Advocacy is not enough we need power

Librarians are big on advocacy. Big on helping their peers when they’re not being heard in their communities or schools to build their “advocacy toolkit”. Most librarian courses include at least one module in one course on advocacy. Some academic librarians have built their careers on advocacy. But I’d like to cry foul. This has been going on for long enough.

Looking at advocacy it has a couple of tenants:

“Five Advocacy Tips
At the basic level advocacy is building relationships. The goal is to become a valuable resource for policymakers. No matter who the audience is, you should keep in mind the following:
1. Be confident.
2. Frame your message to answer the question, “So what?”
3. Plan and practice your message.
4. Present a clear and compelling message; less is more.
5. Offer yourself as an expert resource and provide examples from your community; stories are more compelling than statistics” (Advocacy toolkit).

I’d like to posit that the whole concept of advocacy is wrong. It is not advocacy that we need but a seat at the table. But the problem is that no one is going to shift over and make a place for people who are nicely, confidently giving compelling messages from experts. If anything after all these years of advocacy the situation has become worse rather than better. This is global, in all the countries that used to be bastions of (school / public) libraries and librarianship: the UK ; USA; Australia, and Canada.

I’d like to suggest that the decline in school libraries and school librarians is inversely correlated with the rise in EdTech or Digital Tech or Digital Literacy teams and resources. Those same UK schools claiming poverty when it comes to libraries have 900m to spend on edtech? And what I’m noticing is that the heads of these subsections do have a seat at the table, a link on the webpages and a say at every conceivable moment.  And I’m wondering, not saying this is a fact, just wondering out loud, whether it has anything to do with the fact that so many of those leading this corner of the education landscape are male as are most of the leadership in schools?  And while I’m a huge prosumer of tech and use it extensively in my teaching and learning, I’m suspecting it’s not really helping our students’ literacy – even their digital literacy ($129b pound investment by 2020 for students to have “basic” digital literacy and no one’s saying the numbers don’t add up?).

There have been two little discussions on the various librarian network groups I’m on that relate to these questions.

The first was about the merits of becoming Google Educator certified. It’s a push at most schools and apparently something sought after by  recruiters. I’m flabbergasted. Google is so frigging smart. And we’re being conned. And no one is crying foul. I grew up with computers as they burst into the scene in the early 80’s. I could use every iteration of word processing, presentation and spreadsheet tools from the very first most basic google librarytypes. When I say I can use, I REALLY can use. I know how to use templates, make an index, do auto-intext citation, add captions, make data tables, pivot tables, look ups, statistical analysis, import addresses into labels etc etc. And what I don’t know I know how to find out how to do, either online or because I know people who know their S*** around this type of stuff. People of my generation and younger. I also have an Education masters in knowledge networks and digital innovation and follow all sorts of trends and tools and try everything at least once.  I can use basic HTML and CSS and find out how to do anything if I get stuck. I know how to learn and where to learn anything I need to know and I’m prepared to put in the time to do so. This is in a “just-in- time-and-immediate-application-and-use-basis”, rather than a “just-in-case – and-I’ll-forget it-tomorrow-and-probably-never-use-it-basis”. So can you tell my why I would bother wasting my time and money becoming GAFE (or anything else) diploma’ed when the equivalent is for me to go from driving a high powered sports car to getting a tricycle license? I feel the same way about this as I feel about people saying you don’t need libraries now you have google. Well actually I feel stronger about it. It seems like every single for profit educational technology app or company is now convincing educators that the way for them to be taken seriously is to “certify” themselves on their tools, something that involves a couple of hours of mind-numbingly boring and simple video tutorials and/or multiple choice tests with or without a cheapish fee and then to add a row of downloadable certs into their email signatures like so many degree mill qualifications on a quack’s wall. And then these are held in higher regard (it seems) than the double masters degrees it takes to be a librarian??  Not a game I’m prepared to be playing.

Then next question was about an upcoming education conference – I’m not going to name names but it’s a biggie, and  one of my fellow (male) librarians managed to convince the organisers to include a library strand. Bravo for him – he’s obviously got a voice that’s being heard and this is a huge step forward. BUT, as he and I discussed off-line, privately, when I mentioned the word “echo-chamber” we’ll all be sitting at the wrong table. A nice table. An interesting table, a stimulating table, a worthwhile, practical, intelligent table with some wonderful people (librarians really are super people, I wish I’d discovered them a lot earlier), but the wrong table. And even if our “strand” is open to others, we’re in direct timetable competition with some pretty heavy hitters who are in other very enticing and compelling strands that just beg to be explored. Strands that I as a librarian with an M.Ed have covered in my degree with some of these hard hitting thought shapers. But I’ll not be at those tables, because I’ll be in the librarian strand, where we all agree, and where I can guarantee there will be some mutual hand wringing on budgets, staffing, literacy and advocacy issues. And I can almost certainly also guarantee that none of the librarian strand events will be attended by a single education powerbroker who is not a librarian (please prove me wrong – someone – anyone?).

So I’d say we don’t need advocacy we need power. And to get power we need to be political. And librarians, like language teachers are not very good at politics. We don’t like being unpopular, we want to be accepted and needed, but I would argue we no longer can ethically rely on advocacy, children’s literate lives are at stake, we have to enter the fray.

(I’ll add a personal disclaimer here, I work on a campus where my (female) leadership team is incredibly supportive of the library, invites me to leadership meetings and where I do have a seat on (some) tables. I also was highly flattered when one of the teachers rose up to bat for me last week on a visibility issue. But I’m aware that I’m probably in a minority, which is why I wrote this post).

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17 thoughts on “Advocacy is not enough we need power

  1. Beyond the cool mug, you’ve got some really strong points here that bear not only consideration, but action: insisting on that seat at the table, identifying who really benefits from all the certifications, asking how all the technological bells and whistles really improve literacy.

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  2. I went to that “education conference” over the summer and I did notice that we librarians/school library system directors were segregated into our own strand. We, as a group, suggested to the presenters that we be allowed to hear the messages which were being given, at the very least, to administrators. It was fun, but I can hang with librarians at a school librarian conference.

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    1. Nadine, thank you for bringing your strident voice and nuanced argument to those who have been muted. It is in fact your favorable position at your school which enables you to speak for others and not just yourself. I’ve been “the lone male voice” in the wlead group that grew out of “that conference”, and the issues are the same. The boards/owners of schools that hire HOS are predominately men, and they’ve hired predominately men as HOS, who then hire predominately men for most other positions of influence (they “let” women be principals, but rarely directors of divisions, deputy HOS and other positions with seats at the table). It doesn’t stink of the ol’ boys network, but all the advantages of male privilege keep the status quo. I’ve made it my side gig to help expose and tear down these archaic practices, but what is really needed, IMO, is to enlist males (and the few females) who have seats at the big table to be advocates for TL’s having a seat at the big table.

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  3. Re why IT got a seat at the table is because for the most part the people already at the table became IT people. If you look at the 21C conference in HK which started 10 yrs ago, the MEN who started it were already vice principals & organisation leaders. But I think this is key – Men tend to like computers and like to play/ work with them and men at the table want to do this too. It starts as an interest & then a ‘need’. Libraries are moved down the rung because generally it is a female role (but not always), historically middle aged women ( the invisibles) libraries have been around for a long time & many men are not big on books & the stuff that goes along with that, and as Lesley said, they think they already know what a library does. This does not make it right.

    I have also found it interesting to observe the disparity between women & men librarians in the same environment . Men tend to get promotions, a seat at various tables, greater opportunities & are listened by many to much more even if they are less competent in their job than a female was or is. Just saying as I observe it.

    Just a correction re the library strand – it generally has been a part of the conference since about year 2 of the conference being held, depending on how much they have going on vis library related topics.

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    1. Valid points. I’m reluctant to make it an ‘us versus them’ argument and nor do I want to invalidate the great work that some of my male peers are doing, but the feminist in me has to ask those questions and the data is damning.

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    2. Dianne McKenzine: I’m so glad you pointed out the existence of the library strand prior to 2017-2018 as I believe the upcoming conference was recently heralded as including the “very first school library strand.” Something in my aged mind reacted to that but I did not bring it up: I thought I knew better. I was at the 1st at KGV and I think there was even a library strand of sorts in it a decade ago which would be year 1! For sure school libraries had a place in the limelight from inception. I also recall it was the year when the Ken Robinson TED Talk broke as I saw it for the first time presented there by Mark Treadwell to open his breakout session. I honestly thought we were going to change the world in a year or two!!!!

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  4. Much to think about here, Nadine. Thinking through some of these issues highlights some significant flaws in the current school leadership model in many schools.
    The inhibitive systems and implied intimidation of the Teacher Librarian role, the isolation and “nil reply” response to idea sharing and teaching programme resource suggestions, the general lack of Teaching and Learning Leadership around BYOD and ICT in general, the job share dysfunction in many schools (divide and conquer), the lack of research basis for wide reading practice, the passive/aggressive approach towards Library staff, the lack of induction programs for new staff to introduce them to the resources of the Library… the white-anting… there’s a lot of issues involved.
    Yes… much to consider when taking on this role.

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    1. Thank you for your response- I hadn’t come across the phrase white-anting before – and it is indeed a great term.
      The post seems to resonate both with new and long term librarians – I hope that indignation can transfer to action. While I’m a huge fan of technology as a tool I think it’s time that someone called “the emperor has no clothes” but I fear if we as librarians do it, it would be our death knell.

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  5. Hear, hear Nadine! This is my 27th year as an “educator.” Began in the classroom, got my MS-LIS as a school library offered an opportunity for me to use all that I am [I didn’t think it was ‘easier’ and my first school paid 50% for me to get qualified], and for 18 years now I’ve been in a school library mostly overseas. No one has described the global trend for the past 20 years better than you have in this space. I wonder how many of those who said, “I’m leaving the classroom to go to the library!” are now returning to the classroom? Or getting out of education totally? How many have jumped into the “Tech Coach” role, especially men like me, out of self-preservation and their school library positions are eliminated, back filled with tag-along under qualified/inexperienced females with the term “Teacher” ripped from their title along with 38% of the pay and 75% of holiday leave, the library stripped and the footprint converted into a ‘maker space’ or ‘learning lab’ of sorts or at worst just converted into classrooms or a breakout area? Spot on Nadine: even when one finds a place of balance as I have seen only a couple times in my career, it is often annihilated by someone influential following the pendulum swing one way or the other due to other powerful voices at the table. You’re right: mere advocacy is insufficient and I’ve had enough of that snake oil. What little power we ever had disappeared a long time ago and the light I see at the end of the tunnel is likely a train.

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    1. Thank you Bryant – an excellent en-point reply.
      Was just reading an article by Richard Flanagan in the Financial Times where he says “…’s great success is to create a mass delirium, a vortex of seeming success by which all are mesmerised, and perhaps our world today is in a similar delirium. In this strange time, lies are presented to us as reality, truth is denied by other lies, and the more implausible the lie the more people are to believe it.”

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  6. To earn your place at the table, you need to bring something with you – you can’t rely on letters after your name to convince ‘the opposition’. What can libraries offer that technology can’t? I like this argument from Arrigo Berni, CEO of Moleskine: “Aesthetic is one of the areas where technology companies very often seem to be at a little bit of a loss. They seem to, understandably… (focus) on creating things that push the boundaries in terms of technology, and they have a little bit less appreciation for the aesthetics of them.” Libraries have class, authenticity and, most important of all, the human touch – that’s what students need… interaction with their senses – the tangibility of books, creative thinking space, reflection, somewhere that develops and strengthens their independent thinking skills.

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    1. Of course you need to bring something with you. But there are a heck of a lot of people at the table with precious little special to offer except an overpowering presence.
      Aesthetic and high touch / high contact with all stakeholders is definitely something we bring to the table.

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  7. Refreshing comments on a challenge that keeps repeating. In the 80s, we talked about “central catalogues” where all school resources were made accessible to all (pulling down those silos of secret independent faculty collections). Then we pushed for representation on budget committees with our whole school approach. Then we made sure we were part of the IT revolution, being first adopters and encouraging teachers to use a range of resources. Msybe instead of being the “sharers of knowledge” this predominantly female cohort needs a bit of old fashioned muscle. A bit of push and shove?

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