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Librarian Tells First-time Advocates to Get Comfortable Calling Legislators

Betsy Adamowski

Betsy Adamowski is the library director of the Itasca Community Library in Itasca, IL, and has been a member of the Illinois Library Association for over 20 years. She served on the Illinois Library Association Board of Directors for three years before becoming the chair of the organization’s Advocacy Committee in 2011.

How do you work with your team to advocate for libraries?

As the Chair of the Advocacy Committee I work side by side with the director of the Illinois Library Association (ILA) to promote the various advocacy initiatives that ILA does. The one initiative that we developed was the Legislative Action Network (LAN). This is a network that is made up of library community advocates who are inputted into a database that is broken up by legislative districts. The LAN is put to work whenever an urgent legislative item comes and urgent action is needed.  We send an email to those individuals in the specific district in order to get the action needed carried out in timely manner. Other initiatives that we work on are development of an Advocacy Toolkit, Legislative functions, speaking engagements at trustee functions, participation in ILA annual conference, National Library Day promotion and Illinois Legislative Day events.

We need to stress that the library community needs to talk about their libraries to everyone, and to stress the value and return on the investment that a library gives a community.

How did you get involved with advocacy?

I have always been involved with advocacy in some way since I began my work as a librarian. I started with simply making calls to local legislators on bills. I started attending the ILA Legislative Day in Springfield when I became a director and that is when I really saw the value of advocating. I became the Chair of the ILA Advocacy Committee last year and was able to begin to make a difference with advocacy ideas for ILA.

What’s going on right now in Illinois?

To address the state’s economic challenges, we are working to engage library activists from all across the entire state because each area has their own specific issues. Right now, we have a committee of ten advocates, made up of five library advocates from north end of the state and five library advocates from the south. For example, northern Illinois is more urban, more centered around Chicago, while the South is more rural and has more farmland. The southern regions have much larger districts geographically, but smaller populations. Recently, a legislator proposed a bill that pushed for giving all of the homeless library cards, which was not an easy mandate for our rural libraries.

Why should Illinois librarians get involved in advocacy at this time?

We need to promote libraries and make sure everybody knows about the value of libraries. If we don’t do it, who is going to do it? This is our profession; it’s our responsibility to advocate for funding. The strategy that ILA will be implementing this next year is the need to educate the library community on the importance of developing a relationship with local, state and national officials.  This is a message that we need to get out to all levels of the library organizations–it can not only be the library director who makes the contact. We need to stress that the library community needs to talk about their libraries to everyone, and to stress the value and return on the investment that a library gives a community.

It’s amazing how many people don’t talk to their legislators, how many people are afraid to pick up the phone and call their policymakers. I tell library advocates that legislators are people, and they want to hear from their constituents. Advocacy is very easy to do. To give you an example, I was at a senator’s event this morning. I went up to her and talked to her about what is happening in my library this summer, and it was easy. By building this relationship with the Senator, I know that when library issues come up, she’s going to know what’s going on. I think of it as my job to let her know that libraries are important.

How do you typically meet with legislators?

I usually meet in person with my state legislators. The Illinois Library Association has a statewide Legislative Day, which is when library advocates visit leaders in Springfield, Ill. This year will be the first-time that the ILA Advocacy Committee will try to have a locally-focused advocacy week where activists will meet with legislators in their home offices. We’re doing this to promote the importance of building relationships with leaders in the home offices, instead of going all the way to Springfield. I personally love visiting my home office more than the Springfield office because I can talk more about local issues.

I also traveled to Washington, D.C. last year to participate for the first time in National Library Legislative Day. The time I spent there gave me an appreciation of the work that the American Library Association does, and the work that our congressmen and congresswomen are doing. After seeing so many library supporters, I came back home to Illinois feeling energized and proud of my profession. It was great to listen to other states and know that we are not alone. I think every library advocate should experience National Library Legislative Day. When I attended the National Library Day in Washington D.C., I really saw the “big picture” of lobbying for libraries and really felt that I received a great education on advocacy during the two days I was there. I’m definitely going to participate next year, there’s no doubt, and my goal is to get more people to attend by asking libraries to put this event in their budgets.

Do you have any advice for first-time advocates?

Find out who your legislators are, and write down their names and tape it up in on your desk, so you have it in front of your face at all times. Mail them your library newsletters and invite them to all of your library functions. Call them up and write them–it’s as simple as that. After you do those acts, everything will fall into place. It also helps to familiarize yourself with the tools that are on the ALA advocacy webpage and the ILA website.

The ILA Public Policy Committee and Advocacy Committee used basic advocacy strategies, such as phone call and email campaigns, to effectively advocate for libraries. This last year, we had a tax issue with some towns in Illinois, where a bill wanted to lower the tax rate, which would negatively impact many communities. The bill is currently at a standstill. Later, several mayors met to have a hearing about the tax bill, and they mentioned that opposition from libraries helped put the bill in perspective. It felt good to hear that from those leaders.

Betsy Adamowski is the chair of the Illinois Library Association Advocacy Committee and a member of the organization’s Public Policy Committee. View the Illinois Library Association toolkit.

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Jazzy Wright

Jazzy Wright is a former press officer of the Washington Office.

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