They always say that in polite company we don’t talk about politics, religion, or sex. Because, well, it runs the risk of offending someone and sparking fights and passionate opinion. I never believed that, and I love engaging in the good fight for the rights associated with the basic human condition.
That said, when we talk about school library funding, you can get a similar reaction. Some say it’s like the weather: Too many people talk about it but few really do anything about it. I believe that school libraries are a human right—plain and simple. Indeed ALA’s Declaration for the Right to School Libraries should be posted in every school (and not just in the library but where visitors will see it). Take a look if you’re not familiar with it: ala.org/advocacy/sites/ala.org.advocacy/files/content/ala%20declaration%208.5%20x%2011%20school%20libraries_Layout%201.pdf.
In today’s world, access to information, learning, and technology is a human right in an advanced civil society and especially in a democracy where an informed and educated electorate is critical. Others are passionate about their approach to solving the “issue” of underfunding our operations and therefore damaging our ability (along with our partners in action—teachers and administration) to have a clear, positive impact on student performance.
Nearly everything we do requires more influence and oversight than it used to. Technology is expensive, and it’s never in just our control. Digital resources tend to reduce the cost of content per learner but show up as “big” line items in the budget. And elearning and MOOCs and the online strategies being piloted and employed in all levels of education will surely move the needle even further up the dial. Our need for greater influence to achieve the impacts and value we desire and can deliver is growing ever larger every day.
So, here’s a short list of what leaders have built and tried in our profession to influence the success of libraries for learners:
1. Impact Studies
Lord knows we have impact studies coming out of the horn of plenty like a tornado spins off cows. All show the amazing and positive impact of school library programs on learners and districts. For a sampling, check out an incomplete list I
maintain at lessonpaths.com/learn/i/the-power-of-school-libraries/new-the-value-of-school-libraries-stephens-lighthouse. Also the LRS Library Research Service maintains a list here: lrs.org/data-tools/school-libraries/impact-studies/.
We’re seeing some great videos that capture the role of libraries in schools. Many have learners, teachers, principals, and parents telling the story for us, which is more powerful than telling our story ourselves. One of my favorites is this one done for the Texas Library Association this year: Principals Know: School Librarians are the Heart of the School (youtube.com/watch?v=bihGT7LoBP0).
3. Training the Teacher
Aligning school library programs with the full range of professionals who deliver education is a challenge and one of scalability. For example, INFOhio has implemented its 21 Things project and delivered it to thousands of teachers to communicate the role and resources led by school librarians (learningcommons.infohio.org). In Ontario, there is the original plan called “Partners in Action” (accessola2.com/data/6/rec_docs/partners.pdf) recently updated as “Together for Learning: School Libraries and the Emergence of the Learning Commons: A Vision for the 21st Century” that strives to align, on a province-wide basis, school library initiatives with the wider curriculum strategies and strands (accessola.org/web/Documents/OLA/Divisions/OSLA/TogetherforLearning.pdf).
4. Training the Learner
The role of information fluency training—beyond our excellent work in reading literacy—is a major growth factor in school library services portfolios that remains under-acknowledged and widely misunderstood in administrator circles in school boards and government funders. As a curriculum leader in building skills in staff, faculty and learners in the world of digital content, technology, and elearning, this is a positioning that is underexplored and ripe for action in the areas of marketing, influence, and standards
5. Getting Political
We’re not—at least not enough. Our field is too circumspect in the role local and government funding plays in our success. We need to find our stronger voice and use it. We can’t do it alone, and this is an area where our associations, unions, professional panels, and more need to take greater action—politically. We’re not partisan but we’re also not unbiased. We have something to say, and for the best of motivations: our learners’ success in life.
Why haven’t these five activities worked as well as we’d hoped? School libraries continue to be underfunded and threatened with closure, and teacher-librarians continue to be at risk of reductions in the form of terminations, being required to cover classroom teachers, or reduced to part-time status. As we can see above, we have a plethora of studies showing that a well-funded, well-staffed school library program has a large, consistent, and measurable positive impact on student achievement—probably more than any one other strategy or tactic on a whole-school basis. So why are library strategies and positions under threat in our K–12 school boards? Maybe we need a Twitter hashtag—#specialkindofstupid—and a new social media campaign to engage parents and taxpayers in getting angry and motivated to advocate on behalf of their children. Of course, sadly, that’s unlikely to work. Here’s why:
* It’s an arc, not an event. We need a national, statewide, and board-wide strategy beyond school facility and firing on all cylinders. We need to encourage a culture that views the advocacy ecosystem as consultative, collaborative, and emergent.
* We collaborate but not on a consistent enough scale. We must get out of our boxes and let many hands make light work. We must focus on the real goal and avoid tying ourselves up in less consequential detail.
* Too many of us are solo or work in small teams geographically separated from our peers. We need to use the social technologies to build teams that are manageable and powerful and respect that many of our key contributions will come from front-line librarians who are tied to their learners’ locations.
* We’re busy, and tired, and possibly have issues keeping motivated after years of threats and disrespect. We need to address the clear malaise in our field that is causing some people to feel a lack of positivity and empowerment.
* Many of us have fought the good fight, and some are at or near retirement and have issues identifying, accessing, and coaching the next generation of replacement school library staff to protect our legacy. We have to better empower the next generation of school librarians.
So What Could Help?
I am very influenced by the work of Robert Cialdini, regents’ professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, who published the key factors of personal marketing and persuasion in his respected 1984 book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Cialdini identified six principles through experimental studies, and by immersing himself in the world of what he called “compliance professionals”—salespeople, fund raisers, recruiters, advertisers, marketers, and so on. These are people skilled in the art of convincing and influencing others (mindtools.com/pages/article/six-principles-influence.htm).
These are Cialdini’s six universal tactics of influence:
1. Authority: hierarchical or by expertise
2. Consistency and commitment: alignment with personal or organizational values
3. Liking: popular definition; familiarity
4. Reciprocity: prior exchanges
5. Scarcity: the possible lack of availability
6. Social proof: what would others do?
These tactics would echo well with school librarians, where the people holding the purse strings and being gatekeepers or gateways to our success are likely not librarians and need to be educated and influenced in the power of our roles in the context of their goals.
The Magic Seven
So, here, finally, are my “magic seven” rules for asserting more influence and oversight in our professional world:
1. Statistics and measurements are very important but they’re not enough. Impact isn’t communicated in a long report in academic language. Mine the insights and proofs in our research, then build the stories that move decision-makers.
2. Fight perceptions with emotion and fight data with facts—and better yet—combine the two. It’s an old saw that perception equals reality. People just don’t know that what they perceive may not be real. To supplant wrong perceptions you must build communication strategies that engage but also provide a motivation for people to change their minds. Google is not free or enough. Devices do not deliver literacy; they’re just tools. A hammer does not a carpenter make any more than a paintbrush makes an artist.
3. Be succinct and memorable. Decision-makers—like us—are very busy people, and their context is fraught with politics and stressors that are often different than our environment. Let’s get less wordy and become more powerful communicators. We have a lot to impart, just let’s not do it all at once!
4. Build relationships. Relationships don’t arise with just a great presentation to a board or parent group. That’s just an event that helps to build the key factors that underlie a great relationship—authoritative role positioning, awareness, likability, and most importantly, trust.
5. Find your arc, and build your events and strategic communication plans as an arc rather than as single events. This is more than just the components of a good event with invitations, pre-work communication, and follow-through, but you need to see your event in longer arcs—say 5 years—and build, build, and build some more. Every step is a foundation, and every success sets a new plateau in your influence
6. Tell a story, but tell it well and with a great closer that calls people to action and insight based on emotional engagement and values alignment.
7. To quote Nike and the theory of exercise and healthy living, “Just Do It!” It’s not the steps to success that take all the time, it’s the space between the steps. The path to great influence isn’t an annual conference or monthly meetings. It’s adopting the attitude that every interaction, every event, every moment is an opportunity to do more to influence the participants and whom they influence.
So there you have it. These are my thoughts on how we can succeed on a bigger scale and bring the goodness of school libraries to every country, every state/province, every district, every school, and every learner. A lot has been done, and a lot more needs to be done. It will never end, and we must adapt to a world where the funding challenges are the norm and not an exception.
We make a difference, and it’s vastly important and critical to the success of our society. Let’s scream that from the rooftops more often.
Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.