It's All About Access
by Ruth Arnold
Advocacy. That's been the theme this spring. Every meeting I go to and every library periodical I read exhorts me to advocacy. To advocate, according to the dictionary, is to support something, to defend a proposal or even to plead the cause of another. In this case, I am being asked to plead the cause of libraries. It's a worthy cause. Naturally, I believe in libraries. After all, I have been a library user all my life and a librarian for half of it. But something about that call to advocacy makes me uncomfortable. It smacks of zealotry. Surely it should be enough that I work in a library. I'm already a public servant; I shouldn't have to be an advocate, too!… if we don't let our government leaders know this, who will?
But after attending the American Library Association Legislative Day in May, I'm beginning to come around to another point of view. Although I have participated in the VLA Legislative Day for many years, this was the first time I had gone to the ALA version. It was exciting to walk around the Capitol district of Washington, D.C., and in the marble halls of government. It was also a little scary. Even after a full day of briefing from ALA Washington office staff, I still felt confused on some of the issues when confronted by my congressman. Nevertheless, I began to feel that it was important that we were there. It is our right as citizens, and furthermore, our message needs to be heard by those aides and legislators. We are not only representing ourselves and our profession, but we are also speaking on behalf of all of our patrons who may never have that opportunity.
The services that we provide — the books, the story hours, the online databases, the extensive reference and research assistance, the community meeting rooms, the back issues of newspapers, the family history materials, not to mention the Internet computers — are often not available to our patrons from any other source, and certainly not at such low cost. Federal funding, in the form of the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA), the Improving Literacy through School Libraries (LSL) program, and government documents from the GPO, to name just a few, is crucial to our operations. And if we don't let our government leaders know this, who will? The publishers and the Internet providers are not pleading our cause. It -really is up to us to "make the ask," as they say in the trade. Write the letter, make the call, go to a town meeting, schedule a visit. A few well-written letters can make all the difference. If we never tell our legislators what we want them to know, how will they ever find out?
When I was organizing my notes after the ALA briefing in preparation for the Capitol Hill office visits the next day, I realized that every issue related to access. Whether it was LSTA funding, preserving the e-rate, copyright concerns, open government information, or net-neutrality, it was all about access. Not for the librarians, but for the public, the voters, the taxpayers. That was the main message we took to congress.
So I guess I am an advocate, after all. We all are, if you get us going. We are always urging our patrons to read this book, come to this program, use this online database. Now we need to widen the circle and ask our patrons to let their government officials — local, state, and national — know the importance of libraries in their lives, for their work, for school, or just for fun.