Rules of Advocacy
Head for the Edge, LMC, March/April 2012
About a year ago AASL released another set of advocacy brochures for school librarians <tinyurl.com/AASLAdvo>. Full of bright graphics and research summaries, the designers have given librarians a good tool to use with administrators, parents, policy-makers and teachers.
I worry such publications may do more harm than good.
While I am pleased to see these materials made available, they, like any tool, aren’t effective unless used correctly. Printing a copy of the brochure and stuffing it in your principal’s mailbox will not save your bacon. Over reliance on such documents is dangerous indeed.
Here are some basic rules of advocacy about which you may have heard me fuss before:
1st Rule of Advocacy: Use, but don’t depend on, national studies, statistics or publications. My cynical side says that if one looks hard enough, one can find a study to support almost any educational program, strategy or theory, no matter how crackpot. And a lot of administrators share my cynicism. Your principal’s goals might be different from the goals that advocacy materials say libraries help meet. And really, who trusts any study done in another state, let alone another country? Forget asking an administrator to read anything more than a page long. By all means use these AASL materials, especially as a discussion starter in face-to-face meetings. But don’t depend on them alone to make your local case.
2nd Rule of Advocacy: Build relationships so others will advocate for you. One parent telling a school board how important he thinks the library program is to his child is more powerful than a dozen studies. One teacher willing to tell the principal that library services have helped her class be more successful secures library funding better than any mandate. One community group that works with school libraries to build information literacy skills is more effective than any set of national standards. We need to make sure we build the kind of relationships with parents, teachers and the community that are strong enough that members of these groups will speak on our behalf when needed. That takes a communication plan that, as Jennifer Stanbro reminds us, has “more positive things to say about what is happening in the library than negative. … People want to invest in things that are going well.” Jennifer also suggests: “Schedule regular program reviews and involve anyone who will participate, even skeptics. Make sure as many people as possible feel like they are partially responsible for the success of the program. If the library is every one’s baby, no one will want to throw it out.”
3rd Rule of Advocacy: Never advocate for libraries or the librarian - advocate for library users. The biggest mistake we make is advocating “for libraries.” When framing our comments from the standpoint of an impact on “the library,” these statements sound self serving. “The library needs a bigger budget” or “The library can’t be used for study halls.” or “The cut in the library paraprofessional’s hours will hurt the library program.” Look how a simple reframing changes these same ideas: “Without an adequate budget, students will not have access to the newest titles and reading interest will decline.” or “If the clerical position is reduced, I will not have as much time to team-teach or do staff inservices..” or “When the library is used for study halls, students who need to use the library resources and need a place to study find it more difficult to do so.” I’m sure the reason we ask for anything is always because it has a benefit to our library users., but we have to make sure we connect the dots between what we want and why it’s good for those we serve.
4th Rule of Advocacy: Don’t depend on the library supervisor to make your case. A district-level library supervisor can be a wonderful voice for building librarians, especially when that person sits on administrative teams. But remember, no matter how forceful, how charming or how much dirt he or she may have on other administrators, the library supervisor is always a single voice among many, each with its own set of priorities. We supervisors would love to be as powerful as you think we are, but we still pull on our superhero tights one leg at a time.
5th Rule of Advocacy: Advocacy must be on-going. Tim Staal writes, “Advocacy is a process and a journey, not something you can do once and move on. Advocate before, not after your job is in jeopardy.” Wise words. Is advocacy a daily occurrence for you?
Please download and share the AASL advocacy materials, but remember that they are a tool, not a magic wand.