What congressmen need to know about libraries

Kevin Smith

Virginia Library Association President-elect Kevin Smith

Kevin Smith knows how to get library advocates revved up about meeting with policymakers. As the President-elect and Legislative Coordinator of the Virginia Library Association, Kevin uses his political expertise and messaging know-how to advocate effectively for libraries every year during the American Library Association’s annual National Library Legislative Day (NLLD). When he’s not in Washington, D.C. advocating for libraries, Smith—an advocate with more than 13 years of experience—works as the director of the York County Public Library in Yorktown, Va.

When you meet with legislators, what’s the most important thing you want them to know about libraries?

My strategy is all about educating our congressmen about what libraries do. When I go to Washington with librarians, library friend groups, and patrons, we let those congressmen know that we’re not just about asking for money—the American Library Association (ALA) has always been a watchdog for civil liberties. We also talk about the resources that we offer and that libraries help residents find jobs, a selling point that we have emphasized to legislators over the last couple of years. We tell them that most employers—including local, state, and federal government—require online applications, and if you don’t have a PC at home you can’t apply for a job, so people come to the library. We’re there to be a presence. Everybody loves libraries and we need to go to the Capitol to show them what a 21st century library does and what the ALA stands for.

They need to know that we are an educational institution. We’re not Blockbuster. Entertainment is part of our business, but our major business is education and literacy.

How do you ensure that Virginia legislators get the message?

Depending on which generation the legislator is, they sometimes have an antiquated mindset of what libraries do, and why they are important today. To help them understand, we bring in data and tools about libraries. The Virginia Library Association has a tool, called Snapshot VA, that gives us the data that we need to advocate effectively. We also submit pictures from all 91 public libraries across the state to show that our patrons are not just reading books—they’re attending events, they’re learning skills and they’re taking literacy classes. The data and the photos seem to really get people’s attention. It’s really heartwarming to see the light bulb go off, to hear them say Wow, that’s neat, or I didn’t know that was going on.

Most of my work as the coordinator is focused on getting library supporters to D.C. for the event: I empower staff and citizen advocates from the local libraries in my state to make appointments with their congressmen before we head to Washington. I lead a mixed delegation to Legislative Day by recruiting more people than just librarians—we have the constituents and patrons that use state libraries talk to their congressman and express their love of libraries. Every year, I try to make sure that my delegation has appointments with all 11 congressmen and two senators from the state.

I also try to get my delegation to see how great advocacy can be. When I first did National Library Legislative Day in 1999, I went with my library director to Washington, and that first day I caught the bug. Advocating for libraries was exciting, educational, and I felt like we were making a difference. I felt the importance of going to legislators and letting them know what we do.

Do you know of an advocacy strategy that just always works?

I like advocacy expert Stephanie Vance’s message on building relationships with legislators, being honest, letting them know what we do, and being practical about what kind of funding we want. When it comes to funding, let’s be practical, and express a genuine need. And if you don’t know something, say you’ll get back with them. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s also okay to talk to congressional staffers. Some of the delegation gets disappointed when we have to meet with congressional staff, when policymakers cannot meet with us, and I have to explain that staffers have all of the answers! The staffers know things about libraries because they are the ones writing the legislation. Legislative staff are the people that legislators rely on for the details.

It’s important to do your homework before you sit down with the legislator: Find out what committees he sits on, and what his interests are. Find their interests and tie the good work that libraries do with their interests. For instance, the Tidewater area is populated with military folks. In one legislative meeting, we told a congressman that people come to the library to stay connected with mommy and daddy during the war, and that really resonated with him.

Have you made any mistakes?

Yes! I remember when the Patriot Act first came out in 2001, and we went to Washington immediately to attack language in the bill. The experience was not positive. What we got from legislators was Are you anti-American? My tactic now is to find the spirit behind the bill, not to go in aggressively or to argue. Now we say, We as the Virginia Library Association and the American Library Association are not anti-government. We understand the need for national security; however, we’re concerned about civil liberties and due process of law. Changing our perspective has been a more positive approach than what happened in 2001. Let the legislators know that we understand why certain legislation is being proposed. That resonates with legislators.

What kind of work are you doing throughout the year to support libraries?

What we’ve been doing during the recession, is just asking congressmen to be fair. We want them to continue level funding for Library Services and Technology Act, the Library of Congress, and the Government Printing Office. We tell them, don’t sacrifice library services for something else.

Our major strategy is to be fair and to stress the importance of libraries to education. They need to know that we are an educational institution. We’re not Blockbuster. Entertainment is part of our business, but our major business is education and literacy. Now, we’re about information literacy on the Internet, tablet devices and on smartphones. We want continuing funding as more of our resources become digitized.

To prepare for the new Congress, I’m recruiting new people to join me in Washington for next year’s Legislative Day. I let friends groups know what we do, let library boards know, let library lovers know. It’s important for me, because more people are involved in advocacy other than library directors. It is important to get your local patrons and citizens to go to D.C. with you because they are the constituents and they need to let congressman know that they use the library. Their mere presence says I’m a voter and I use the library.

Do you have any advice for people who are thinking about talking to their congressmen about libraries for the first time?

Don’t be afraid. I’ve heard people say, I can’t go to Washington, it’s too scary. No, not true! Congressmen and their assistants are human. People are afraid of the mystique and the mystery that surrounds Congress. Advocating is fun. And it’s important to remember that seeing the legislative process is a privilege. There are countries around the world where citizens do not have access to their legislators. I think it’s just a privilege for us to walk into Congress and meet with congressmen. It’s an awe-inspiring thing to have this privilege and responsibility to voice my opinion and fight for something I believe in. That’s one of the great things about America, we have personal access to our government, and people take that for granted.

Kevin Smith is the President-elect and Legislative Coordinator of the Virginia Library Association. Follow the Virginia Library Association on Facebook.

 

What Congressmen Need to Know About Libraries

Kevin Smith knows how to get library advocates revved up about meeting with policymakers. As the President-elect and Legislative Coordinator of the Virginia Library Association, Kevin uses his political expertise and messaging know-how to advocate effectively for libraries every year during the American Library Association’s annual National Library Legislative Day (NLLD). When he’s not in Washington, D.C. advocating for libraries, Smith—an advocate with more than 13 years of experience—works as the director of the York County Public Library in Yorktown, Va.

When you meet with legislators, what’s the most important thing you want them to know about libraries?

My strategy is all about educating our congressmen about what libraries do. When I go to Washington with librarians, library friend groups, and patrons, we let those congressmen know that we’re not just about asking for money—the American Library Association (ALA) has always been a watchdog for civil liberties. We also talk about the resources that we offer and that libraries help residents find jobs, a selling point that we have emphasized to legislators over the last couple of years. We tell them that most employers—including local, state, and federal government—require online applications, and if you don’t have a PC at home you can’t apply for a job, so people come to the library. We’re there to be a presence. Everybody loves libraries and we need to go to the Capitol to show them what a 21st century library does and what the ALA stands for.

How do you ensure that Virginia legislators get the message?

Depending on which generation the legislator is, they sometimes have an antiquated mindset of what libraries do, and why they are important today. To help them understand, we bring in data and tools about libraries. The Virginia Library Association has a tool, called Snapshot VA, that gives us the data that we need to advocate effectively. We also submit pictures from all 91 public libraries across the state to show that our patrons are not just reading books—they’re attending events, they’re learning skills and they’re taking literacy classes. The data and the photos seem to really get people’s attention. It’s really heartwarming to see the light bulb go off, to hear them say Wow, that’s neat, or I didn’t know that was going on.

Most of my work as the coordinator is focused on getting library supporters to D.C. for the event: I empower staff and citizen advocates from the local libraries in my state to make appointments with their congressmen before we head to Washington. I lead a mixed delegation to Legislative Day by recruiting more people than just librarians—we have the constituents and patrons that use state libraries talk to their congressman and express their love of libraries. Every year, I try to make sure that my delegation has appointments with all 11 congressmen and two senators from the state.

I also try to get my delegation to see how great advocacy can be. When I first did National Library Legislative Day in 1999, I went with my library director to Washington, and that first day I caught the bug. Advocating for libraries was exciting, educational, and I felt like we were making a difference. I felt the importance of going to legislators and letting them know what we do.

Do you know of an advocacy strategy that just always works?

I like advocacy expert Stephanie Vance’s message on building relationships with legislators, being honest, letting them know what we do, and being practical about what kind of funding we want. When it comes to funding, let’s be practical, and express a genuine need. And if you don’t know something, say you’ll get back with them. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s also okay to talk to congressional staffers. Some of the delegation gets disappointed when we have to meet with congressional staff, when policymakers cannot meet with us, and I have to explain that staffers have all of the answers! The staffers know things about libraries because they are the ones writing the legislation. Legislative staff are the people that legislators rely on for the details.

It’s important to do your homework before you sit down with the legislator: Find out what committees he sits on, and what his interests are. Find their interests and tie the good work that libraries do with their interests. For instance, the Tidewater area is populated with military folks. In one legislative meeting, we told a congressman that people come to the library to stay connected with mommy and daddy during the war, and that really resonated with him.

Have you made any mistakes?

Yes! I remember when the Patriot Act first came out in 2001, and we went to Washington immediately to attack language in the bill. The experience was not positive. What we got from legislators was Are you anti-American? My tactic now is to find the spirit behind the bill, not to go in aggressively or to argue. Now we say, We as the Virginia Library Association and the American Library Association are not anti-government. We understand the need for national security; however, we’re concerned about civil liberties and due process of law. Changing our perspective has been a more positive approach than what happened in 2001. Let the legislators know that we understand why certain legislation is being proposed. That resonates with legislators.

What kind of work are you doing throughout the year to support libraries?

What we’ve been doing during the recession, is just asking congressmen to be fair. We want them to continue level funding for Library Services and Technology Act, the Library of Congress, and the Government Printing Office. We tell them, don’t sacrifice library services for something else.

Our major strategy is to be fair and to stress the importance of libraries to education. They need to know that we are an educational instruction. We’re not Blockbuster. Entertainment is part of our business, but our major business is education and literacy. Now, we’re about information literacy on the Internet, tablet devices and on smartphones. We want continuing funding as more of our resources become digitized.

To prepare for the new Congress, I’m recruiting new people to join me in Washington for next year’s Legislative Day. I let friends groups know what we do, let library boards know, let library lovers know. It’s important for me, because more people are involved in advocacy other than library directors. It is important to get your local patrons and citizens to go to D.C. with you because they are the constituents and they need to let congressman know that they use the library. Their mere presence says I’m a voter and I use the library.

Do you have any advice for people who are thinking about talking to their congressmen about libraries for the first time?

Don’t be afraid. I’ve heard people say, I can’t go to Washington, it’s too scary. No, not true! Congressmen and their assistants are human. People are afraid of the mystique and the mystery that surrounds Congress. Advocating is fun. And it’s important to remember that seeing the legislative process is a privilege. There are countries around the world where citizens do not have access to their legislators. I think it’s just a privilege for us to walk into Congress and meet with congressmen. It’s an awe-inspiring thing to have this privilege and responsibility to voice my opinion and fight for something I believe in. That’s one of the great things about America, we have personal access to our government, and people take that for granted.

Kevin Smith is the President-elect and Legislative Coordinator of the Virginia Library Association. Follow the Virginia Library Association 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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Posted in Advocacy Spotlight, Library Advocacy, OGR

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