Washington, D.C. is a dream location for librarians: books, libraries, galleries, museums, history, monuments, culture, and food. At the beginning of May, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C. to participate in National Library Legislative Day along with over 500 other librarians. My trip was funded by a generous travel stipend from the Young Adult Library Services Association. Although I have been a librarian for 23 years and have advocated for libraries in my school district and community, this was my first opportunity to advocate on the national level. I am hopeful that my experience will encourage you to become a national advocate as well.
Alex Simons, Liaison Librarian at the University of Houston, is the Texas coordinator for NLLD. She and Letitia Smith from YALSA prepared me for the visits on Capitol Hill by sending information about library advocacy and about how to conduct successful meetings with Members of Congress. In addition to Alex Simons, the other members of the Texas delegation were Jeanne Standley, Executive Director of Libraries at the University of Texas at Tyler, and Carlyn Gray, retired Director of Library Services at Round Rock ISD and currently Librarian at Austin Community College. Gloria Meraz, Assistant State Librarian at Texas State Library and Archives, attended as a resource person and was instrumental in providing information on the impact of federal funds for Texas libraries and the Texas State Library.
This event is exceptionally well-planned and organized. ALA hosts NLLD events and training for registered participants at a local hotel on Monday and plans office visits on Tuesday. Folders with information about important library issues are prepared for each of the 435 Representative’s offices and 100 Senator’s offices. The Texas delegation generally meets on Sunday night to divide up visits, and Monday they arrive early at the House office buildings. With current threats to eliminate funding for critical federal library programs, the folders were filled with data showing how libraries truly do change lives. Alex Simons suggested that we focus on a maximum of three issues to clarify at each office to get the most out of our time during visits. Armed with our data and our stories, we hit the halls.
At each office, we introduced ourselves as participants in National Library Legislative Day and as librarians from Texas. Greetings were warm and friendly with comments like, “I can never say no to a librarian” and “My mom is a librarian!” Congressman Gene Green from Houston told us about visiting the Carnegie Library as a kid with his brother during summer breaks. At most offices we were offered a snack and a drink. I did notice that many offices had a good stock of Dr. Pepper, the official soft drink of Texas. After signing in and exchanging business cards, we asked to speak with the elected official, and if he or she was not available, to speak with the staff member who works with education and libraries. Many times there was not a person available to meet with us, so we left the folder with a staffer after directing them to the key points. They promised to pass the folder on to the elected official.
When we did get to meet with a staff member we gave examples of how all types of libraries serve vital roles in our communities by providing everything from free access to information, spaces to meet, computers and Internet, books and literacy training and much more. The role of libraries in supporting job seekers through the Texas Workforce Commission was described and the need for high-speed broadband development, especially in rural areas, was explained. We asked for full funding of the Library Services and Technology Act, reauthorization of the Museum and Library Services Act and appropriations of $27 million in FY 2018 for the Innovative Approaches to Literacy Act.
And then we told our stories. As a high school librarian, I wanted our lawmakers to know how libraries impact teens in my school district. I talked about the Great Stories Club program at my school. This after-school book club is funded by a grant from ALA. This year’s theme is “The Origins of Teen Violence and Suicide”. Most weeks I have 15 students who stay after school to talk about books, enjoy snacks and socialize. We have had important conversations about depression, mental health, bullying, suicide and date rape. These young women have taught me much about the pressures they face in high school and at home. They are brutally honest about what they are thinking and seem to appreciate having a safe place to talk about what is going on in their lives. Our local public library has a teen volunteer program where students from our high school and middle schools help with programming for younger children as well as with shelving books and other library duties. These are only a few examples of thousands of events that happen in libraries of all types across the United States every single day.
By the end of the first day, we had visited over 30 offices to speak on behalf of library patrons and for the needs and interests of libraries and librarians. Tuesday we had meetings scheduled at one of our senator’s offices. Advocating seemed intimidating at first, but it is not difficult. As Alex Simons said as we approached another office door, “Who doesn’t like libraries?” NLLD happens every May. Consider adding it to your calendar now.
And then there was the bonus round…Librarians can be serious fangirls. Jeanne Standley had the brilliant idea to visit Congressman John Lewis’ office while we were so close. Representative Lewis co-wrote with Andrew Aydin the graphic novel trilogy, March, about Lewis’ experiences during the Civil Rights Movement. Nate Powell is the illustrator. March: Book Three became the first graphic novel to win a National Book Award in addition to being awarded the Coretta Scott King Book Award, Michael L. Printz Award, Robert F. Siebert Informational Book Award and the YASLA award for excellence in young adult non-fiction.
We took a chance and stopped by Congressman Lewis’ office. After introducing ourselves as librarians, we told the receptionist that we are huge fans of Representative Lewis and the March trilogy and we asked to see him. Sadly he was not in the office. She said we could leave a message for him in the guest book. As I was signing, I blabbered on and on about how much I love his books and how much my students at both middle school and high school love them too. These graphic novels have grabbed many a reluctant reader while surreptitiously teaching them facts about the Civil Rights movement. “Well,” says the receptionist, “the co-author, Andrew Aydin, is here. I can see if he can talk with you.” What??? Yes, please!
Andrew Aydin was not just nice, he was incredibly gracious. He took us into Representative Lewis’ office and spent over thirty minutes talking with us about books, libraries, John Lewis and more. He told us his mother asked if she could have his second book award since he already had one. He gave us a copy of the comic book, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, first published in December of 1955. This historic comic book helped convince the publishers that March could be successful. Andrew Aydin even let us take pictures with him.
Thank you again YALSA for these opportunities. I learned much about advocacy and Capitol Hill. I met some wonderful librarians who are now my friends and talked with people who love libraries as much as I do and are willing to fight for them. This opportunity was truly invaluable.
Angela Hartman is a librarian for the secondary campuses in Hutto ISD, Hutto, Texas. She has been a librarian for 23 years. Angela is passionate about social justice, teaches about the history of the Holocaust and is a member the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board.