28 January 2021

Interview

Engaging with Politicians in Library Advocacy - Why and How

For many libraries, the world of politics can seem a long way away. However, if our institutions and profession are to get the support - both legal and financial - that we need, engaging with politicians is vital. We interviewed Steen Bording Andersen, Chair of the Executive Committee of the Danish Library Association and himself a politican, to find out more about how to do this?

Why should advocacy with politicians be part of library advocacy?

Because politicians speak to politicians! If you stay in the library world, you can limit your possibilities to speak with the political world. However, if you can engage with politicians, you can open doors. This is because politicians talk to other politicians, creating a chain of good connections.

This is important, because without action, we see, too often, politicians even at a local level who really understand what the libraries of today are all about.

When you say the libraries of today, what do you mean?

A lot of politicians, and indeed other decision-makers, assume that libraries haven’t changed since the last time that they used them, even if that was years ago. They think that they are just storehouses for books – good places to access knowledge, but not much else. But as we know, libraries today are much more like community centres, serving the communities in around them.

As such, these politicians don’t get the full picture, the full package of what libraries can offer. When we help them understand what libraries are doing today, they start to understand that you can’t just measure the value of libraries by numbers of loans, but rather by the number of visitors and what they are doing.

There will always be politicians with a soft spot for libraries, ready to hear library arguments. But do you think it’s possible to engage with others?

I think so, yes. When you get into politics, you have goals, often much broader than something like simply supporting libraries.

For example, I got involved in politics because I wanted to give people more self-esteem, more possibilities. I am always looking for this as an overall goal. I wasn’t particularly aware of what libraries were doing, and it had been a long time since I had been a regular user. But through my work, I came to see how much libraries had changed, and how much they were doing now!

This can be the case for many others. Because any politician who is focused on giving people fairer chances in education, greater possibilities to participate in society, and new opportunities to connect with others, can discover that libraries are great allies.

The key is not to present libraries as institutions, alongside the many other institutions governments are in charge of, rather to focus on what they can help achieve.

So how do you get politicians involved?

This is a tricky one.

To start with the international level, with IFLA, the first time I went to WLIC was in 2011. The reason I went was because I was about to become president of the Danish Library Association. And I found it fascinating, because there were discussions about freedom of speech and the role of libraries in the Arab Spring. It was great for me, as a politician, to join debates about broader issues.

And of course, IFLA conferences are so exciting because it is such an international community, with such a variety of ways of looking at things. It was inspiring! I hope that in future events, it will be possible to ensure that there are sessions which can be used to engage politicians, focusing on wider societal issues.

At the national level, the first stage in engaging politicians is to understand their goals. For example, after every election in Denmark, we start talking to people again, in order to get to know them. We discover what big social issues matter for them – digital transformation, equitable education, reading, social inclusion – and talk about how libraries can deliver on these.

Fortunately, this is relatively easy, given that libraries have such a broad range of stories to tell, so many ways in which libraries connect with societies .

Looking at your own experience of becoming engaged in favour of libraries, was it you reaching out to libraries, or libraries reaching out to you?

In fact, it all started for me because we were planning to close a library! I had 2000 enthusiastic people disagreeing with me.

The original plans were down to the fact that I felt that I had to make cuts, and assumed that given that there was another library just 2km away, the impacts of closure would be minimal. But of course the people said no – this was their community centre, their institution!

Interestingly, it wasn’t the association even in the lead, rather the local people. However, of course, the Association reinforced this message by working through its own network to mobilise other politicians in Aarhus, in support of keeping the library open. And in the end, that’s just what we did, because we understood the costs of closure.

Is there a sense of how to identify the right politician to work with, or can you work with everyone?

I think you can work with everyone, as the agenda of libraries is very broad. There are so many places where libraries can play a role. You can light the spark in most politicians.

If they’re interested in digital, you can find stories of digital inclusion. If it’s the social field, there are plenty of examples.

One thing we do in Denmark is to break down the wider library agenda into key areas, and have key stories for each, just 3-4 stories that we can tell to politicians, backed up with evidence and stories.

One challenge that a lot of libraries have is that they are officially civil servants, and so feel that they can’t lobby. Is this a problem in Denmark?

Yes, it is an issue sometimes. But this is where associations come in – associations can intervene, as an external organisation. And of course, once they’ve made the link, they can organise discussions where they bring professional librarians and politicians together.

Organisations like IFLA and national associations can be seen as a neutral partner, a competent partner, able to engage and put libraries onto the agenda of key committees and boards at the local level. In doing so, they open the door for direct engagement with politicians by libraries.

What do you think politicians get out of cooperation with libraries?

Solutions! For example, a recent area of activity was reading – not just literacy, but reading for fun. This was a challenge, because at school, teachers tend to take a functional approach to reading, to teach it as a tool. But if we want to encourage reading throughout life, we need to make it fun! And this is where libraries can come in!

So we organised meetings at the ministry, as well as a conference, in order to make the case, to show the solution that libraries could offer, working together with the politicians to move things forwards.

Have these relationships improved the situation for libraries?

A lot! I believe that it has been possible to stop the decline in libraries that we saw over a number of years, and instead both secure more resources, and open up a lot of possibilities for new cooperation, for example with NGOs and with municipalities. It is now a standard thing to make libraries part of local development planning for example, a great result!

Do you think that this is a unique situation to Denmark?

Maybe, but I think that knowing how to tell the right stories can bring benefits everywhere. We just need to make sure that we are updating our stories, finding new ways to tell them, even if we are talking about activities that have been going on for years.

We also need to work on ourselves, to avoid reproducing or reinforcing the old image of libraries. We have to concentrate on how we can impact society. In my case, I took so much inspiration from my first visit to Queens Public Library in New York – it was so busy, and they were doing things that were far beyond what was done in Denmark at the time! 

Advocacy, Denmark, library advocacy

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