Waiting for my connecting flight on the way back to D.C. from the 2015 conference of the Association for Rural & Small Libraries (ARSL) in Little Rock, I had plenty of time to reflect on the whirlwind of experiences that were packed into my day and a half at the conference. While the impetus for attending was the E-rate modernization proceeding we focused on much of the last two years of our telecom work, an equally important outcome was to be immersed in the culture of librarians dedicated to their rural communities. Learning from the librarians at the conference will be critically important as our office investigates potential rural-focused advocacy work. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much fun we had along the way.
I started the conference providing context to our policy presentation during which my colleague, Alan Inouye, gave an overview of the challenging and often murky work we do on behalf of libraries with decision makers at the national level. It may be counterintuitive to those of you who know E-rate to think of it as providing enlightenment on anything. However, as a case study for how a small association does policy—-as compared to advocacy organizations that have separate budget lines for paying people to wait in lines for congressional hearings (go on, Google it)—-E-rate makes a pretty good story. I am not known for brevity and our E-rate work lends itself to many intertwined and complex twists and turn between the countless phone calls, in-person meetings, and official filings with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC); collaborating (or not) with our coalitions; standing firm on behalf of libraries amidst the strong school focus; swaying the press; coordinating our library partners; and keeping ALA members informed. It was challenging to pick it all apart in my allotted 12 minutes (or in an acceptable blog post length). Interest piqued? Read more here.
Day 2 was E-rate and broadband day
I was privileged to attend sessions by my ALA E-rate Task Force colleagues. Amber Gregory, E-rate coordinator for Arkansas at the state library, presented a comprehensive yet digestible version of E-rate in “E-rate: Get your Share” and Emily Almond, IT Director for Georgia Public Library Service, put the why bother with E-rate into a bigger perspective with “Broadband 101.” My takeaways from these sessions were:
- E-rate is an important tool to make sure your library has the internet connection that allows your patrons to do what they need to do online.
- It’s time to think beyond the basics and E-rate can help you plan for your library’s future broadband needs.
- It’s ok to ask questions even if you don’t know exactly how to ask: We’re librarians and we love information and we love to share!
- There are people who can help.
Questions from the participants yielded more discussion about the challenges often felt by rural libraries who lag far behind the broadband speeds we know are necessary for many library services. The discussion also gave me more ideas for where we might focus our E-rate and broadband advocacy efforts in the near term which I will take back to the E-rate Task Force and colleagues in D.C.
Making personal connections
The last event for me in Little Rock was perhaps the highlight. Discussed during our policy presentation, having the impact stories of libraries working in their local communities is essential to the work we do with national decision makers. We need to be able to show how libraries support national priorities in education, employment and economic development, and healthcare to name a few. Examples provide the color to the message we try to convey. Alan and I spent the evening listening to (and grilling?) a table full of librarians who shared with us the challenges and strengths of their rural libraries. They also touched on aspirations for additional services they might provide their communities. This was all to our benefit and we came away with many notes and are thankful for time well spent. Spending time with these librarians and at the conference is a good reminder of how important it is to get out of D.C. regularly to gather input and anecdotes that make our work that much richer and more impactful.
Walking through the hotel lobby after dinner, I was reminded that while the topics we talked about during the session are critically important for rural communities and the long-term impact of libraries that serve them, it’s also important to connect with colleagues at conferences like ARSL’s. This was reinforced to me during conversations with librarians who are often dealing with few resources and on their own without significant support. The ARSL tradition of “dine-arounds” and I believe a new cocktail tradition created by the hotel are a fun way to create bonds that last beyond the conference. Another tidbit I tucked away for later use.