Joan Ress Reeves began her career in library advocacy more than thirty years ago in Providence, R.I. Now, Joan serves as a member of the Library Board of Rhode Island, the organization that advises the Office of Library and Information Services on policy issues and funding for state libraries. Reeves was one of the founders of the Coalition for Library Advocates, an organization dedicated to educating the public about Rhode Island library services, sponsoring educational programs at libraries.
“At one point, a librarian asked me to get involved with libraries. I asked her how long I would be involved, and little did I know it would be for the rest of my life.”
How did you get involved in library advocacy?
I’ve enjoyed my local library since I was three years old. Later on, I started a Friends’ group at my library and became a trustee of libraries as well as hospitals and schools, including the Rhode Island School of Design, whose new library I was instrumental in establishing. Earlier, I worked as a writer and magazine editor. Once I had children, I took my kids to the library often and I started to know the librarians very well. At one point, my librarian asked me if I’d be willing to get involved in a statewide library conference (the RI Governor’s Conference), in preparation for the 1979 White House Conference on Library and Information Services (WHCLIS). I asked her how much time it would take. She wasn’t sure. Little did I know it would be the rest of my life.
I became a delegate to the 1979 WHCLIS. That led to the formation of the White House Conference on Library and Information Services Taskforce [WHCLIST], of which I was a charter member. WHCLIST supported the resolutions of the White House Conferences of 1979 and 1991. I was the Chair of WHCLIST before and during the second Conference. I was appointed by the Senate to the White House Conference Advisory Committee for the 1991 Conference.
I have testified before the US Congress to support libraries. I now serve on the American Library Association’s Committee on Legislation, the ALA Grassroots Advocacy Committee and the United for Libraries (Association of Library Trustees, Advocates, Friends and Foundations) Legislative Committee.
How do you work with your grassroots team to advocate for libraries?
I am very involved right now with COLA, which is made up of three to four hundred members, both non-librarians and librarians. We write, call, and e-mail our U.S. Congress people and local officials to support libraries. We go to RI House Finance Committee meetings. We try to help the cause in every way imaginable. We’re fortunate that it’s easy for our library advocates to get together to meet with state leaders because Rhode Island is so small—if you drive more than an hour in any direction, you’re either in another state or in the ocean!
In terms of strategy, we work actively to get non-librarians to participate in library advocacy. We say when you’re waiting in line at the supermarket, you should talk to your neighbors about libraries. Let others know what the issues are. It means a lot when non-librarians advocate. If laypeople like me talk, it’s voluntary and it’s because we care—not because we have any financial interest in funding. This year, I’ve called each of our US Congress people maybe six or a dozen times. Whenever there is an issue, I call. I will call even when legislators already support bills. I just have a good time doing what I do. I truly enjoy this career of mine.
When was the first time you participated in National Library Legislative Day?
In the 1980s. When I first started, I was absolutely terrified. Fortunately, I visited our congressional delegation with our state librarian, who managed to calm me down. After that, I learned to become comfortable talking to [legislators].
In Rhode Island, we have a day where various library organizations come to the capital to advocate for libraries. These groups include the Rhode Island Library Association, the School Librarians of RI, the Association of Rhode Island Health Sciences Librarians, the Special Libraries Association, and the Higher Education Library Information Network.
What are some of the major issues going on right now in Rhode Island?
We’re worried about the municipalities and their funding of libraries; we want increased statewide databases. We are very fortunate, however. So far, our lobbying work has been successful: Rhode Island is the third highest state for library funding in the country. We also have a wonderful relationship with Senator Jack Reed—he is the biggest supporter of libraries in the Senate. He knows that we support him in his efforts and I think that makes a difference.
Do you have any advice for first-time advocates?
- Remember, those legislators are working for you. You pay their salaries. You also elect them, so you are in control because they depend on you.
- This took me years to learn: You don’t have to know everything. When you’re testifying and you aren’t sure of an answer, all you have to say is “let me look that up and get back to you.”
- You’ve got to be yourself—talk about the things you know. I was once testifying at the House Finance Committee and I brought a picture of my granddaughter in a bunny suit reading at a library. I held the photo up and said I want “libraries to be there for her.” Legislators loved it. They can understand that. They may not understand LSTA and copyright, or other complicated things, but they can understand granddaughters. One legislator told me many years ago that public officials want to hear from their constituents. That made a very deep impression on me, and everyone who is advocating should know that the work they are doing really does make a difference.
- Legislative aides are important—they give members of Congress their information. Develop a relationship with the legislative aides.
- Keep things simple. When you talk to legislators, I find that when I call, and we’re talking about things like copyright, for example, I tell them that libraries want to have the same rights in the digital environment as they have in the print environment. They can understand that. We can always send more information if they have questions, but keep your point very simple.
- Be real, talk from the heart, talk about what you care about, and talk in ways that show that you care.
Joan Reeves is a chair emerita of the Rhode Island Coalition of Library Advocates and a member of the Library Board of Rhode Island.