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Advocacy, Data and the Library

June 13, 2017

Last month I addressed an audience of over one hundred librarians, faculty and students on the topic of using data in advocacy. Preparing for the talk had me thinking about the habit librarians have of seeking statistics wherever possible (and then some), as well as our expectation that librarians armed with data can influence others to change the world. A finger maniuplates data on a touchscreen device

In Circulation readers might have noticed the pattern of counting often reported in our featured articles. This month we note the need for better usage figures, which will be addressed by requiring users to log in to the Libraries' electronic resources via the EZProxy system. Another report shares how Drexel Libraries has helped WHYY make it easier for even more Fresh Air listeners to find Terry Gross' fabulous interviews online. It is important not to lose sight of why data gathering might help change the world of libraries, if not beyond. 

The data are different in these cases as are the Library's impact--in the first, librarians aim to contain affordability of the cost of education by providing individuals cost-savings and convenient access to information, and the second illustrates what librarians do to organize and describe materials that inspire listeners.  In both cases, the value of the library's contribution is to enable self-directed learning through access to information resources. A more informed citizenry is essential to raise intolerance to ignorance and false information and in turn to uphold a democratic society. Librarians and others who advocate for ensuring access to information passionately support people to be informed. Seeking help to do so appeals to that basic impact.

I noted in my presentation that advocacy is a process to get someone to correct a situation that negatively affects people. It is an activity that bridges the interests of people with influence and outcomes affecting people at risk. Librarians always face inadequate funding for all the services and resources they wish to provide. In making a case for increased budgets, academic library administrators traditionally have reported 'inputs' (such as budget allocations, collections, staffing and space) and the subsequent 'outputs' resulting from their library's operations (such as the provided amount of reference, instruction or circulation services and the processed volume of acquisition, cataloging or interlibrary loans).

These metrics have long been ranked in comparison to other libraries to argue that the library is behind or is better than peer institutions. In either case, the ranked position is often noted as a competitive reason for the parent institution to give strong support to its library. Another attempt to seek institutional support of the library has traditionally involved demonstrating that efficient management of operations - doing more with less--deserves greater investment in the library. Assessing client perceptions of the quality of service a library offers is also a source of evidence to advocate for support.

These are managerial requests for resources, but they have not typically been associated with the impact any support of the library has on people it serves. And that's what the people making an investment in a library want to know--What difference will it make? Who will it change for the better? Will it improve society sooner?   

The presentation I made in May was in response to an invitation from a library school in Lyon* that provides professional development opportunities to French librarians. It was a learning experience for me as well to hear similar challenges European librarians face compared to what colleagues experience here in the US. Conversations afterwards reinforced the situational nature of advocacy.

Wherever advocates are, the secret to successfully impacting positive change is to first understand and then bridge the interests of those with influence and persons at risk.  We seem to be in a period when the common risk is the far-reaching impact of ignorance when the absence of information comes--in part--from the decreasing access to information.

Danuta A. Nitecki, PhD
Dean of Libraries

* Ecole Nationale Superieure des Sciences de l'Information et des Bibliotheques  [ENSSIB]