Some debates don’t have E-asy winners

Participants and judges of the Tri-bate

Tri-bate participants and judges.

A major focus of ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) of late has been recasting the common perception of libraries among many decision makers and influencers to reflect current reality. To this end, OITP has started a Policy Revolution!—the punchy name of our most recent grant project—through which we aim to increase our community’s visibility and capacity for engagement in national policymaking. To bring the “Revolution” to fruition, we are producing a national public policy agenda for libraries, building the capacity of library advocates to communicate effectively with beltway decision makers, and devising new strategies for library advocacy at the national level. As part of these coordinated efforts, OITP (with Senior Counsel Alan Fishel) coined The E’s of Libraries trademark—a pithy shorthand for what today’s libraries do for people: Education, Employment, Entrepreneurship, Empowerment, and Engagement.

Since we began the Policy Revolution! initiative, we’ve been soliciting a wide range of perspectives on the services modern libraries provide—so ALA was eager to help moderate a “tri-bate” on “The E’s” between local area high school students last Tuesday at the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Arent Fox. Participants in the tri-bate were assigned to one of three teams, each of which represented a particular component of the E’s. Each team was asked to argue that their component represented the area in which libraries provide the most benefit to the public: Side 1—Employment and Entrepreneurship; Side 2—Education; Side 3—Engagement and Empowerment.

Tri-baters included Penelope Blackwell, Crystal Carter, Diamond Green, Taylor McDonald, Zinquarn Wright and Devin Wingfield of McKinley Technology High School; and Amari Hemphill, Lauren Terry, Layonna Mathis, Jacques Doby, Davon Thomas, Malik Morris and David Johnson of Eastern Senior High School. OITP’s Larra Clark and Marijke Visser, and ALA Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels comprised the panel of judges.

Tri-baters in action.

Tri-baters in action.

The discussion was spirited, with each team demonstrating clear strengths. The Employment and Entrepreneurship teams had a strong command of library statistics, citing data from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the ALA/University of Maryland Digital Inclusion Survey (e.g., 75% of libraries provide assistance with preparing resumes, and 96% offer online job and employment resources). They made a strong case for libraries not just as employment hubs, but also as trusted workforce development centers, where people of all ages can build the skills and competencies needed to be competitive in the digital age. Their arguments were particularly apropos, given ALA’s ongoing efforts to ensure libraries are recognized as eligible participants in the skills training activities recently authorized by the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act (WIOA).

The Education teams did a strong job of describing libraries as safe spaces that support learning within and beyond school walls. They shared a clear understanding that libraries not only provide opportunities for K-12 students, but also to non-traditional students seeking to gain skills and credentials critical for participation in today’s economy. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of one team’s performance was their decision to describe education as the foundation that undergirds every other aspect of life in which libraries provide assistance: “How can you create a resume if you can’t read or write,” the team asked in their rebuttal, providing one of the lines of the day.

The Engagement and Empowerment teams also turned in impressive performances. Despite their formidable task of describing library involvement in two hard-to-define areas, the team met the challenge by depicting libraries as places where people have the freedom and the resources to pursue individual passions and interests. They also displayed a strong understanding of the modern library as a one-stop community hub, explaining that libraries of all kinds are secure spaces that keep young people on the path to productivity, and provide all people the opportunity to participate in society.

Tri-baters look on.

Tri-baters look on.

As impressed as we were by the students’ firm grasp of the resources and services today’s libraries provide, the day was fundamentally not about gauging their ability to articulate what our community does on a national scale. It was rather about gaining their personal perspectives on the strengths and challenges of library service, and their expectations for what libraries should do to meet the needs of communities of all kinds.

The discussions the judges had with the students following the conclusion of the tri-bate were particularly informative in this regard. Several students suggested that libraries should find new ways to engage young people, which we at OITP particularly appreciate, given our ongoing work to build a new program on children and youth. Students called for librarians to connect with them at recreation centers and other non-library spaces to raise awareness and connect library services in new (and fun!) ways. Others suggested that library professionals should continue and even enhance their focus on providing instruction in digital technologies and basic computer and internet skills.

We found the students’ perspectives and input invaluable, and we look forward to using it to inform our continued work to raise awareness of all today’s libraries do for the public, and to increase the library community’s profile in national public policy debates. We want to thank Arent Fox for hosting the day’s session, and—most importantly—all of the students who participated for an invigorating and informative discussion. Great job to all!

Tri-bate judges.

ALA’s Marijke Visser, Larra Clark and Keith Michael Fiels judging the event.

About Charlie Wapner

Charlie Wapner is an information policy analyst for the Office for Information Technology Policy.

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