ALA Student Chapters Making a Difference in Their Communities

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by Brittany Foster, Co-President, ALA Student Chapter, University of California, Los Angeles

Originally posted March 23, 2011 in American Libraries

The Student Chapter of ALA at UCLA recently made a huge difference in helping its community to pass Measure L in California, the proposal to dedicate more of the city's revenues to its public library system. They did, and now would like to provide tips to other ALA Student Chapters on how to be active in their communities.

The MLIS program at UCLA is fortunate to be surrounded by a wealth of information institutions, which partner with our researchers, guest lecturer in our classes, and host our interns. For those interested in public librarianship, some of the nation’s largest systems, including Los Angeles Public Library, serve as resources for MLIS students. LAPL and the IS Department at UCLA have a strong partnership; in addition to being a site for our interns, several of our adjuncts are current or former LAPL librarians. It only made sense that when the city of L.A.’s budget crisis began to effect the library that the Student Chapter of ALA at UCLA should bring our resources to the aid of the public library.

Why should MLIS students be involved in library advocacy and activism?

  • Professional Responsibility: We are the future leaders of our libraries; we are charged with protecting and preserving access to our information resources. It is never too early to commit ourselves to this mission!
  • Professional Solidarity: Putting libraries on the chopping block means layoffs of librarians and library staff. Adding our voices to those of experienced professionals ensures the spectrum of the career is represented.
  • Professional Opportunity: It can’t be denied that there is a bit of opportunism in being a student advocate. Working to save a library means that library will need to hire in the future (and that hire could be you!); you will be working with professional librarians who can serve as references and be added to your network; having concrete experience in library advocacy and activism is a big plus point on your resume.

For those unfamiliar with the crisis at LAPL, a brief synapses: the library was put on a hiring freeze in 2008/2009, and in March 2010, to reflect staff cuts of 28 percent, hours were reduced. In June, the L.A. City Council rejected a proposal for a parcel tax on the November 2010 ballot that would have funded the library; on July 19, 2010, LAPL went to five-day service, closing on Mondays for the first time in the 140-year history of the library. No other major urban library system beside Detroit Public Library has faced this level of cuts in service to its community. Librarians and library supporters continued to agitate for a solution, however, and in November, Measure L was approved for the March 2011 ballot. The Measure, if passed with a simple majority, would reallocate city property tax funding to the library, increasing the funding percentage from .0175 percent to .03 percent. These funds would be dedicated to eventually restoring library service to seven days a week, replenishing the materials budget, and supporting library programs.

As this situation developed, the UCLA ALA Student Chapter followed closely, making sure that students were informed of the latest news. We attended the protest on July 19th at the Central Library, and in November, hosted a letter drive, collecting over 75 letters from the UCLA MLIS community to the Los Angeles Mayor and City Council in protest to the cuts to LAPL. When we heard that Measure L was approved for the March ballot, we immediately contacted the library for ways to support the campaign. Through instructors in our program and internship networks, we were able to coordinate our contributions with those of the larger campaign, which included the Librarian’s Guild, Friend’s of the Library from all over the city, the Library Foundation, and residents of Los Angeles who believe in the importance of libraries. At the conclusion of the campaign, the Student Chapter had distributed over 2,000 fliers on campus and in local businesses, called hundreds of residents in phone banking sessions, hosted a day of action which was covered by our campus newspaper, and supported the efforts of other groups working on the campaign.

Tips for Student Library Activists

  • Reach Out: If this is a large scale campaign, contact the central organization in charge of the actions. Let them know who you are, and what resources you can offer, and ask them how you can be of most service to their efforts. For this campaign, we knew that targeting the 40,000 registered voters on the UCLA campus was our greatest contribution, so this is where we focused our efforts.
  • Get Out There: It can be really easy to advocate from within the comfort of our departments, but the truth is, this is preaching to the converted. To be effective, we’ve got to go where people don’t even know the library is in danger.
  • Make Your Presence Known: To be truly effective, we have to align ourselves with our professional peers. Student campaigns run the risk of happening in a bubble, because we’re not standing in the break room every day, getting the very latest from our colleagues. Make sure student representatives are at every meeting. Get yourself put on the mailing lists, and then send your efforts and progress out on those mailing lists.
  • Remember that Activism Never Ends: This is probably one of the hardest things to remember. When the library is in crisis, up for a vote, or threatened with closure, people pull together and the resources are more abundant. As future professionals, however, we have to remember that activism and advocacy for libraries must happen every day to prevent these kind of crises from happening in the first place.

Measure L went to vote on Tuesday, March 8th. I spent the day at my LAPL internship, listening to patron after patron tell us that they had voted for us, and gnawing at my fingernails regardless. At 10:30 that night, I was standing with a group of LAPL librarians who had worked on the campaign when Measure L was declared a victory. We would find out the next morning that nearly 64 percent of Los Angeles voters said “Yes” to their public libraries through the Measure. Plans are underway to restore hours, and LAPL librarians are elated that Measure L will allow them to continue and expand their service to their community.

The Student Chapter of ALA at UCLA is proud to have contributed to this success, and to have the opportunity to work alongside our colleagues to prove our commitment to the sustainability of the public library for the people of Los Angeles.

Photo caption:
Britt Foster, Student Chapter of ALA at UCLA Co-President, giving a speech at rally “Let's Keep the Magic of Libraries Alive!” on the importance of LAPL to the UCLA MLIS program, and why current and future librarians matter to their community.