Advocacy Spotlight: Speaking with ALA Councilor Jessica Scalph

Jessica Scalph

VA Councilor Jessica Scalph

Jessica Scalph is no stranger to library advocacy. The Virginia-based librarian, who has served as the ALA Virginia Chapter Councilor since 2008, has used her public library experience and background as law librarian to become well-versed in Internet filtering, library funding and intellectual freedom issues. Scalph also knows how to work positively with legislators–she has participated in the American Library Association’s National Library Legislative Day for the past 11 years.

What sparked your interest in library advocacy?

Ten years ago, I was checking out the ALA website, and I found information about National Library Legislative Day (the library advocacy day sponsored by the ALA). I decided then that I wanted to do it even though I didn’t know a thing about it. At that time, I was not involved with the Virginia Library Association, so I went on my own to the event. From there, I was hooked! I was very impressed with ALA’s preparation of the event by telling us what we needed to know before we got there. The two-day event is a lot of fun. You’re so awed by the experience to actually be in the hallways where all the power is–it’s a very exciting experience. And it’s great working with other librarians that you have not met before, and you work as a team to talk about library appropriations funding (such as Library Services and Technology Act funding) and other things. After meeting really great people at ‘Leg Day,’ I worked with other attendees to form a Virginia delegation of library supporters.

For the following seven years, I coordinated the legislative appointments to help Virginia librarians can meet with the decision makers from their local jurisdictions (I stopped coordinating the Virginia delegation in 2009). It’s been a struggle at times working out appointments with legislators, but the ALA Washington Office is so helpful. I especially like the work they are doing with Stephanie Vance.

When I was the coordinator, I worked with my chapter to get librarians to share personal stories about they work they are doing to enhance the lives of others–we coached them on how to talk about servicemen coming in for jobs and people coming in to learn new skills. We also have them bring statistics and soft data–i.e., the numbers of computers offered in libraries and figures on library visitors–as well event flyers from their libraries to show the work they are doing. It’s great to work with school and academic librarians because they have data about how libraries help to contribute to student learning.

I always tell librarians to show congressmen how busy we are and to show how we’re taking care of the community. I also make an effort to invite policymakers to my library.

Do you have any advice for newbie advocates?

New library advocates have to work with their delegation to get organized. In my chapter, we talk amongst ourselves before the meeting so that we know how to lead the conversation with legislators. We also try to keep the entire meeting 20 minutes long. You have to be organized before you go into the office, and you have to get your points ready.

It’s also good to follow basic rules for meeting with legislators–be polite, have your business cards ready, email thank you notes after the meetings. Congressmen appreciate people coming in that are kind and polite.

Since you started, have you learned anything surprising about advocating on the Hill?

I’ve found the supporting staff members of legislators to be great resources for advocates. Those young people are smart and dedicated, in addition to being very responsive to our issues. Before I met with policymakers, I ask staffers to talk about their own history with libraries. I ask them “when is the last time you visited a library?” and “what did you think about the experience?”

How are you involved in National Library Legislative Day now?

I try to recruit more people to participate in ‘Leg Day’ as much as I can. I tell them that they do not have to talk the first time that they go to the event–they can just observe the interactions between legislators and librarians and learn from the process. I tell them to watch and learn, and maybe next year, they’ll come back and share. Eventually, they will get the swing of it. Telling them this always seems to warm them up.

What kind of work are you doing now?

Right now, my chapter is working on increasing member retention and getting new members. We recently started a leadership institute for members because we take our continuing education responsibilities very seriously, and we’ve been working hard on trying to offer education courses for our members. In addition to working on funding issues, we are working towards gaining broader access to e-books. We’re trying to work with publishers to make sure libraries get access to ebooks for our patrons. We’re also concerned with intellectual freedom. Finally, every year, we fight to get funding for Find It Virginia, which is a collection of electronic journal articles and databases offered through the Library of Virginia.

What sort of positive results have you seen from your efforts?

I have received a series of what I call “little successes.” When Tom Davis was my congressmen, we were able to convince him to put my county’s National Library Legislative Day proclamation the Federal Register. Eventually, his staff members started to recognize me at local events, and much later Davis and his wife came to know that I was a library supporter. I enjoy bringing forth library important issues to legislators. If we didn’t’ do it, who would? If we don’t continue to be vocal and be seen we’re easy to forget about. We need them and we appreciate their support I love libraries, and I believe in what we do–I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it.

Jessica Scalph has been a member of Virginia Library Association’s Legislative Committee, Intellectual Freedom Committee, and Region V committee. She is currently the ALA Chapter Councilor for Virginia and a member of the ALA Chapter Relations Committee. Follow her ALA chapter’s activities on Facebook.

Jazzy Wright is the Press Officer of the American Library Association's Washington Office. Email her at jwright@alawash.org.

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