Thursday, October 11, 2012

30th Year Reflections/19: Politics

“While library directors use statistics to document the excellence of their services, [Anne] Coriston suggests that in politics stories work better: pols may forget the numbers, but they won't forget the child who confides that the librarian is her best friend; they may forget that annual library attendance in New York City is 40 million, but they won't forget that that is higher than attendance at all the city's cultural institutions and sports team events combined.”— Library Journal, March 15, 2003

Last week Sherlock Holmes trumped everything else, but I did promise to talk about politics. So, unlike many of our politicians, I’ll keep that promise. I don’t see myself as a political animal in the sense that I’m not terribly fond of spending time with professional politicians. I’ve been to just a couple of caucuses, rarely put a political campaign sign on my lawn, never staffed a campaign phone bank, donated to a campaign, or gone door to door looking for votes. I’ve run for political office just once, as a neighborhood representative to a local school council in Chicago. I lost. I have been a political appointee (by the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives to the Advisory Committee on the Records of Congress, a position I gladly served for six years). But for the most part the political arena is not an environment I’m familiar with or comfortable in. I’m just not cut out for all the glad-handing and back slapping that seems to come with politics.

On the other hand, I rarely miss a chance to write, e-mail, or phone one of my representatives when an issue concerns me. I know my local city council member, and I know who are my state and federal representatives. I have taken part in lobbying for library efforts, both on the state and national level. But I haven’t been active enough. And perhaps this is the greatest “takeaway” from this week’s post. We have to become knowledgeable about and engaged with the political process. We need to gather stories (and sometimes statistics) to share with our political leaders. We need to have conversations with friends and colleagues. We need to debate the issues. We need to make our legislators (and members of the executive branch) know where we stand on an issue, both as individuals and as a profession. I may not be comfortable with the political arena, may not like the back slaps, but I better get over it, and get over it soon. Our future—professionally and nationally—depends on it.

Long ago I carried on a correspondence with my representative in Congress. It had nothing to do with libraries and everything to do with what we were doing in Nicaragua (this at about the time of the Iran-Contra affair). In the course of my correspondence with the congressman I suggested a number of books he might read to better inform himself on the issue. At one point in our conversations things became a bit heated on my end, something I don’t recommend. Passion is fine, but stepping over into anger becomes counterproductive when communicating with a member of Congress. As it happened, I was in Washington a short time later with ALA colleagues lobbying for library issues. One of our appointments was with my representative. As we entered his office and introduced ourselves I saw a sudden spark of recognition in his eyes when I stated my name. At almost the same time I spied a pile of books on the credenza behind his desk. Many of the titles dealt with Nicaragua, including some of the books I had suggested. My message, it seemed, had been heard. I don’t know how much, if any, I influenced the congressman’s position on either Nicaragua or libraries, but I walked away with the sense that I was a participant, that all of this mattered, that I needed to stay informed and involved. We need to get into the political arena. We need to make our voices heard, now more than ever.

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