I moved to Montana three years ago when I accepted a position as director of Montana State University’s School Library Media preparation program. Like any good librarian, the very first thing I did when I moved to Bozeman was obtain my library card. And like any good library advocate, the second thing I did was learn about Montana politics. Montana is an interesting place. It’s incredibly rural (our largest city is Billings, population 110,000). Just over one million people live in the Treasure State, and it takes about ten hours to travel across the state east to west. Accordingly, Montana is represented by our two Senators, Steve Daines and Jon Tester, and one at-large Representative, Greg Gianforte.
Senator Tester is the only working farmer in Congress. He lives in Big Sandy, population 598, where he produces organic wheat, barley, lentils, peas, millet, buckwheat and alfalfa. He butchers his own meat and brings it to Washington in an extra carry-on bag. A former teacher and school board member, he is a staunch advocate for public education. I looked at his background and priorities and found that Senator Tester has a good track record of supporting some of ALA’s key issues, such as open access to government information and the Library Services and Technology Act.
I’ve participated in ALA’s National Library Legislative Day as part of the Montana delegation annually since 2015, so I was familiar with Senator Tester’s Washington, DC-based staff. This summer, with the Senate’s August recess looming, I saw another opportunity to connect with the Senator’s field staff. In Bozeman and the surrounding area, the Senator’s staff regularly schedules outreach and listening sessions in public libraries. On July 27, I attended one of these listening sessions at the Bozeman Public Library. I came prepared with a short list of items that I wanted to cover. Because there were about eight people in the listening session, I wasn’t able to get specific about my issues, so I scheduled a one-on-one appointment the following week with the field office staff in Downtown Bozeman.
I met with Jenna Rhoads, who is a new field officer and a recent graduate of MSU’s political science program. We chatted briefly about people we knew in common and I congratulated her on her new position and recent graduation. I then spoke about several issues, keeping it short, to the point, and being very specific about my “asks.” These issues included:
- Congratulating Senator Tester for receiving the Madison Award from the American Library Association and thanking him for his support of the Library Services and Technology Act by signing the Dear Appropriator letter for the FY18 appropriations cycle. I asked that next year, the Senator please consider signing the Dear Appropriator letter on the Innovative Approaches to Literacy program as well.
- Thanking the field office for holding listening sessions in local public libraries and encouraging this partnership to continue.
- Asking that Senator Tester use his position on the Interior Appropriations subcommittee to assure continued funding for the U.S. Geological Survey when the Interior Appropriations bill is voted on after Labor Day. I provided Jenna with a copy of ALA’s related letter and asked that she pass it along to the appropriate Washington staffer.
- Inviting the Senator to continue to work in the long term on school library issues, particularly in rural and tribal schools, which Senator Tester already cares deeply about.
The meeting lasted about 30 minutes. Later that day I followed up with a thank you email, reiterating my issues and “asks.”
As the Senate goes into its traditional August recess, this is a very good time to schedule a meeting with your senator’s field office staff in your local area and perhaps even meet with your senator. I hope that you will take the opportunity to engage with your senators and their field office staff to advocate for important library issues. There are many resources on District Dispatch, the ALA Washington Office blog, that can help you hone in on the issues that are important to your senator. Additionally, the ALA Washington Office’s Office of Government Relations staff are always willing to help you craft your message and give you valuable information about where your senator stands on library issues so you can make your case in the most effective manner.
I chose to take the time to meet with my senator’s field office staff because I believe in the power of civic engagement – and because I know that libraries change lives. I hope that you will take some time to connect with your senator’s field office this August.