Advocacy through Storytelling

United for Libraries’ virtual event embraces collaboration, inclusion

August 23, 2021

United for Libraries 2021 Virtual Conference

United for Libraries’ 2021 Virtual Conference—a three-day event dedicated to the issues facing trustees, Friends, and foundations—kicked off August 17. The conference featured speakers and networking opportunities, and covered topics such as equitable collection development, fundraising collaborations, and inclusive leadership practices.

Sessions underscored that stories—of individuals, of libraries, of communities—are at the core of library advocacy. “It’s really all about storytelling,” observed Beth Nawalinski, executive director of United for Libraries, during the conference.

Representation in collections

At “Auditing Diversity in Library Collections,” Sarah Voels, community engagement librarian at Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Public Library (CRPL), described the diversity audit her team undertook starting in 2018. What began as a three-year plan to increase representation across the young adult fiction collection evolved into an organization-wide shift in collection development and a point of pride for the community at large.

Voels presented an overview of the whitewashed history of literary awards and the current landscape of representation in children’s literature. “A lot of growth still needs to be made to create an equitable children’s literature environment,” she said, “and we as library professionals are part of that.”

She explained the methodology used to assess and address diversity in CRPL’s holdings, as well as community feedback on the initiative. “We started to get anecdotal information from our patrons saying how excited they were . . . to find books that they related to,” said Voels.

Putting the ‘fun’ in fundraiser

This spring, the Mt. Pleasant Library Friends, which supports Mt. Pleasant Neighborhood Library in Washington, D.C., had a unique fundraising idea that went viral: a T-shirt with the slogan “What’s more punk than the public library?”

At a session of the same name, Carlos Izurieta (president of Mt. Pleasant Library Friends), Chelsea Kirkland (adult services librarian for D.C. Public Library’s Outreach and Inclusion Services department), and Betsey Suchanic (vice president of Mt. Pleasant Library Friends and senior program manager at Urban Libraries Council) detailed their collaboration with the D.C. Punk Archive, shared the history of the city’s punk scene, and remarked on the popularity of their fundraiser, which was enabled by a strong partnership between the library and its Friends group.

After the T-shirt sold out at several events and photos of it spread on social media, the team began to receive stories from people who bought the shirt, which they shared with their community. Given the fundraiser’s global reach as well as local impact, project stakeholders saw a chance to expand and adapt their approaches to fundraising and engagement. For example, Izurieta created a punk primer playlist on Spotify to accompany the T-shirt, and the team is considering future merchandise options.

Inclusive leadership

At “How to Be an Inclusive Leader: Your Role in Creating Cultures of Belonging Where Everyone Can Thrive,” author and public speaker Jennifer Brown presented tips from her book How to Be an Inclusive Leader (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2019). Recommendations included making conscious language choices, embracing humility, and approaching community building in ways that acknowledge and celebrate diversity. For instance, encouraging the sharing of personal pronouns among staff is a way to activate allyship, Brown said, and can be a step toward “centering missing lived experiences.”

The session encouraged attendees to step out of their comfort zones and view inclusion through the lens of the Inclusive Leader Continuum, a framework that coaches leaders through four stages (Unaware, Aware, Active, Advocate).

“[This work] can’t be just an intellectual exercise,” said Brown. “If you’re a leader, your job is to get comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Access to on-demand recordings of this year’s conference is available with registration.


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