President's Message: Library Advocacy Interest Group

On the afternoon of March 5, I had the chance to sit down with our MLA Library Advocacy Interest Group (LAIG) co-chairs, Ashley Rogers (AR) and Zeke White (ZW), to hear their thoughts on the progress made by the new interest group over the past two years. This is an excerpt from our wide-ranging conversation.
On the afternoon of March 5th, I had the chance to sit down with our MLA Library Advocacy Interest Group (LAIG) co-chairs, Ashley Rogers (AR) and Zeke White  (ZW), to hear their thoughts on the progress made by the new interest   group over the past two years. This is an excerpt from our wide-ranging conversation.

Joe Thompson: Thanks so much for being here today! First, how did the Library Advocacy Interest Group come to be? ZW: Denise Davis [Past President, MLA] contacted me a couple years ago. I had met her briefly when she came to Woodlawn to look at Storyville, and then again at Library Day in Annapolis. I think that conversation is when we really clicked, because she asked, “You know what you're supposed to be talking about, right?” I said “not really.” She took that moment to educate me about the issues that we were advocating for that day. She's really good at on-the-spot education. A few years later, she called me and explained her vision for the Library Advocacy Interest Group. She was concerned that a lot of younger people did not know how to do [library advocacy] and didn't feel empowered to do it, and a generation of library leaders are also about to retire. She really wanted to empower and educate others on the art of advocacy. LAIG just came from there, from that specific vision.

Ashley, you came in a little bit after it started, right? What was your story?

AR: Zeke and I had been talking about it and I had expressed interest in being on the group. Some change of leadership happened and I ended up being the co-chair as well. We were an Interest Group that was just forming and we weren't really sure where we were going exactly. We had a charge, but how we were going to fulfill that was yet to be seen. We were a core group, about five of us, that started working together as understudies. We were attending Legislative Panel meetings, went to a hearing, and watched some webinars. We were still figuring it out. Then we [Ashley, Zeke, Denise, Joe, & Natalie Edington] had a pivotal early morning meeting and over coffee, we came up with a plan. That's when we shifted focus a bit and that core group became a steering committee that plans advocacy events for all of the Maryland Library community. We have a larger base now that attends our events and participates in a broader way. The steering committee still functions as the understudies, but we also have this bigger goal of reaching a larger audience.

ZW: I want to credit Natalie Edington [MLA Federal Legislative Officer]. Natalie and Denise have clearly done lots of work behind the scenes to shape the vision for LAIG. She's been instrumental from the very beginning, being a guide and mentor to us throughout the process. AR: Then, we started conducting Brown Bag sessions. These have been really successful. They're open to all Maryland library staff. It's free. You don't have to be an MLA member.

Joe:  You've both done a really amazing job promoting these. I'm impressed by how the word's getting out, people are becoming aware of it, and you're getting it promoted out on social media and Marylib. I really love seeing people be encouraged to come and participate in these kind of MLA activities.

AR: That's really a group effort. Everyone in the group has been involved. We hosted the Legislative Day one, which was with you and Andrea [Berstler], which was great. The first Brown Bag we had was with Mary Hastler for elevator speeches. We also hosted one with Carrie Willson about the Legislative Panel. The next one we have coming up is on Intellectual Freedom.

Joe:  I think you've talked a little bit about this, but what was your original interest in participating?

ZW: I'm really interested in grassroots advocacy and I started from that place, the more I learned about legislative advocacy, specifically in terms of salaries and county library funding here in Maryland. That has to do with advocacy. Somebody has got to do the work. I am passionate about library advocacy at the branch level and taking it to the next level is exciting, in helping legislators understand what we do and the evolving role of libraries. Healthy salaries and healthy funding–it takes the work of everyone to make sure that happens.

Joe: Did you have any sense of how advocacy connected with the experience your community has in using library services?

ZW: All of that was coming together. There's the OCLC study [From Awareness to Funding: Voter Perceptions and Support of Public Libraries in 2018]. Participants in that study didn't necessarily find that libraries were as important in the role of children, but they do increasingly see us as community hubs. The library as community hub rings true for me. In my branch, we've hosted community conversations and have actively talked about issues that the community cares about. The library was able to respond with services or programs that fulfill community needs.

AR: My interest was from the opposite direction. When there were proposed federal funding cuts in 2016, I started thinking about how IMLS cuts at a federal level would affect state and local funding, and how that trickles down to each of our libraries. I wanted to do something about that, and later that year I was able to help lead the visit with U.S. Congressman John Sarbanes. I've done state level visits before, but to be able to share the importance of libraries at the federal level and advocate for funding was an amazing experience. Having the support and confidence of you, Denise, Natalie, and Skip [Auld] helped me to feel ready to take the next step in my advocacy work.

Joe: That was really impressive. What has most surprised you about the work of library advocacy in the state of Maryland?

AR: How many people it takes. Just how many groups are involved, how far ahead you have to think about things, and how everybody can play a role in it. It is very empowering. If you want to be involved, there is a role for you to be involved in library advocacy.

ZW: The layers of Legislative Panel, the LAIG, and then there's MAPLA [Maryland Association of Public Library Administrators]. All the pieces that it takes to pull together and stay on message. A pleasant surprise was when staff from the ALA Office for Library Advocacy talked about how Maryland is really cutting edge and how there are only one or two other states doing anything like LAIG. That's South Carolina and Indiana, I believe. It was great to hear that we're getting ahead of this. They said that all chapters need to be approaching this because we're all dealing with generations of library leadership retiring. I don't know that it was a surprise, but validating, to see how passionate frontline staff feel about frontline advocacy and how talking to SSD [MLA's Support Staff Division] and pointing out that they are already doing this. In a way it comes down to being able to talk about why you love your job, why you come to work every day, and they were so empowered and excited about it. We are seeing all levels of organizations come to the Brown Bags. I was recently invited to come to Technical Services at BCPL. I've been asked to speak at various groups at BCPL. So, people are hungry to learn more about advocacy.

Joe: What do you think will be some of the biggest challenges regarding library advocacy ahead?

AR: The two that come to mind are funding and intellectual freedom issues. One of the biggest things we learned about at the Maryland Nonprofits presentation was state funding levels. They talked about the overall budget of the state and how that'll be shifting into a possible projected deficit. That could have huge impacts on us.
And especially with the Kirwan Commission report. That will call for lots of money for education and nobody at this point seems to know how it's going to be paid for. AR: And, minimum wage increases, too. How does that play into all of this?

Joe: That's right. How does any of this get paid for at the state or local level? Good questions.

ZW: That was one of my questions coming out of that session. The Kirwan Commission report sounds great on paper, but it's a huge price tag and where is that money coming from? I don't know what libraries need to do to position ourselves but I think it's important if that moves forward that we do become a voice at the table.

AR: On advocacy challenges, we were talking about something else that I think is important—the issues around Intellectual Freedom and access and services for everyone. We represent multiple viewpoints in our community and that can be seen in our materials spaces, services, and programs. We need to keep explaining why and how we do this. We also need to be proactive and make sure that we're connecting with our legislators and community leaders in a variety of ways. This came up at our preconference at the MLA/DLA Conference last year. The ALA Office for Library Advocacy talked about libraries formalizing and promoting their role as community conveners. Zeke and I have been working on this at each of our branches. At my branch, the Severn Community Library, we're working on a community feedback project with focus groups, one-on-ones, and surveys. The feedback we are hearing is invaluable to providing tailored services to our community. I was then able to share some of this feedback and the branch's responses with our state delegate on Maryland Library Day.

ZW: Right, and then it's important to be responsive to community feedback. With the long table discussion at Woodlawn, we learned that the community most wanted 1) better police and youth relations; 2) more support for entrepreneurs and small businesses in the area; and 3) greater cohesion among neighborhood associations. So, we hosted what will be the first of many police/teen gaming events and we're starting an Entrepreneur Academy that's kicking off this Saturday. We will also host a neighborhood association dinner, where the associations can find common ground and work on goals together. It's important for libraries to be responsive and agile and also not be so modest as a profession. We're often introverts, modest and humble about the service we provide in our communities. It is important that we stop being so modest about how we contribute to the communities we serve, and talk about how we contribute to a thriving, resilient economy.

AR: It's taking it a step past inviting our local politicians to our public events, which of course we should be doing, but also positioning ourselves to be viewed as leaders and conveners in each of our communities.

Joe: I really appreciate you both taking the time to share your observations with me about your experience establishing the LAIG. Thinking about the larger association, I want to see as many people who would benefit from MLA membership or involvement in the association seek it out. Do you have any advice? What would you say to someone starting their career in libraries who is thinking about joining MLA?

ZW: I've been involved in MLA off and on over the years and I can't stress the importance of it. You don't want to get in your own silo and you want to learn what other systems are doing. If you're a small system, you can learn how big systems are doing things and vice versa. There's a lot that we can learn from each other. There's a lot of awesome things that Maryland libraries are doing and it's a great place to network. Maybe see if you're interested in going for a position in another county or another system. It's good to make those kind of connections and for idea sharing.

AR: I would second all that. I didn't join until later in my career. I didn't become involved until we did this. I wish I would have gotten involved sooner, for all of the reasons Zeke just listed. I think there may be this misconception that if you're involved you have to dedicate lots and lots of time. You don't have to commit yourself to a huge involvement in it.

Joe:  Who's going to be your successors coming in as LAIG co-chairs?

ZW: Melissa Gotsch and Megan Jones. Both have done a tremendous job, contributing to all of the projects, being very involved with all of the meetings, and are highly respected within their own systems. We're excited to see what they bring to the table.

Joe:  A few days after I spoke with Zeke and Ashley, MLA Executive Director Margaret Carty offered this additional observation to me. “In the short time since the Library Advocacy Interest Group was started, they have come a long way and are making a large and meaningful impact on the Association. MLA's Interest Groups provide a platform to showcase leadership, professional growth and visible proof that we can foresee a successful future for libraries in Maryland. Participation in an Interest Group is an opportunity to advance the individual while supporting the mission of the Association.” I couldn't agree more, and want to take this opportunity to thank all of our MLA unit leaders and member volunteers. I am incredibly grateful to each of you for finding the time to give back to the library profession. It truly makes a huge difference.

See you at the 2019 MLA/DLA Conference! —Joe


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