Empowering Voices

Telling the story of the transformational power of libraries

July 26, 2011

We are living in extraordinary times. Throughout the library world, reductions in financial resources threaten our survival. At the same time, many libraries are experiencing large increases in demand and usage. In academic, public, school, and special libraries, these challenges call for all of us to work together and build a better future for all library communities.

Recent months have brought us some of the worst stories we could imagine. A prime example is the reprehensible treatment of school librarians in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where they were interrogated by LAUSD attorneys demanding proof that they are qualified to serve as teachers.

Yet, we have reason to celebrate as well, particularly voter support reflected in the outcomes of library ballot measures. As Library Journal reported April 1, even in this anti-tax climate, “Voters overwhelmingly entrusted their libraries with their tax dollars in referenda held between December 1, 2009, and November 30, 2010. Operating revenue measures passed at a spectacular rate of 87% . . . continuing a 10-year upswing. Building referenda held steady, with 55% of measures passing and the average size of the projects more than doubled to over $9 million.”

As I begin my year as ALA president, I recognize that together we have much work to do, both in the short term—the immediate battles—as well as the long term, strategically positioning libraries for the future.

In recent years, ALA has increased resources for advocacy to assist library communities of all types, in all places. Many of you are already using resources such as ALA’s Advocacy University. Additional advocacy resources are regularly being added.

One of my primary presidential initiatives, “Empowering Voices: Communities Speak Out for Libraries,” builds on the advocacy work of recent ALA presidents, including Camila Alire’s “Frontline Advocacy” and Roberta Stevens’s “Our Authors, Our Advocates.”

As a librarian for 40 years, I often witnessed the impact of library users recounting stories of the transformational power of libraries in their lives. When I worked with decision-makers as a library director, I knew that even leaders who valued and supported libraries often struggled with how to fund all of their priorities. While we who worked in libraries did our best to help them understand the value of libraries, we witnessed the greater persuasive power of the stories told by library users.

For example, the father of a 3rd-grade boy who had fallen behind in reading level talked about how the library’s summer reading program turned his son around so that he was reading above grade level and doing well in school. As this story was told, we observed the decision-makers experience an “Aha!” moment, convinced of the library’s significant contribution to literacy and learning in a manner more powerful than our data and testimony.

“Empowering Voices” will develop additional tools and training for all types of libraries to assess their respective community’s strengths, to identify and recruit the most effective people to tell of the transformational power of libraries, and then to empower community members to take action and use their voices to showcase why libraries matter. Our goal is to ensure that decision-makers not only value their libraries, but also sufficiently fund them. Libraries will thrive when they are recognized as a force for transforming lives and contributing significant outcomes to the health and vitality of the communities they serve.

We look forward to hearing from you as we develop this initiative. Our success will only come from your success in library communities of all types and sizes. Please share your thoughts at molly@mollyraphael.org and stay tuned.

ALA President MOLLY RAPHAEL is the retired director of Multnomah County (Oreg.) Library and the District of Columbia Public Library in Washington, D.C. Visit mollyraphael.org. E-mail: molly@mollyraphael.org


Daniel Ellsberg

Daniel Ellsberg

The Vietnam War whistleblower holds forth on transparency and how the internet has changed civic engagement