Speaking up for libraries

I have been listening to the Radio Sheffield interview with Mayor Peter Davies (Items at 0:59:24, 1:05:20 and 1:25:46.) I don't intend to comment on his plans for volunteers to run several branch libraries. What was clear was that Mayor Davies has little appreciation of the value of libraries - he regards them as a cost rather than as a benefit. He also has a very low opinion of the value of professional librarians. He says he can't understand why you need professional staff to stamp out books. His view is that running a library is a simple task that can be performed by volunteers with no training and that "things are made mysterious" by librarians.

Now I think we should all stand still and take a few deep breaths....  is that better?

So, why would the leader of a local authority take this view (and let's face it, he is not unique in his views although the style in which he expresses them is quite special). Most librarians would say that he does not understand - that he has not got the message. So why is this?

If you have studied communication theory you will know that for communication to happen you need a sender who develops and encodes the message, a channel of communication and a receiver who decodes the message. A failure of communication can result from a fault by the sender, a fault by the receiver or problems with the channel (noise). In this case one suspects that the receiver is unable or unwilling to decode and understand the message. Several reasons can be suggested for this - many of which will involve criticism of the receivers intelligence, personality or politics. Listening to the interview it is clear that Mayor Davies feels that he must find savings, has identified the library budget as a source of saving (albeit a very small percentage of the whole) and is not interested in discussing the details.

However, just because we can blame the failure of communication on the receiver does not mean that the sender has no responsibilities. The case for the library service and the role of professional staff has not been made successfully and as professionals we have to ask ourselves why this has happened. Do we have any responsibility ourselves, as the senders of the message, for this failure? Could we have done any better?

This is where advocacy skills come into the picture. Librarians are, I think, generally good at doing what they do but are not good at blowing their own trumpet - at convincing people of the value and impact of what they do. As Mayor Davies pointed out - we tend to 'make things mysterious' instead. All library services need people with advocacy skills to sell the service to their 'power people'.

In a commercial organisation, if you are good at doing what you do then you please your customers and they pay for your service. In a public service like libraries you still have to please your customers but they do not pay directly. The people who do pay are not receiving your service directly. That is why we need advocacy.

SINTO is running two workshops on advocacy. Gaining support and influence: an introduction to advocacy shows how a planned approach to advocacy can put your library in a strong position. This course is for librarians with responsibility for speaking out about the value of their service.
Measuring and communication impact: advanced advocacy takes advocacy a step further. It looks at ways of raising the profile of your organisation by making sure you demonstrate how it already plays a part in the delivery of key policy agendas.

Having advocacy skills does not guarantee success but not having these skills will probably contribute to failure.