How to Be a Political Librarian

How to Be a Political Librarian

(Wake up.)

(Drink coffee. Read the news.)

The new OCLC report shows just how far voter support for libraries has eroded. Every time a library goes up for a funding measure, it is a battle.

My kid is 9 years old and has never known a school librarian. She probably never will.

Remember this “new normal.” This is when the Koch brothers fund robo-calls to defeat a local library referenda and we in Illinois are facing full-on state-level budget collapse that’s affecting my academic library friends at Chicago State. Sometimes it’s hard to bring fresh enthusiasm and optimism to my work every day. Hell, sometimes it’s hard to get out of bed.

(Feed the kid. Feed the cat. Go to work.)

Things we know (and some questions)

sign the pledge and vote for libraries!! 


We are aging out of library nostalgia. The current and emerging crop of voting adults doesn’t necessarily remember or care about the library as a happy, warm place for books. This means we have to do something to demonstrate our relevance and keep reinventing ourselves to meet real community needs. This is exciting (and tiring). The “aging out” trend affecting the public’s perception of libraries also affects my friends in academic and special/corporate libraries. New college students and new employees in our workplaces, like new voters, have different expectations of what a librarian can and should do.

(What can we do? What can I do? This is the job.)

We have a marketing problem. Not enough people know that we, in fact, do tech and digital stuff in the library. We teach computer classes and help people get onto the Internet to apply for jobs; we offer assistance for people setting up their fancy, new devices; we have maker spaces and e-books and much, much more. But it seems like the Apple Store and Geek Squad have cornered the market on tech support and cool tools.

(Where is the library in this conversation?)

Libraries are the face of government and the front door to local government service. Academic libraries also serve this “front door” function as they strive to support students along their educational journeys. Libraries are there to meet people and give them a way in to knowledge and access. Ideally, the library should be a friendly face, an open door, a safe place.

(Who are we welcoming in? Who are we leaving out? How can we do better and serve our community? Do we even know what our community looks like? Note to self: get some local demographic data!)

[Insert favorite cliché and lament about limited funding] Limited resources and competing funding priorities in municipalities and among university departments means librarians have to be creative in addressing problems, becoming visible, and articulating value when it seems like everyone thinks “everything’s free on the internet.” Corporate and special librarians may have some lessons to share about how to demonstrate ROI and quantify impact when faced with more and more budget cuts. Working together to make efficient use of limited resources is already a necessity.

(Come home. Feed the cat. Hug my kid.)

Things we can do:

(My librarianship is personal. And it is political.)

First, we show up and do the work. I’m in this business because I care about information equity and inclusion, about students, about people having access to the tools they need to do their jobs. But we also know that caring is hard work. Librarians, as a helping profession, do more than their fair share of emotional labor. By reaching out to community partners, we can share some of that burden and do our jobs better.

(Go to meetups. Conferences. Convenings. Coffee with friends. Find your people who can support you doing this work.)

Be a good partner. Work across city departments and academic/corporate units to leverage budgetary resources. On the public side, the library can seek out opportunities to work with the Development Department to support economic development and planning initiatives, work with Parks and Recreation for programmatic partnerships that improve community quality of life, and with Police and social services to provide community outreach functions and act as a social safety net. Regardless of the community context, the library can position itself as a provider for the good of the whole. For example, the library in Chattanooga, TN took a leading role in its city municipal gigabit project. In Palm Beach County, FL and Douglas County, CO, librarians embedded themselves within city departments to provide dedicated, specialized research services.

(Don’t forget to be a human at the office. Your patrons and clients and partners and colleagues have lives outside the library. So do you. Find ways to bring your personal interests and passions to your work. This will sustain you and connect you to people.)

Think about hiring differently. Take the opportunity to craft new types of job descriptions and hire new skill sets to serve specific community needs. Sometimes, when a librarian retires or moves on, the funding line for that position disappears. If it doesn’t, take the opportunity to argue for a better hire, one that can make the library even more vital to the community you serve. For example, in Denver, CO and Oak Park, IL social workers and a youth interventionist have joined the staff at the library, meeting people at their point of need. Further, Skokie Public Library has recently hired a community engagement and content strategy role, going beyond the traditional “reference desk librarian” role to improve library operations.

(Say yes to new ideas. Take some risks. Collaboration is not easy but it’s easier than going it alone or not going anywhere.)

Think bigger. I want to see a flood of MLS-holders apply to the Code for America Community Fellowship program. There have been no librarian fellows to date! And only a couple trained urban planners have served in this program that deploys experienced coders, UX folk, and designers as teams into city governments to solve thorny municipal information problems. Librarians can be project managers and researchers and facilitators of conversations. We are well-positioned to help create that citizen/city feedback loop. But it doesn’t take a flashy fellowship program to make interdisciplinary information work happen. Just call your local planning department and volunteer tech brigade and figure out how to solve a local problem that is critical for your community.

Look! The Anchorage Public Library got grant from the Knight Foundation to work with their Brigade on a Collective Development project. And in San Diego, Code for America built a tool to help the library get resident feedback on programs and services.

(Operate from the assumption that librarians can and should be at this table. Find a seat. Build a table.)

In conclusion

I am scared about the future of libraries. I worry that people don’t recognize or understand the value of a profession I’ve spent almost 14 years in. If you aren’t scared, you aren’t paying attention. I want all of us (librarians, those who love libraries, those who love individual librarians) to start conversations and begin to build relationships. If you are a planner or a coder or a minister or a social worker and want to work with a librarian or archivist on a community project, call me. Or call someone at the library down the street.

If you’re a librarian and care about doing something that matters for your patrons (whether they’re city residents, or college students, or school kids, or company employees), start talking to people who do caring and information work in other parts of your world.

I want to see what happens when we (librarians, archivists, coders, web designers, planners, activists, and religious leaders, etc.) work together all the time, not just in isolated initiatives or one-time grant projects. What if we stopped guarding our professional identities so closely and hoarding our departmental resources and instead shared information and built projects collaboratively in service of real community needs?

It could be awesome.

Rana Hutchinson Salzmann is a librarian, manager, process nerd, and aspiring doula in Chicago. She has over ten years of management experience in public, association, and academic libraries and currently serves as the Director of Education for the Society of American Archivists.

Disclaimer: The author’s views are her own and do not represent the positions or policies of the Society of American Archivists.