Can a little advocacy go a long way?

As has probably been obvious by my delay in finishing the CPD23 program, I have been struggling to find my voice on the topic of library advocacy (Thing 16). But I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit lately, as I’ve been gearing up for another round of operations planning and budgeting in my organization.

In this scenario, the library is one of approximately fifteen other programs fighting for its share of resources. In last year’s planning meeting, someone proposed that we completely zero out the library’s acquisitions budget for a year in order to help us reach our agency’s budget-cutting goals. While I appreciate that this was largely a hypothetical question, designed to get us thinking about the role the library plays within the organization and to our customers, I can’t say it wasn’t a little disheartening. Sure, we could zero out the budget, but then we wouldn’t necessarily have current resources to support the topics addressed by the agency’s other programs. Plus, skipping out on certain subscriptions for a year could mean a permanent gap in the collection. And probably most importantly, if there are no new materials, what’s to keep our patrons coming back? I’m on-board with the idea of a “stop doing” list, but stopping library acquisitions seems like a risky proposition. After all, as James LaRue wrote, “It’s easy to lose collection relevance. It’s very, very hard to get it back again.”

These arguments were enough to save our acquisitions budget, and now we’ve moved on to issues of library staffing. This is considerably trickier territory, considering one has to make the case for additional staff while not making current staff look lazy or incompetent. The fact is that our staff of 1.4 librarians does well enough with the day-to-day operations that our customers don’t seem to notice any issues, but we can see a huge backlog of cataloging, not to mention the weeding and evaluation projects that should happen more than once a decade. Management wonders if this is really a problem, or if we’re striving for some unattainable level of perfection. That depends. Do you want the materials you agreed we needed to purchase to end up on shelves where patrons can find them, or to sit on carts in the office waiting to be cataloged? Do you want us sending patrons computer books from the 1990s? You can’t always tell from the title, and I guarantee people don’t always look at the item description when they place their hold. Do you want us to modernize our services, or stick to being the keeper of the books and DVDs? If wanting to be relevant is perfectionism, then I gladly accept the label.

Perhaps I shouldn’t really complain, because I know that many other libraries have it much worse than we do, but I can’t help but feel there’s a certain point at which doing more with less is no longer feasible. Because I can only spend about 40% of my work time in the library, I’ve really tried to maximize it by streamlining our processes. While we’ve made some headway, even my non-librarian boss admits that my position is stretched nearly to the breaking point. Yet, I still find myself needing to explain what I do all day. My job isn’t flashy, and it involves a great deal of behind-the-scenes details that people are not necessarily supposed to notice, if I’m doing my job correctly. The challenge is to find some way to discuss the importance of these details without using library jargon or technical terminology. I’m working on it, but have yet to perfect my argument. If anyone’s managed to do this successfully, I’m open to pointers.

As you can see, I’ve got plenty on my hands with advocating for my own role in my own library. I don’t really have the personality of an activist, but I like to think that I do some small part in library advocacy as it feels natural to me. I use my public library, and make sure others know about the resources available. I’ve lost track of how many people’s jaws dropped when I told them they could download audiobooks and e-books for free. I even directed one friend who was looking for a free copy of Rosetta Stone to see if her library offered language-learning software.

This may not seem like much compared to some, but it’s what I feel comfortable doing at the moment. Does that make me any less passionate about libraries? I don’t think so.

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