Volume 41, Issue 1 (Fall 2017)
By Lynne S. Rhys
“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment
before starting to improve the world.”
As a new librarian working in an academic law library, I found myself wishing I had more freedom to speak my mind on political issues. I wanted to join the tenured professors and be part of the action, but I felt constrained by my position and my inexperience. I wanted to make a difference in my chosen profession, but I felt powerless to do so in the rather stodgy environment that was our law school. This desire to participate in civil discourse has never left me, but the current toxic political climate has given me a new sense of urgency. Luckily, I’ve discovered over the years that there are as many ways to be an activist as there are to be a librarian.
Lynne Rhys presenting on library activism at SWALL Annual Conference.
So just what is activism, anyway? Merriam Webster’s online dictionary defines it like this:
[A] doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue [, e.g.,] political activism [or] environmental activism.
That’s all well and good, but it implies that one has to be controversial in order to be an activist. And for many librarians, controversy can be a risky career move in this age of diminished budgets, vanishing shelf space, and free online resources. Controversy is important and necessary at the right time and place, but many of us are not in a position to create it in the arena of our jobs.
I endorse a broader definition: Activism is simply taking action to make the world a better place. If you’re doing your job, you’re already an activist, even if you’re just helping a law student learn research skills, providing forms to a pro se client, or helping an attorney determine the reputability of a source. You’re planting seeds of change that will sprout in ways you may never know, and it is quite possible to sow those seeds even on the job.
- Activism does not require partisanship
- Activism does not necessarily take sides
- Activism is not limited to politics
- Activism need not be liberal or conservative
But caution is still prudent, because there are significant limitations on the sorts of activism in which librarians can engage. It’s best to be well-informed about those before taking on an activist role. As librarians, we face three general types of limitations: ethical, legal, and organizational.
The first limitation is ethical. Librarians feel compelled to remain neutral. Now, it is true that as librarians, we shouldn’t censor the information we give to patrons based on our personal beliefs. But it is perfectly appropriate to evaluate the quality of the resources available. Indeed, in this volatile post-fact era, helping our patrons distinguish fact from fiction may be the most important thing we do. It is also appropriate to favor established organizational values such as inclusiveness and diversity.
The second limitation on activism is legal, especially for law librarians working in the public sector. For librarians who work for the federal government, or whose organizations receive federal funds, the Hatch Act, 5 U.S.C. § 7323, prohibits certain political activities on and off the job. There are likely to be similar state or local prohibitions as well. The website for the U.S. Office of Special Counsel provides guidance on the federal act. See U.S. Office of Special Counsel, Hatch Act, https://osc.gov/Pages/HatchAct-AdditionalResouces.aspx (last visited June 26, 2017). Happily, you’ll find a robust list of things you can do.
Finally, there are often limitations on activism imposed either formally or informally by your organization. This is especially true for corporations, firms, and other private entities. The scope of these limitations is defined by the mission, culture, and policies of the entity and its management.
Beyond such limitations, though, the scope of activism has no bounds. Let’s consider options for law firm librarians as an example. Your law firm is not likely to appreciate vocal opinions that conflict with a client’s interests or the managing partner’s personal views. But there may be other ways to effect change within the law firm environment. What is the firm’s pro bono policy? The firm may have ongoing projects in which the librarian can participate. Find out how your library can get involved. Consider also the scope of the firm’s other charitable work. For example, does the firm participate in projects for Habitat for Humanity? If so, join in! And what happens to your superceded volumes and other discards? Can they be donated to a nearby prison, and will the prison accept them?
It’s great if you can get your organization’s buy-in to participate actively in the community, but what if you can’t? Regardless of any limitations, the possibilities are so vast that anyone can find a form of activism that fits.
Let’s start by dividing activism into two general types that I’ll call political activism and “small” activism. Political activism targets the infrastructure of change. Small activism, on the other hand, is activism on a more intimate scale. You will probably have to participate in politics on your own time, but there are many ways to incorporate “small” activism into the workplace.
Starting with political activism, consider lobbying, or even running for office. If you’ve never lobbied before, sit in on city council meetings or state legislative hearings. Learn the mechanics of expressing your opinion. It’s a lot easier to appear before a committee if you’ve seen other people do it. Your political party or favorite charity may also have workshops on how to lobby effectively. You can also run for office. If that interests you, find mentorship organizations such as Emily’s List. Your local party officials can provide guidance. If lobbying and running for office seems like too much, then practice contacting your elected representatives by phone to register your views.
An important reminder about political activism: it is likely subject to significant legal and organizational obstacles. For example, as an employee of the New Mexico judiciary, I am permitted to run for public office, but if I am elected I must resign from my job in order to take the post.
If politics isn’t for you, how about small activism? Here are just a few ideas:
- If you teach, think about hypotheticals on hot topics that can foster critical thinking skills. For example, develop a problem that involves climate change policy.
- Organize a speaker series for your patrons.
- Design and give a workshop on an appropriate topic such as protection of digital privacy.
- Publish a newsletter or law review article.
- Propose a session for the next SWALL, AALL, or ALA annual meeting.
- Join a committee. There are plenty of opportunities in AALL, ALA, SWALL, and perhaps even in your own organization.
- Incorporate activism into your collection development strategy. For example, if you work in a public law library, think about beefing up materials for non-lawyers. If you have a fiction collection, think about adding books that are used in political discourse, such as The Fountainhead, Brave New World, and The Handmaid’s Tale. Another approach: select a variety of books by provocative and thoughtful authors on selected issues. Or develop a balanced collection on an area of interest such as immigration.
- Create a book display of your librarians’ “picks.”
If these ideas don’t strike your fancy, look to other libraries for inspiration. Some libraries, for example, have periodic “Food for Fines” campaigns in which patrons can pay off fines by donating nonperishable food items. These “fines” are then donated to a local food bank. See, e.g., Nashville Public Library, Food for Fines, https://library.nashville.org/event/food-fines (last visited June 26, 2017). The Northern Onondaga Public Library in Cicero, New York, has taken the idea a step further, creating a sustainable community garden on library property. Northern Onondaga Public Library, What is the LibraryFarm?, http://www.nopl.org/services/spaces/library-farm/ (last visited June 26, 2017).
Whatever flavor of activism you choose, here are some strategies that will make your participation more effective:
- Focus on just one or two issues at a time
- Build a team and get buy-in from your organization, if you can
- Educate yourself thoroughly to understand all sides of the issue
- Get to know the stakeholders, and listen to them
- Learn about the “infrastructure of change” – in other words, get to know the ins and outs of your political system
- Establish well-developed goals and be willing to reevaluate
- Develop a plan and act
- Assess effectiveness, adjust, and move forward
The takeaway is this: No matter how restrictive your work environment, no matter how inexperienced you feel, and no matter how small your budget, you can make a difference. If you want to be an activist, then be an activist!
Lynne S. Rhys
State Law Librarian
New Mexico Supreme Court Law Library
Based on a presentation at the SWALL Annual Meeting, April 7, 2017
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