By Melissa Ferens
When many people think about youth services in public libraries, they think of books and storytime programs. As we have discussed earlier in this book, the idea that public youth librarians serve an instructional role can be surprising because there is a general lack of awareness of what it takes to be a librarian as well as the need for youth instruction outside of a school context. Public youth services librarians see themselves as proponents of literacy, youth development, and equitable access to resources, but even they don’t necessarily see themselves as teachers or instructors.
This lack of awareness is understandable given the relatively recent surge of attention to the public librarian’s instructional role. This surge is especially evident in the Young Adult Library Association’s (YALSA) competencies for library staff. The most recent set, adopted by YALSA in 2017, includes entire content areas that are focused on instruction: “learning environments (formal and informal),” “learning experiences (formal and informal),” and “youth engagement and leadership.” Each of these includes several points regarding developing, practicing, and transforming with respect to these content areas (YALSA, 2017a). The previous set of competencies, adopted in 2015, only includes a few references to instruction, such as “creates meaningful, skill-building volunteer and leadership opportunities for and with teens” and “recognizes teen expertise and creates ways for that expertise to be shared” (YALSA, 2015).”
Another reason for the general lack of awareness is a lack of visibility. Those who are most aware of instruction in public libraries are the librarians themselves, the youth and their families who are attending instructional programs, and other involved stakeholders; that is, those who are seeing instruction or its planning or outcomes firsthand. Potential collaborative partners, legislators, many of the youth and families in your community who could benefit from library programs, and even colleagues in your library may not be aware of how much time and knowledge of instructional best practices is required to plan and assess instructional programs, what informal instruction looks like in your everyday interactions with youth, or how your programs and informal instruction benefit youth (Benjes-Small, 2017).
A third reason for the lack of awareness is an image problem. People tend to think that libraries operate the same way as the ones they have experience with, and they may not have had experience with instruction in libraries or may not remember what they learned from it (Rawson, 2017). Public librarians may not have taken coursework that emphasized or even mentioned instruction, and, as a result, they may conceptualize their job without this focus. Even if someone does have some awareness about public youth service librarians as instructors, they may not understand or fully appreciate its value, or they may see it as a luxury for bigger libraries with more resources.
Due to these and other factors, there are not nearly as many librarians in public libraries embracing the instructional role as there should be, and the librarians who do instruct sometimes have difficulty obtaining resources for their instruction or attracting youth who would benefit from it. To effectively teach children and teens the 21st-century skills they will need to succeed, you need to help them become interested in using library services, attending programs, and talking with their librarians. You also need to build a network of collaborative partners and get funding for instructional initiatives, and that can only be done when those relevant parties know and value the work you do. In other words, being able to perform the other aspects of your job well depends on being an effective advocate.
What Advocacy Looks Like
Advocacy is a critical part of youth librarianship; however, it does not have to be a separate part. As youth librarians, we already have a lot on our plate. We design and implement instructional programs, create assessment tools, write grants, help with circulation and collection development, help with library management and administration, perform readers advisory and other reference assistance, and collaborate with other educators and organizations. On top of all of that, advocating for the instructional role of public librarians can feel like a lot of extra work, but it doesn’t have to be (Rawson, 2017).
Advocacy can take many forms, but at a minimum it should be incorporated in your everyday interactions and as a part of your everyday work. You can increase the visibility of your instructional work in your library, community, and professional network by communicating frequently and effectively about what you do. Have conversations about the educational outcomes of your programs and informal instruction, create displays of projects youth have done in the library, and post what you’re doing with youth on social media. This kind of advocacy, referred to by the American Library Association as “everyday advocacy” or “frontline advocacy,” is simple but effective because of its potential to help people build a gradual but firm positive appreciation for the library (ALA, 2009). It’s not about trying harder to serve the role of advocate on top of everything else you do; it’s about trying differently (Nemec-Loise, 2015a).
Of course, if you have the time and are passionate about advancing youth instruction in public libraries, you can go beyond the level of everyday advocacy. For example, you could create campaigns, present at conferences, or arrange legislator visits to your library to show them firsthand how you work with youth and what they learn from public library instruction.
In addition to requiring different degrees of involvement, advocacy can also be targeted towards audiences on different levels. At the individual level, advocacy may involve increasing individual understanding of what the library can provide for someone or what they can gain from collaborating with a youth services librarian. It can also involve helping a fellow youth librarian learn techniques and new ways to perform their instructional role. Individual, personal interactions can be some of the strongest advocacy moments.
At the organizational level, advocacy can include actions such as arguing against budget cuts for the youth services department at staff meetings. Even within a library or community, there are competing interests and priorities for limited resources (Benjes-Small, 2017). It can also include persuading your administration to hire new staff to handle some of the circulation and reference requests so that you can dedicate more time to instruction.
At the state or national level, advocacy can involve getting legislator support, convincing other public libraries to prioritize instruction in their strategic planning processes, and working along with professional organizations like YALSA, the Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC), and the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) that advocate for youth services as a major part of their mission (Rawson, 2017). Read about one public library that crafted and communicated an advocacy plan on multiple levels in the spotlight box below.
Paul Sawyier Public Library in Frankfort, KY, is one of many public libraries that provides resources, programs, and services to help preschoolers develop early literacy skills. As a former preschool and kindergarten teacher, R. Lynn Baker, Youth Services Specialist at this library, felt a deep appreciation for the impact that public libraries have on kindergarten readiness and saw a need to advocate for public library services as resources to help preschoolers develop early literacy skills. In spring 2013, she proposed a program called Countdown to Kindergarten that ultimately inspired families, schools, and the other librarians to use and advocate for the public library as an important resource for school readiness.
Countdown to Kindergarten consists of two phases. The first phase takes place the fall before preschool children will enter kindergarten and provides information to parents about early literacy skills and kindergarten preparation. The second phase is a six-week spring program for children and their families to attend together that models early literacy practices through hands-on activities that families can practice at home. Participating families are also given a Countdown calendar that includes suggestions for monthly literacy activities to practice and books to read, a readiness checklist, and school registration information for the local schools.
Countdown to Kindergarten was developed collaboratively with local kindergarten, preschool, and daycare teachers to ensure that the most important school readiness skills were incorporated into the program; as another benefit of this collaboration, these teachers promote the program in their schools and daycares and at kindergarten registration events. Paul Sawyier Public Library youth services librarians were also able to establish relationships with participating families, as they came to appreciate the public library as an important educational resource through their ongoing involvement with the program.
To extend this advocacy to the state level, R. Lynn presented the program at the Kentucky Library Association/Kentucky Association of School Librarians Joint Conference in September 2013. Several public librarian attendees showed interest in collaborating with Paul Sawyier Public Library to implement the program in their own libraries. R. Lynn was then inspired to contact Heather Dieffenbach, the Children’s and Youth Services Consultant at the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives, to suggest an initiative to develop state standards for school readiness programming and promote public library early literacy programming among school readiness services more generally. Heather was enthusiastic about the idea and worked to organize the Kentucky Public Library School Readiness Task Force, which met for the first time in November 2013. R. Lynn then took her advocacy to the national level by submitting her story to the January 2014 issue of Everyday Advocacy Matters, a newsletter published by the Association for Library Services to Children (Baker, 2014).
Keeping Advocacy Manageable
Advocacy is an ongoing effort. You cannot give anyone a full picture of what you do with instruction, how it benefits learners, and why those benefits are important with a single interaction, visit, or project (Kaaland, 2014). However, every interaction helps. Every time someone stops to look at a display you made to showcase patron learning, it helps. Every time you get a “like” on an instruction-related social media post, it helps. Celebrate those small successes. On the other hand, remember that you can’t reach everyone. You will miss some opportunities, and that’s all right. In fact, it’s better that not every conversation you have be about library instruction. Taking the time for personal conversation about family and weekend plans helps build relationships that can build a solid foundation for future advocacy (Benjes-Small, 2017). Additionally, trying to do everything will only lead to professional burnout. Keep your goals realistic and achievable (Nemec-Loise, 2014b).
Also remember that you are not alone. An essential part of advocacy is recruiting and inspiring others to help you with your advocacy efforts because you’re ultimately working towards a community-wide or national mindset shift in terms of viewing public libraries as sites of learning and public librarians as experts integral to the success of youth. You have the potential to make a huge difference, but the fate of youth services does not rest on your shoulders alone, not even within your own library.
Creating and Communicating Your Message
Regardless of the form your advocacy takes—whether it’s a campaign, a showcase of learner work, or anything else—you must have a clear idea of the message you want to communicate and to which audiences. Even when advocating spontaneously during regular conversation, if you make it an afterthought and try to improvise, you risk missing opportunities to create a strong message that aligns with what you want to accomplish. The following are some general guidelines to keep in mind to help you create and communicate this strong advocacy message. Each interaction need not communicate the full message, but you should keep it in the back of your mind and draw from it when appropriate so that you will be able to communicate more coherently and purposefully (Benjes-Small, 2017).
Focusing Your Message
First, you need to have a strong understanding of your advocacy goals. What do you need to accomplish? What you advocate for should be unique to you, your library, and your community (Benjes-Small, 2017). For example, you may need to get approval for more part-time positions in the youth services department so that you can spend less time with circulation and reference and more time planning and executing programs. You may need to help local educational organizations see the value public libraries can provide as potential partners for creating services that have specific educational outcomes your community values.
An effective way to prepare yourself to articulate a focused, coherent message that will leave a strong impression on your audience is to create an elevator speech. The idea behind an elevator speech is to imagine that you only have a very brief amount of time to communicate your message, as if you were riding an elevator with someone (Benjes-Small, 2017). This forces you to be conscious of the most important points for making your case so that you will avoid rambling and boring or confusing your audience.
Craft an Elevator Speech
Check out the ALSC info-graphic Creating an Elevator Speech: Using Value-Based Language to Advocate for Library Services to Children & Families: https://bit.ly/2lKCISR
Elevator speeches should use value-based language that expresses the impacts and outcomes of your work and not just the work itself (Nemec-Loise 2014b). To answer the question of what you do at the library, ALSC suggests the following template: “I help [target audience] [verb phrase] at the library so that [proven/expected positive outcome for target audience]” (ALSC, 2015, p. 1). For example, instead of saying “I do STEM programming for children,” say “I create opportunities for children to ask questions about how the world works and help them build hands-on experiments to find the answers to those questions, which helps them develop a lifelong love of learning and the critical thinking and problem-solving skills necessary to thrive in the face of current and future challenges.”
Communicating Your Impact
Regardless of whether you’re phrasing it as an elevator speech, your advocacy message should always focus on the benefit that public library instruction provides to youth. Communicate clearly how public library instruction supports youth learning and prepares them to succeed in the 21st century. If your message is that public libraries are important and need more funding, or anything that positions programs or youth services as ends rather that means, the message comes across as self-serving (Logan, 2014; YALSA, 2017).
Of course, explaining the benefits of instruction is even more powerful when you frame them in terms of fulfilling a community need (YALSA, 2017b). Most would agree that youth education is a positive thing, but you should be prepared to explain how public libraries specifically help their communities by taking on this role, which hasn’t been traditionally emphasized in public libraries. When budgets and schedules are already tight, what need warrants taking on this role? It also helps to frame your message in terms of what your public library is uniquely able to provide to the community and what skills you contribute as a youth librarian.
Also consider backing up your claims of the benefits youth get from instruction in your library with evidence, or letting the evidence speak for itself. Your message will be strongest if you can show, rather than just tell, what youth learn from public library instruction. Show the connection between strong programs and youth learning and success. School Principal Steven M. Baule recommended not focusing on the standards you will help learners meet, but instead emphasizing what learners can do because of instruction that they could not do before (Logan, 2014).
Tailoring Your Message for Specific Audiences
Tailor your message to your audience. Why should they care about what you have to tell or show them (Benjes-Small, 2017)? Think about what motivates your audience and what concerns, priorities, and interests they have. The information you give should also be specific, relevant, and actionable (McGarry, 2014). What do you want them to think, feel, and do (ALA, 2008)? Also find out what they already know and don’t know about what you’re advocating (Benjes-Small, 2017) and what they think about the role of the library (Gilmore-See, 2014). A parent who is actively looking for out-of-school enrichment opportunities for their child would not necessarily need to be told why such opportunities are crucial for youth success, only what kinds of learning goals your library focuses on teaching kids around their child’s age group. A parent who only brings their child to the library to find books and movies for entertainment might not be aware of the instructional role it serves.
Once you’ve decided on what ideas to communicate to your audience, think about how to make the message accessible. In most cases, your message should be short and sweet—easy to digest. YALSA recommends making your key message simple enough to be able to be expressed in 10 words or fewer (YALSA, 2017b). Even when writing a more involved document such as a grant proposal, your main points should be easy to discern. The easier and faster your message can be understood, the stronger it will be. If there is a lot of information you wish to communicate, consider giving it out in short segments, such as in a newsletter or a series of conversations or social media posts (McGarry, 2014). Be intentional with the language you use and avoid library and education jargon such as “pedagogy” that may be confusing to non-instruction librarians or non-educators (Benjes-Small, 2017).
While a commitment to evidence-based practice may lead you to value statistics, with everyday advocacy, fight against the instinct to bombard your audience with data to make your case. While one or two positive statistics can hook your audience (YALSA, 2017b), too many can create the impression that you are lecturing them. An overly informative message is not the most persuasive. Instead, you should aim for memorable. Hook your audience with a short, emotional story about the impact your library instruction has had for a specific learner or your community (Benjes-Small, 2017). It may help to keep a database with such stories and impact statements to draw from in your advocacy efforts (Nemec-Loise, 2014a).
For More Ideas…
Explore the tips and resources in YALSA’s Advocacy Toolkit document, online at https://bit.ly/2N4CEtF
Inspiring Others to Advocate
Your message will be more powerful if youth, parents, teachers, and other community members join you in advocating for public library instruction because this proves that the services you provide really do fulfill a major community need. Youth are the most persuasive advocates of all because they are the beneficiaries of instruction. Their quotes and examples of their work, especially when paired together, provide concrete evidence of learning. Asking youth about what they learned also has the additional benefit of allowing metacognition about learning to take place (Logan, 2014). One suggestion for using youth voices to speak about this that is especially appropriate for around Valentine’s Day or Thanksgiving is to ask youth to write a sentence or two about why they love or are thankful for the library and to post those on a wall or bulletin board (Nemec-Loise, 2014b, 2015b). You can also collect comment cards throughout the year and use them in reports, presentations, and publications and on your website (YALSA, 2017b).
Advocacy is an essential part of public librarianship because we cannot serve the public without making them aware of how we can fulfill their social, educational, and recreational needs or sharing with our professional community new understandings and best practices that help us better respond to new needs as they arise in our rapidly changing world. Currently, there is a strong push for youth librarians to perform an instructional role so that youth can the learn skills they need to succeed in the 21st century in an informal or non-formal, low-pressure, learner-driven environment that has different resources and norms than school. However, this role is still not widely known, even among youth librarians. Youth librarians need to advocate for their instructional role with youth themselves, parents, colleagues, the professional librarian community, collaborative partners, legislators, and other stakeholders so that they can look to the library as a resource to help them with their education-related goals.
While advocacy doesn’t necessarily have to take a lot of extra time, there is a lot to keep in mind about how to create and communicate your advocacy messages in a way that allows you to best reach your audiences. Essentially, your message should:
- be based on your advocacy goals;
- communicate the value of what you do, especially as it relates to outcomes for youth and community needs;
- be tailored to your audience in a way that takes their context into account and lets them know why they should care; and
- be simple and clear with an emotional impact.
This may seem intimidating, but you are already an advocate every time you talk about the positive work you are doing with youth, every time you visit a school, and every time you put learners’ work on display (McClain, 2014). With practice, powerful advocacy will become second nature.
ALA (2008). Library advocate’s handbook. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/aboutala/sites/ala.org.aboutala/files/content/ola/2008lah.pdf
ALA (2009). Frontline public library advocacy. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/advleg/advocacyuniversity/frontline_advocacy/frontline_public
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ALSC (2015). Creating an elevator speech: Using value-based language to advocate for library services to children and families [Infographic]. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/everyday-advocacy/sites/ala.org.everyday-advocacy/files/content/elevator-speech-infographic.pdf
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