Friday, March 16, 2012

Reading Between the Lines


A modest crowd of 130 earnest library advocates converged on Madison to celebrate Valentine’s Day with the annual courting ritual called Library Legislative Day (LLD).

Given Wisconsin’s ongoing political carnival, there should have been twice as many citizens in attendance on February 14 – especially from among the ranks of trustees and library friends/foundation members – lined up to build relationships with and offer a figurative “token of engagement” to their electeds on behalf of their library.

If not now – after unprecedented cuts to education aid, the loss of public library maintenance of effort, with WiscNet under siege and other state funding growing ever more precarious – then when?

My job as an LLD committee member was to call colleagues represented by legislators not scheduled to receive personal visits on February 14. We attempted to identify local library supporters to contact each LLD “orphan” by phone, letter or email. With that outreach we achieved interaction with all 132 senators and assembly representatives at least once this year.

One of the colleagues I called during the quest for 100% coverage confessed to feeling battered and intimidated by the relentless tide of intransigent partisan politics and waves of special interest negativity. While her belief in the valuable mission of libraries remained unshaken, she wondered aloud how she could persuade citizen supporters to make the necessary calls when she could barely bring herself to do so.

“Talking to legislators is really hard for me,” she lamented. “My job is to find ways to help people solve problems. I don’t think like a politician.”

Her remarks were telling. Librarians, trustees and library supporters are generally a pretty collegial bunch, both with regard to temperament and world view. We’re used to checking our politics and pot-stirring at the door.

We seldom see shameless grandstanding or power plays within our state or regional organizations. Administrators from large urban libraries are not predisposed to gather in corners trashing small rural libraries as glorified bibliographic first aid stations while plotting their closure.

It would be unusual indeed for a library to deliberately craft its service plan to capture residents of cross-border and “non-libraried” municipalities, stealing their circulations and per transaction reimbursement dollars from other libraries. Pitting one group of patrons against another, with the goal of reducing services to all while they’re preoccupied in their own defense, is heresy in our world.

Librarians, trustees and friends understand that the living, breathing community organism does better when everybody shares and works to lift each other up.

While directing a library under budgetary siege in 2004, I gave a speech to a contentious group of citizens in which I shared the wisdom by C.W. Peterson, then a member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees living in Vancouver, British Columbia.  Mr. Peterson recognized that if you have a problem and all you do is worry about it, that doesn’t do any good. He determined that there were actually “two kinds of worry.”

“Once I was going through a rough patch, talking it over with a friend, and mentioned I worried about some things,” he wrote. “Worrying about whether everybody's doing OK, now, that's a pretty good kind of worry. You're likely to act on it, help people you see having trouble, and maybe we'll all come out of it better in the end. Then there's the bad kind of worry. That's worrying about whether someone else is doing better than you. – ‘If we're not better than them, who are we better than?’”

Peterson maintained, “If you're worried about whether someone else is making out better than you are, and you act on it, the likely outcome is that everyone, yourself included, will come out worse…. Everyone does better when everyone does better."

Our libraries help “everyone do better,” every single hour that our doors are open. We are a vital part of community infrastructure. It is equally important that the bridges and highways to knowledge be maintained. Everyone is a potential library user, just as any one of us may choose to drive on a road never traveled before to reach a new destination.

On future legislative days our goal should be to encourage more politicians to “think like librarians” by recruiting more of us to proudly tell our story of shared cooperation and communication in a voice loud enough to resonate outside the capitol dome.

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