Sara Kelly Johns is a New York-based veteran advocate for school libraries. Johns currently works as a school librarian at a middle-high school and teaches for the School Library and Information Technologies program at Mansfield University. Johns previously served as the president of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) from 2007-2008. She is the AASL Division Councilor for the ALA Council, is involved with the Act for School Libraries group, sits on the ALA Committee on Legislation Grassroots Advocacy Subcommittee and serves on the AASL Legislative Committee. Additionally, Johns is a member of the Board of Regents Advisory Council for Libraries. Today, Johns presents and writes on advocacy and leadership.
How did you get involved with library advocacy?
I have long been a member of the New York Library Association (NYLA), and a member of the NYLA Legislative Day advocacy team. Between 1993 and 1994, NYLA received a grant for public awareness, and they started focusing on formal approaches to marketing and advocacy. The NYLA had a New York City public relations firm train us and develop tools and techniques that could be adapted to library situations and library needs. After I went through the training, it became obvious to me that while I wasn’t trained on marketing, I knew that librarians needed to become aware of ways to market their school library. That was where I received my first media training, and that was the first time that I saw an organized approach to developing a marketing program using a model that was used extensively in the private sector, but had not been used extensively by libraries. The NYLA program later became the impetus for my ALA and AASL advocacy and marketing work.
“If you do one piece of program promotion a week, then you will have people behind you when you need support.”
Why do school librarians need to know marketing approaches?
School librarians desperately need legislation that supports school library programs and those decision makers are different than public library decision makers. It’s very much a local marketing approach. Your local superintendent, school board, principals—those are the people that make decisions about your program. In a school library, teachers have to know why they should work with you, and the administration has to know why they should keep your position. They’re not going to know if you don’t take the time to be visible.
I took small steps at first to publicize my library’s program. I wrote newsletter articles about my library for the school district. I made it a goal that there would not be a district newsletter that went to the community that did not mention the school library. I also share photos of school library activities via Flickr. Later, one of the fun things that I did was create a library media day, where teachers, students and community members did exhibits on interests supported by libraries. They brought in everything from tarantulas in cages to putting a racecar outside the building. I firmly believe that if you do one piece of program promotion a week, then you will have people behind you when you need support. My personal “formula” is that “P + M=A,” Promotion + Marketing=Advocates.
Have you seen any results from your library’s marketing efforts?
My program often had small budget increases at times when other programs where being drastically cut and now remains strongly supported by the district despite the current tough times. That’s definitely a result of visibility. If you don’t have an active, visible program, you’re just setting yourself up for being eliminated. You have to keep it fun and in the public eye. You can have a great research-based program that supports curriculum and helps students learn to love reading and use electronic resources, but if no one knows about it, you are wasting your time.
Why should school librarians get involved in advocacy?
Library use is going way up, reading is going up and libraries need to take the lead in pointing out those connections, and that can only be done through local marketing and advocacy. You have to look at what you do and what your community does, and make it loudly known. Get over the idea that libraries can’t promote themselves. You have to share what libraries are doing for the community. It may not be listed in the formal job description, but it is part of your job to promote school libraries because no one is going to do it for you. If you don’t you’re missing a part of your job.
When was the first time you participated in National Library Legislative Day?
In 2008, I went to my first National Library Legislative Day in Washington, D.C. After that experience, I was absolutely hooked. I’ve found that one-on-one communication is important with legislators—they need to look you in the eye when you talk about what libraries mean for the state and you can’t do that over the phone. I also push people to advocate virtually for libraries if they can’t travel. Now with Capwiz and tweeting, it’s easier for people to contact legislators. It’s much less daunting to send a basic letter to your legislator in five minutes or less. And this year, after an AASL “twitter bomb,” Senator Schumer (D-NY) started following me on Twitter!
I also participate in the New York advocacy day, we work hard to advocate for state libraries. About five years ago, when we showed up to Albany, the legislators told us that we broke their fax machines because so many librarians sent faxes over to show their support for increased funding for school libraries. That was a great year for us because we wanted to get support from state legislators.
Do you have any advice for first-time advocates?
Study the ALA’s issue briefs and make it personal for that legislator. I also use the “@your library Toolkit”—because it is a good process for developing a targeted message. In fact, I was quoting from it this morning. I also signed up for the mobile service Mobile Commons and I found it extremely helpful.
For the first time local advocate, develop your data, know what statistics you have that show the effectives of your program, but don’t stop there. You must have the facts, but you also have to have stories that show that what you’re asking for will make a difference. You hear stories from students and teachers; take the time to write them down and have them ready. Every librarian needs a message—it needs to be on the tip of your tongue, and it needs to be deliberate and continuous. Develop your elevator speech—having sound bites will take you far.
Can you share a sound bite that you use?
When I meet with legislators, I talk about how I once advocated for libraries with children’s author Steven Kellogg during National Library Legislative Day. Kellogg came from a legislative day rally that was taking place in front of the U.S. Capitol to join our state delegation. When we were sitting in Senator Schumer’s office, he told us that when he goes on school author visits, he can walk into a school and know immediately if there’s a school librarian or not because there’s magic—there’s a culture of reading that doesn’t happen in schools without librarians. It was such a powerful endorsement of what librarians can mean that I now repeat what he said to legislators during meetings.
Sara Kelly Johns is the school librarian at Lake Placid Middle/High School in New York and writes for the School Library Journal blog Make Some Noise. View her advocacy materials at www.frugalschoollibrarian.wikispaces.com and www.makeanimpact.wikispaces.com. Follow her on Twitter at @skjohns.