

The odds are not always in your favor when you have to play defense. When it comes to matters of funding via tax dollars, a key danger is that the other side could smear you as being devoted solely to your own paycheck instead of the public good. In a situation in which libraries are being cut in addition to other sectors of governmental activity such as community-based mental health services, the possibility also exists of those playing defense being turned against each other. An unfortunate turn of events that thankfully has yet to occur would be library advocates, mental health services advocates, and food bank operators turning on each other over how deep each was getting cut.

Is it the lot of libraries and librarians in life to always play defense? Should libraries always be thankful for what they get and be silent about any need for more funding? That's not a healthy way to live whether it is a person or an institution. Only ever playing defense can perhaps lead to always accepting defeat.

Although it may surprise some librarians out there, some of the stronger and more vocal supporters of Ohio libraries are Republicans. Yes, that's right. A Democrat Governor submitted to a legislature in which Democrats dominate a budget that would hurt libraries. Through the actions of Republican members of the legislature's conference committee, the cuts are presently being stalled on the road to enactment.

One lesson that can be learned from this incident underway is that it is necessary at times to think in the long term. How do people regard libraries in our communities? Do citizens even remember that they are patrons of libraries through their tax dollars and have available to them a valuable resource? What is the image of the profession in communities?

While there are ALA outreach efforts in existence like ilovelibraries.org, a major problem with it is that if I only learn of the site's existence through reading ALA committee documents how would the average citizen find it? Serendipitous searching resulting in a patron stumbling upon advocacy materials is not a proactive strategy. Blanketing airwaves with public service announcements in addition to print advertising would be far more of an active strategy.

A common complaint about blogging and blog posts is that there rarely are constructive steps forward suggested. At this point it would seem prudent to mention a few strategies. These are initial thoughts others should feel free to build upon.

For those academic institutions home to ALA accredited graduate programs in library science, there are likely journalism and mass communication programs also contained therein. How difficult would it be to get a couple top seniors in public relations to develop a series of public service announcements libraries could seed with local radio and television stations? This does not necessarily have to be a national thing as regional flavor would help emphasize more the local nature of libraries.

The LISNews Netcast Network can also serve as a proving ground for talking to media. If you've never done a telephone interview before, you could see about arranging a bit of a live-fire practice round with the network. LISTen always seeks new stories and if you want to talk about something cool at your library you just have to ask. Talking to the Network is going to be in many cases the easiest practice possible before you have to face more mainstream journalists.

The last possible strategy is to continually assess who you serve. Demographic shifts do happen. Economic downturns can accelerate them.

In the end, though, a question must be raised: Where is the ALA in all of this?

Creative Commons License
"Is It Broken?" by Stephen Michael Kellat is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at erielookingproductions.info.

Comments

from the saveohiolibraries.com home front

I'm a librarian in an urban branch of a Cleveland-area public library system. If anyone here has checked out Twitter, especially using the hashtag #saveohiolibraries, my name might be recognizable. I've been pretty active since the beginning of the (still-ongoing, as of 7/1) funding crisis posting links to news stories, re-tweeting other twitter users' comments and occasionally making my own comments reminding people to call the legislators, leave Gov. Strickland a message on his Facebook page. I have actually never met the State Library of Ohio employees who have done the most to keep the www.saveohiolibraries.com site the central point for information about the Ohio public libraries funding crisis. I can message them in the AM (it's 5 AM as I type this) and ask them if posting the ALA statement to the site is possible. I know I did link to the statement on Twitter. (ALA President Jim Rettig was on a Columbus radio station a week ago and I posted a link on Twitter within a few hours of the interview). I agree that ALA could & should be much more high-profile on this issue in this state & in the other states (California, Connecticut & my home state of PA).

In light of this discussion, I'd like to post a link to a story on the Save Ohio Libraries site and the form response sent by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in response to an inquiry from a Cleveland-area library director: http://saveohiolibraries.com/?p=657

Cheri Campbell

Hallelujah

I have to agree that libraries are pretty miserable at promoting themselves. I wouldn't pin it all on ALA though, I think that at the local level a lot more could be done. I'm about to finish up my library degree, but before starting library school I kept wondering why my local library system didn't promote all the great services they offered. I worked for the library delivery system and constantly met people who were surprised that they could request materials from another library and have it delivered for free. I've also met numerous people who have no idea what a reference librarian is or what they can do for them (though at least they tend to assume it is a good job). These people are college graduates who love to read and yet they don't know about these things because no one has bothered to tell them.

When I worked for the delivery service I asked one of my supervisors why we didn't promote services like delivery and his answer was, in a nutshell, because we are already overworked and don't want more users. Unfortunately, this type of attitude equals less library users and therefore less support in the long run. Clearly we need better marketing of library services (AKA outreach library instruction) and schools that teach kids what libraries can do for them. That's the only way to get out of the reactive, defensive, and negative use of the media to something more positive and creative.

Didn't find that until Sunday

Issuing statements is one thing. Having them noticed is a separate problem. That saveohiolibraries.com doesn't even list the ALA's statement is probably problematic too. I would consider it a fairly large problem if a statement like that was issued and the main advocacy group on the forefront of the matter didn't even notice it!

My positive recommendation in light of such relative to what could have been done differently: the ALA President could have done an interview with a news organization such as the Ohio News Network, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, or even the Ohio Public Radio statehouse news bureau. ONN is a cable network in Ohio that reaches many places. The Plain Dealer has a decent circulation in a population center. Ohio Public Radio's statehouse news bureau could have flooded NPR affiliates across the state. Talking to them instead of just issuing a statement would have easily lent weight to the matter.
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Stephen Michael Kellat, Interim Coordinator, LISNews Netcast Network
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