If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu – National Library Legislative Day 2018

I became a certified school librarian in 2006.  I spent my early years teaching in school libraries learning the job, honing my craft, attending professional development and reading copious amounts of children’s and young adult literature. The ongoing pursuit of these efforts was to improve my instructional practice, to get better and to grow as a librarian.

I spent countless hours reviewing journal articles about literacy, reading comprehension and instructional strategies. I read online posts from other librarians, reading teachers and classroom teachers. I studied best practices around research and inquiry. I pored over information literacy standards, reading standards and technology standards. I lurked on Twitter and compiled lists of relevant educational and library hashtags. I began posting some of my own educational content. I began teaching professional development coursework and presenting to my peers in-district and at conferences.

After several years of reflective teaching and librarianship, I finally feel confident and comfortable in my skin as a school librarian and professional. What’s next on the horizon? What next steps make the most career sense? What will allow me to continue this valuable work?  Some of these bigger picture questions were answered after I decided after many years to become a member of the New York Library Association (NYLA) in 2015. I waited too long to become a member. This was a mistake.

NYLA is our statewide library association dedicated to advocating on behalf of all libraries in the state directly to our state legislature. This organization is doing the hard work of library advocacy full-time, every day, year after year for all types of libraries: school, public, academic, etc. I was so busy doing the intense work of school librarianship that I left library advocacy to others. This was a another mistake.

A recent article in Education Week indicates that, “The nation’s public school districts have lost 20 percent of their librarians and media specialists since 2000, from more than 54,000 to less than 44,000 in 2015.” While I was too busy doing this important library work, school libraries were on the chopping block and I didn’t know. This ignorance was another mistake. 

Abandoning library advocacy ‘to others’ is a bad idea. Waiting to join the New York Library Association so late in my career was a bad idea.  For more time than I care to admit, I was unclear about NYLA’s role. I wasn’t sure what NYLA actually did or why. I am now attempting to make up for lost time by engaging in vital library advocacy efforts.

My first event was to attend Library Advocacy Day as part of NYLA’s local Albany delegation. I chaperoned a field trip with a dozen high school students from Albany High to the state capitol in Albany, NY. Students attending this trip were members of Albany High School’s Book Lovers’ Club. Several appointments were made with local elected officials in advance to discuss library funding in our state.

Our elected officials listened intently to their teenage constituents as students shared meaningful dialogue about the value of libraries in their schools and communities. It was a powerful lesson in civic participation and engagement for both students and adults. This will be an annual field trip moving forward for Albany High School students. This positive experience encouraged me to apply for the YALSA travel stipend to attend National Library Legislative Day in our nation’s capital. 

I then traveled to Washington, DC in early May 2018 to attend National Library Legislative Day with the New York State delegation. What a dynamic group of professionals! Librarians and library advocates from every corner of the country descended on Capitol Hill to urge our representatives to fully fund libraries. Fierce does not begin to describe the roster of impassioned individuals fighting on behalf of libraries! I learned that this annual event is affectionately called, ‘Ledge Day’ by returning advocacy day veterans. 

Heavy hitters from NYS included: NYLA’s Executive Director, Jeremy Johannesen, Upper Hudson Library System Director and NYLA President, Tim Burke, Executive Director of the Ramapo Catskill Library System, Robert Hubsher, Utica College Library Director, James Teliha and school librarian extraordinaire and ALA Councilor-at-Large, Sara Kelly Johns! I watched and learned from the very best library professionals how to get our important messages across.

Kristen Majkut and Sara Kelly Johns

The two-day event ran like a well-oiled machine. Day One was our Briefing Day and all fifty state delegations were treated to several important speakers and panels superbly hosted by the American Library Association. We heard from Jim Neal, president of ALA. We also heard from Mary Ghikas, Executive Director of ALA. We heard from Steve Potash, the CEO of Overdrive. We heard from Paul Gazzolo, Senior Vice President of Gale Cengage Learning. We also were treated to some role-playing scenarios and skits demonstrating ineffective and unprofessional advocacy strategies by staffers from the American Library Association’s Washington office.

However, the highlight of Day One for me was Bradford Fitch, the President and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation. Fitch wrote a compelling book about the advocacy process called, ‘The Citizen’s Handbook to Influencing Elected Officials’. It is the preeminent guidebook on how to conduct and design digestible content for meetings with elected representatives. The gist of Fitch’s presentation is that, “Lawmakers vote based on the 3 H’s: Head (Logic/Data), Heart (Personal Stories) and Health (District Impact).”  Fitch explained the limited time that you have with lawmakers and the likelihood that your visit will be with a twenty-something staffer.

Bradford Fitch and Kristen Majkut

On Day Two we journeyed to Capitol Hill with purpose (comfortable shoes required). Day Two featured dizzying rounds of meetings throughout the day with elected officials. We stopped by the office of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and left specific folders with one-page library legislation materials called, ‘leave-behinds’. Our delegation met with a staffer from Senator Chuck Schumer’s office. We met personally with Rep. John Faso. We also met with a staffer from Rep. Nita Lowey’s office. We met with a staffer from Rep. Danny Donovan’s office. I also had the pleasure of being introduced to Loida Garcia-Febo, ALA’s new President-Elect.

The highlight of Day Two was participating in a visit with Jonathan Chung, the Queens Library Director of Government Affairs. Jonathan spent significant time as a young staffer on Capitol Hill many years prior and was intimately familiar with the advocacy process. Observing that visit uniquely improved my understanding of how to deliver an impactful message in a short amount of time with the talking points and legislative priorities developed by the American Library Association. The value of these visits to our elected officials cannot be understated.

I strongly encourage librarians of any stripe and library advocates to attend this annual event. I expect this pilgrimage to our nation’s capital to become part of my renewed professional commitment to regular library advocacy. An old saying in Washington was offered in DC to a room full of rapt librarians: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”  Are you at the table?

Kristen Majkut is a public high school librarian in upstate New York at Albany High School in Albany, NY. She has been a school librarian for 12 years and also works part-time at the local public library. Her Twitter handle is: @kristenmajkut

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