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Driving Greater Advocacy for Urban Libraries

March2024 From The Ceo

Written by Brooks Rainwater, President and CEO, Urban Libraries Council

Over the past few months, ULC has visited Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, to garner more support and funding for policies that strengthen and advance the essential role of public libraries. Through engagement with lawmakers in Congress and U.S. federal agencies, we are advocating for federal legislation and resources to empower public libraries to meet evolving community needs.

In these meetings, we are discussing several key policy positions that center the critical role that public libraries play in urban communities:

  • Libraries are essential public infrastructure that need to be preserved for future generations.
  • Public libraries are leaders in workforce development, digital inclusion and economic mobility.
  • Urban libraries have essential mandates that are not fully recognized in federal funding opportunities. This includes providing access to health and mental health support, offering citizenship classes and supporting unhoused individuals.
  • Intellectual freedom and access to information is a fundamental value of democracy and individual rights.
  • Education and literacy across a lifetime remain core to a healthy economy and strong nation.

You can read more about ULC’s legislative and policy priorities on our new advocacy page. Our approach to advocacy is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. We have broad goals and will be opportunistic about what to pursue at any given time. Our advocacy strategy is designed to be nimble, and we commit to keeping members informed of its development.

Telling Your Library’s Story

One thing we are hearing time and time again through our initial conversations on Capitol Hill is that members of Congress and their staff are not aware of the role of large public library systems and their impact beyond their collections. They may hold the view that libraries are just for books or e-content or may be unfamiliar with a multi-branch system that serves a wide demographic. Public libraries provide critical resources across employment, public health, information access, civic engagement and social services for jobseekers, small businesses, immigrants, seniors, families with children, students and those bridging the digital divide. I am proud that ULC can speak loudly and confidently of the work our members are doing every day in these conversations. However, it is also a reminder that we can all be doing more to reach government policymakers.

If you haven’t already, please take a moment to introduce your library to the lawmakers in Congress who represent your locations. Invite them to read a book during a children’s story hour or provide a tour of a makerspace or innovation lab. There will be opportunities for larger engagements with elected officials such as new building openings, discussions with other community partners or recognition at a library foundation fundraiser but consider starting with a simple introduction.

Other ways to effectively engage with government officials and tell your library’s impact story came up during ULC’s recent town hall. You can rewatch the online event at this link, but I want to share a few takeaways from our speakers, too:

“The library does do so much to help the civic health of a community, and I think that's something that a lot of people don't realize. [When I was mayor] I would always turn to the library quickly to help .... Librarians are incredibly talented people. They know how to communicate, their hearts are in the right places, and they want to get things done. Almost instinctively, if there ever was a big civic issue, I think the library has a role.”
— Karl Dean, Former Nashville Mayor and Immediate Past ULC Board Chair
“Learning to tell the story in such a way that it resonates with decision makers is really an art and a skill that we as library folks need to develop …. Libraries can tell more compelling stories about the work that they do, so that it doesn’t just feel like ‘the library isn't that thing over there: they have books.’ But that they are an integral part of the work that is being done in the county or in the city.”
— Cyndee Landrum, Deputy Director, Institute of Library and Museum Services
“One thing that we continue to reiterate is that the community is the library, and the library is the community. That's the piece; that we're the anchor for many more things than books. I mean, we do books, but we do so many other things and can be involved in so many other conversations in our communities.”
— Kelvin Watson, Executive Director, Las Vegas-Clark County Library District

Thank you again for those who joined our national town hall on the critical role of libraries. It was an incredibly insightful and uplifting conversation.

The ULC community is now 174 library members strong. (Welcome, Anderson Public Library!) Across North America, our libraries are a powerful front that can pursue — and accomplish — collective change. I am excited about the opportunities ahead of us to drive advocacy and progress for urban libraries.

ULC Town Hall on the Critical Role of Libraries | March 4, 2024