Public libraries are very political. But, strangely, no one tells you this while you’re working on your MLIS, and I’ve always wondered why. Libraries exist in a political environment that has the power to cut our funding, damage our image in the community, and question our existence. Yet, we are taught almost nothing about dealing with politics during our MLIS coursework. While the political climate varies from library to library, the influence of politics is always present. [Editor’s Note: This is also true at academic libraries. Town/gown relationships can be minefields.] Young librarians and MLIS students should be aware of this since it has an impact on their day-to-day work experience, job security, and job satisfaction.
When I talk about “politics” in this post, I’m referring to outside political pressures, for example, city commissioners, school board, the media, and the community. In this post, I’m focusing on local politics. State and national politics more confusing than I have room to discuss. Neither am I discussing internal workplace politics are important and worth discussing. Workplace issues are often mentioned in MLIS coursework and seem to be better understood by new librarians. Anyway, workplace politics aren’t solely a library phenomenon; they exist in every work environment.
Back to the subject at hand: local politics.I learned about this early on in my library career. In my first position, I worked at a small rural library system in southwest Georgia, and my director was very good at playing the political game. (Minor disclaimer: almost all of my work experience has been in rural public libraries, so my experiences with politics come from a rural background.) When she started as director, she attended every meeting of the city council, board of commissioners, school board, etc. By doing so, she served as the face of the library. When county commissioners, members of the public, or local press had a question or critique of our library, she spoke up. Having a library representative available to politicians, the local press, and others, helped shorten the distance between the library and the local political world. Not only do libraries need to be engaged with patrons, but they also must be involved in political discussions. Maybe in larger library systems a public relations person takes over most of these duties, but for small libraries with limited funding and staff, these tasks often fall on the director and other administrators.
This is might sound terrible, but a good chunk politics for librarians involves playing nice. Whether it’s sending a birthday card to the husband or wife of a local representative, providing one-on-one tutorials on downloading ebooks to the chair of the zoning board, or personalized readers’ advisory for a county commissioner, catering to the political elite is often necessary. I don’t want to sound like public libraries should provide better service to politicians or big wigs than to the rest of the community. These are the same services we offer to all of our patrons, but the intensity is upped. I’m not sure if this is more true for rural communities than for others, but for rural libraries, the connections are so close and so critical. Everyone knows everyone’s business. People go to the same churches, know the same people. Gossip spreads easily. The school board member who you see at the gym may be the same person who votes nay on continuing library funding. You want these people to be on your side, rooting for the library or at the very least not attacking it in the press.
I would encourage young librarians to figure out the political landscape of their community, even if you aren’t at a rural library. If you don’t already know, figure out the answers to these questions: Who funds my library? Who are my county commissioners, school board members, and other local representations? How does the local press represent my library? How important is my library and our services to these individuals?
You may have no interest in becoming a director or administrator (I know I don’t), but it’s worthwhile to know how politics impact the work you do.
Abigail Phillips is a third-year doctoral student in the School of Information at Florida State University. Her research interests include social media, young adults, information behaviors, cyberbullying, information literacy, librarianship, and libraries. She tweets about all these things and much more @abigailleigh. Abigail also blogs about her experiences as a doctoral student at http://abigailleighphillips.com.