Support from Beyond the Sidelines
There has been a lot of focus on advocacy for libraries recently. And for good reason. In light of our current economic situation, library funding dangles feebly amid swinging axes. About a month ago, Jessamyn West offered a roundup on some recent library woes. Libraries across the country–public, academic, school and special alike–are fighting (like many other organizations) for survival. Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, Los Angeles Public Library, New Jersey libraries, Ohio libraries, and the list goes on. Things are no different here in South Carolina, and it is likely the same where you are.
Advocacy is one of our greatest tools during such times, and we are putting it to work. It is a primary way of communicating with library users, governing boards, institutional administrations, state legislatures, etc. to raise awareness of and garner support for the mission of libraries. In a recap of Ken Haycock’s keynote address at the Computers in Libraries conference, Meredith Farkas highlights the point that, in our advocacy efforts, “we need to build relationships and connect with the values of the people we want to influence.” YES!
As I was reflecting last week on the purpose and focus of our library advocacy efforts, I reminded myself to remain aware of a group of supporters that come from perhaps the most unlikely place. I am speaking of those library defenders who never darken the door of a library. That’s right. People who have no personal connection with the library as place, but are avid supporters of the concept of libraries. Advocates from without. Supporters from beyond the sidelines.
Given the fact that we just celebrated National Park Week, John Muir’s birthday, and Earth Day, I have an illustration that I believe is fitting and helps drive home my point. In the modern classic on conservation, Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Nash conveys the passion of John Muir who advocated for the conservation of American wilderness from the vantage point of one who knew and loved the experience of the wild. Muir spoke out from inside the issue. Nash also tells about Robert Underwood Johnson, a contemporary of Muir, who likewise championed the cause of wilderness preservation with zeal. Nash writes that Johnson, however, “had little desire for actual contact with the primitive, and, by his own admission, was an inept outdoorsman. His interest, rather, lay in the idea of wilderness.” Johnson advocated as one speaking from the outside.
There are those who are advocating for libraries while sweating on the playing field (librarians, regular users of libraries, etc.). We are the Muir’s of our efforts. And then there are those championing the cause of libraries from well beyond the sidelines (those who support libraries and yet have never visited or made use of them personally). They are the Johnson’s of our efforts.
As strange as it may seem, there are passionate supporters of libraries who have never had the inclination to set foot in one and yet are willing to fight for them simply because they embrace the idea of libraries and what they represent for society. (I can think of donations to my library that came from such individuals.) Imagine a mother who hears from her neighbor–a librarian–that multiple branches of the local public library will likely be facing closure. “I didn’t realize it was that bad,” she says. While she never used a library herself, something just doesn’t seem right to her if libraries disappear and her daughter looses the opportunity and choice to make use of them.
It is true that support for a cause flows most naturally from personal experience or investment. Nevertheless, belief in an idea can be equally powerful. My advocacy challenge is to reach out and connect. As I do so, I want to cast a broad enough net to try and reach even people who have no real memory of time spent in libraries. Some of those individuals will catch the vision because it connects with a societal concept that they value. Perhaps they simply need to hear the message. And maybe–just maybe–one of those supporters from beyond the sidelines will eventually even decide to visit a library and fall in love not only with the idea, but also the experience.