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Insider Article [December 2012] [12/04/12] (United for Libraries)
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We are United for Libraries

With all the love and respect that libraries receive, it amazes me that so many are in trouble.  Yes, I know that times are tough, and localities are and will be the last to recover from the great recession.  Yet, libraries, costing roughly less than 2% of local city and county budgets, are busier than ever.  In addition, libraries are providing solutions to many community problems caused by the lingering effects of the economic downturn.

We all know that public libraries have become  local employment agencies, e-government one-stop shopping centers, providers of free entertainment for those forced to drop cable and book or e-book purchases , and a place to gather and explore the internet without having to pay the price of home service.  These are all good and valuable roles that have been highlighted in the last several years.  But . . . are libraries simply becoming the information welfare system for the have nots?

If they are, then they always have been.  Because in serving these roles and many others, libraries are doing what they have been doing for more than 100 years – ensuring that all people in the community have access to the resources they need and want to be self actualized and self governing people.  Incredibly, they do it in a way that meets the exact unique needs of each individual coming through the door.  While the trends for service change with the cultural, political, and economic shifts and challenges, the role remains the same.

It is a role that is as critical now as it was when Andrew Carnegie said when he began giving the first of his library grants in 1898, “There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.”  Yes, then as now libraries provided the level playing field for knowledge and information that is critical to our democracy.  I can’t help but wonder then, when libraries cost so little and deliver so much, why all our local politicians aren’t running on the pro-library platform.

I think I know why – our community leaders and funders simply do not understand the core roles that libraries play in their constituents’ lives.  The all too prevalent belief that libraries have been obviated by the internet lends testimony to their ignorance.

Librarians have awakened to the fact that education and advocacy are critical to ensuring the safety of their budgets.  What they’ve been less successful at is empowering their own constituencies to make the case for them.  After all, they are the “people’s” libraries – they should be guarded and protected by the people they serve.

Library news and literature has shown us that when community members put their collective feet down regarding library cuts and closings, the politicians very often back off.  That’s where friends of the library groups, trustees, foundation members and active library patrons come in.  They are warriors in waiting!  It’s time for all librarians to commit to working closely with these lay library supporters providing them with the information and strategies they need to make their voices heard.

It was, in fact, groups of people just like our present day support groups that brought Carnegie grants to their communities, fought for a new line item in the town budget, and raised money for collections and furnishings.  Librarians owe it to this legacy to work with or create citizen groups who will march on city hall and the state house to make it clear that their libraries will not be the sacrificial (and highly cost-ineffective) lambs for balanced budgets.

We changed our name because we believe that if we are all “United for Libraries” we can stem the tide of library cuts and closings. (We were formerly known as ALTAFF – the Association of Library Trustees, Advocates, Friends and Foundations.)  All our services are geared toward helping our members maximize their support for libraries.

We have an abundance of toolkits, webinars, practical guides, and networking opportunities free for Friends groups, trustees, and foundation members.  We can help you and your support groups raise more money, gain more supporters and users, and most importantly, we can help them understand the power of their voices and just how to use it!  Please join us: ala.org/united/membership.

Sally Gardner Reed, Executive Director
United for Libraries