It’s always a good time to advocate for your school library program. In that spirit, we’re sharing this gem from our archives by Allison Burrell.
As I write this, I am marking the one-year anniversary of when I moved from being a high school librarian to being the only librarian for my entire school district. I write this column not as an expert in advocacy, but as a librarian who realizes that being an advocate is a necessary part of my job. I also realize that being an advocate can be easily overlooked or forgotten in the chaos of everyday life.
Advocacy is a work in progress; it is also something that involves a wide scope, because every one of us should participate in some form or another. The ideas I am sharing here are ones that I want to improve as I implement them both now and in the future. I am hoping that by the time this article is published, I will have established an even stronger practice in these ideals.
Just before school started this fall, I had the opportunity to testify in front of the Pennsylvania House Committee on Education about the state of Pennsylvania school libraries. The perspective I shared was that of a “solo librarian.” My role may be unique now, but unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly common in school districts. My testimony to the House Committee provided an excellent opportunity to make legislators more aware of the challenges facing librarians in our state. This awareness is absolutely necessary if any large-scale change is going to occur.
Our state association, PSLA, has a talented team of advocates who continuously work to create new policy that will benefit students in our state, but top-down change does not occur quickly. Knowing that, school librarians cannot sit and wait until that change finally happens. We need to take library advocacy into our own hands, in the trenches, while we wait for large-scale policy revisions.
I am extremely aware that this is not easy. As the only librarian in my district, there are many days in which maintaining my sanity is my main goal and I wonder how to advocate for anything, never mind do it well. However, it’s at those times that I have to remind myself that advocacy does not require huge or elaborate efforts.
The first thing I needed to do to be a true advocate for my own program was to prioritize the needs of my students and faculty. Admittedly, that has not been one of my strong points in this past year as a solo librarian. Too many times I’ve found myself trying to do everything I thought I “should” be doing for the elementary, middle, and high school students, as well as the faculty in all three of my buildings. Unfortunately, while trying to do this, I have frequently found myself spending my days becoming increasingly frustrated. The results have been not doing anything to the best of my ability!
So, I realized that I have to relinquish, at least temporarily, some of the “should-do’s” so that I can concentrate on the things that will benefit students and the program most. Thus, I do the best I possibly can with the priorities I have set. I avoid spreading myself too thin while giving adequate attention to each identified goal. With this approach, I create better opportunities for students, faculty, administration, and community to see the potential of the program.
As I have adjusted my priorities, I have found that student volunteers, who perform their own version of advocacy every day, can complete some of my lower-priority activities very well. The success of the program can be shared through many avenues including newsletters, my library blog, the high school library Facebook page, and the annual report that is shared with administrators and school board members.
When I prioritize carefully, it ensures that I can focus on the good I am doing with the identified priorities, instead of worrying about the things that are not on that list. My attitude about those priorities is just as important. It is very easy for all of us, solo librarians or not, to dwell on our inadequacies and the things we cannot fit into the school day.
FIND THE POSITIVE
I realized that I needed to consciously choose a positive attitude each and every day so that I can maintain a better outlook for my job and its possibilities. When my situation changed, I found myself battling to determine the best perspective to take regarding the circumstances. There were choices. Should I look at the negative aspects of the situation, focus on what needs to be fixed and bring those problems to the attention of decision makers? Or, do I look at the positive aspects, like the fact that I now get the distinct opportunity to watch every single student in the district grow up from kindergarten through twelfth grade? When I am asked how things are going, do I tell the truth and explain all of the disadvantages, or do I focus on the great things I am able to accomplish?
When asked about the current state of the library program, it is best for me to talk about the great things that are happening (which has been easier once I prioritized and made sure I could take pride in accomplishments). But, it is also important to talk about the other positive possibilities I look forward to once policy or staffing has changed. This means that I need to have my dream program clearly imaged so that I can share it in a brief conversation or “elevator speech,” without dwelling on the negative.
Throughout my graduate program at Mansfield University, my instructors reinforced the importance of networking with other library professionals. However, I did not realize how truly vital this was until I found myself being a solo librarian. As such, I have no other nearby professionals to consult with when making library decisions or gathering resources. In this regard, networking with other librarians lessens the feeling of isolation, provides support, and enables me to be most effective on the job.
I have relied on connections with my state organization, which has been enormously beneficial. It has also been helpful for me to become increasingly involved in a variety of committees and activities within the organization. I have found that networking can take place on a smaller scale. Simply staying in contact with librarians in all types of local libraries (school, public, and academic) and participating in a variety of social networking tools help resources and ideas come to me easily. Additionally, networking gives me contacts around the world.
Networking has become an important part of my advocacy plan. I am currently determining the social media methods that can most effectively connect solo and shared librarians (the latter being librarians who are responsible for three or more buildings) in Pennsylvania. Our needs are different from other school librarians, so establishing a tool to support each other in our challenges and successes is vital. This is especially important in providing the much needed advocacy efforts for these programs. We must be able to share ideas to present to our constituents and gain support.
Knowing how important advocacy is for library programs to be successful, I want to do everything I can to increase my advocacy efforts. However, when time is at a premium, I need to be particular about the advocacy opportunities in which I engage. I have learned to prioritize facets of my program so that I can publicize the very best aspects.
I have learned to keep a positive attitude in order to effectively promote my program and I am also building my professional network in as many ways as possible. These are simple yet effective ways to advocate for my program and for the school library profession as a whole. In the hectic pace of daily life, these are the smaller efforts that are most useful and helpful to my cause.
Allison Burrell is the K-12 librarian for the Southern Columbia Area School District in Catawissa, PA. She is the 2016-2017 president of the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association and has served her association in many other capacities.