On May 1-2, a generous travel grant from YALSA allowed me to travel to Washington, D.C. to attend National Library Legislative Day and meet with congressional staff from my home state of Vermont.
When preparing for the event, I tried to imagine a world where public, academic, and school librarians engage each other more often in order to create a more unified voice in our advocacy efforts. The Vermont Department of Libraries has had to weather funding and personnel cuts over the last several years, and school districts (like the one I work in) have libraries and library staff at the top of their cut lists every budget season. My library staff was reduced from four to three at the beginning of this school year, and you can imagine how difficult it is to serve the same patron community with 25% of our team missing. Two other schools in my district made similar choices, and we are one of the highest funded school library systems in the state. While there has been some notable advocacy successes like adding language that specifically mentions certified school librarians in our state’s education quality standards and ESSA implementation plan, the losses of jobs and funding clearly mean we aren’t completely succeeding in our silos.
But attending NLLD made me realize that our disparate libraries and systems are more connected than I ever realized.
Vermont has many tiny schools that only have part-time librarians. Because of this, many school libraries in our state are closed 1-4 days per week or staffed with parent volunteers. Without a professional to help students find and evaluate information, connect with great books, and create and innovate with their peers, students need to access public libraries. With funding for public libraries under threat (the Vermont Department of Libraries gets a third of its money from the Library Services and Technology Act), many students, especially rural ones, are at risk of having their entire library experience taken away.
But the connections run deeper still. 25% of Vermont public libraries use the federal E-Rate program to access discounted broadband and Wi-Fi services to provide their patrons the same accessibility as their richer and more urban neighbors. Needed “Net Neutrality” protections will help these libraries continue to provide every patron with the highest level of service and connectivity.
The layers go on and on and on. Every conversation with a fellow librarian at NLLD convinced me that I can no longer work at my school alone. I need to join the larger conversation in order to piece together a shared vision for programming with my neighboring public library directors and teen services staff. We need to be able to articulate exactly what we provide our students and citizens so that when they attempt to cut us further, our unified voice will be too strong for them to ignore.
Imagine a rural Vermont teen whose school library is only open two days a week; whose public library lacks WiFi because they can’t afford faster speeds due to E-Rate cuts, while the internet they do have is unbelievably slow because a company like Comcast put them in the “slow lane” due to low traffic numbers. Imagine how many fewer positive interactions this teen will have had with professional library staff over the course of his or her life. Imagine how less informed and empathetic they’d be.
I learned that coming out of our silos and creating a shared vision for library advocacy is not just about messaging, even though getting that message out is important. Rather, it’s about realizing that every library is part of a network of intertwined services and opportunities. We hold the keys to the future for our patrons, and we need to come together for dialogue about who will open which door for whom, and how we can all share and move forward together.
I plan to branch out from my school association and join the (traditionally) public library association in my state. I plan to run for a legislative concerns representative position within my school library association. I plan to work with public librarians to hold a series of community forums about advocacy, shared resources, visions, and silos.
I urge you to think about your own community, patrons, services, and possible partners and collaborators, because saving our libraries is a big, big fight.
I’m glad to be in this with you. Good luck!
Peter Langella is a librarian at Champlain Valley Union HS in Hinesburg, Vermont.
Well said! So often we, as librarians, are so focused on the particular challenges of our personal situation that it’s difficult to take a step back and see how legislation ad funding of one service impacts the entire system. We’re all in this together, so we’d better work in concert to ensure we can win this fight.