Blogger Advocacy and Legislation Committee

Advocacy Interview with Paula S. W. Laurita, Athens-Limestone Public Library

Paula S. W. Laurita is the Executive Director of the Athens-Limestone Public Library in Athens, Alabama. She was a school librarian for ten years before making the switch to Public Services. Now, she is currently running for an open council seat for ALA!

Throughout her career, Paula has constantly advocated for libraries and library services. Her work convincing her community that they needed a new public library epitomizes these efforts. Thanks to her incredible advocacy and use of best practices, the community of Athens, AL gained a beautiful 40,000 square foot library facility at the end of 2014!

I was first influenced by Paula Laurita and her accomplishments when I attended her ALA webinar titled, “Marketing and Advocacy: Explaining Libraries to Elected Officials.” The three biggest takeaways I took from Paula, when working with elected officials, were these three rules:

1.Stay POSITIVE.

2. It’s not about you. It’s about the SERVICE to your community.

3. Stay FOCUSED. Try to focus on one point.

This mindset came in handy for me this past week, when I ventured to the Washington State Capital to speak to my legislators for WA Library Legislative Day!

I had the pleasure of asking Paula about her advocacy efforts this past winter and this is what she had to say.

Can you give us an overview of your advocacy work?

At the local level is to continually make connections with local city councilmen, county commissioners, and legislative delegation. This is the ongoing education of elected officials that the library is not a warehouse for books. It is the only place in the community that provides equal access to information and education to everyone. We are the community living room that transcends barriers to bring everyone together. I want the library to be the fourth place in people’s lives. There is family, church (we’re in the Bible Belt), work, and the library. Because there are always elections and changing local politicians and legislators this will always be a priority.

Businesses are important partners in library advocacy. Work with your local Chamber of Commerce or business council. Have events at your library. Host a coffee or after hours event. We partner with our local Chamber of Commerce and host local legislative breakfasts, town halls, etc. Business owners come to these events and discover that the library has tools that can help them. We partner with staffing agencies for job fairs. Forming partnerships builds advocates. When a new factory manager referred to the library as the “heart of education in Limestone County” it was more valuable than anything I could say.

We will be hosting a Public Officials Reception at the state library convention. This year’s convention will be in Montgomery and the legislators will be in town. My focus is that this is a networking event. I have “forbidden” anyone from asking for money or funding. This event is about telling the library story. Again, we are not warehouses for books. Whether school, academic, public, or special, the library serves everyone in that community. If a state legislator asks someone about their biggest need that is good. Talk about the local need for books, staffing, etc. Libraries are not in competition with each other.

What has been the most effective tool in your advocacy work?

The invitation. We are preparing for an art exhibit and I have hand addressed envelopes to each local politician, state, and national legislator. Will they all come? No. But, they will be given a glimpse of an event that isn’t taking place anywhere else in the state. Inviting the legislators’ staff is important. My congressman may be in Washington, DC, but his local staff is here. It is important that the they see how we have spent LSTA funds. It is about making personal connections.

What is the greatest obstacle in your advocacy work?

Sometimes the negative attitude of other librarians. We cannot hit the target if we do not aim for the bullseye and shoot the arrow. I stress low key, low cost advocacy because honestly most librarians are over worked and libraries are underfunded. If every month library directors did one advocacy item (writing to one state senator) we could make great strides.     Be positive. No whining allowed! Imagine the tide of positive stories that legislators could tell about their library.

What are some tips and techniques that you would recommend for library staff who want to replicate or adapt ​your advocacy initiative(s)?

I’ve mentioned writing and inviting. Dare to think differently. During an election year I was trying to convince local politicians that we needed a new public library. I invited all candidates to a simple lunch. I made pasta casseroles, put 30 people in an area comfortable for 12 and talked about how the library serves the public and saves the community money. The naysayers did not all become advocates, but they stopped fighting against a new library.

Get outside the library whenever possible. Show that you are a part of the community. Is there a local farmer’s market? Ask if you can set up a booth. Is your college having a film festival? Ask to be present with examples of materials you have on the topic or theme.

Get out of the way if needed. I am originally from California. I’ve lived in Alabama for almost a quarter of a century, but that’s not what my voice says. At the state convention I will not be speaking to the public officials. It is time for the Alabama natives to shine. I have had the opposite happen as well. When a non-Alabama politician begins with pre-conceptions about my adopted state I can see the slow eye blink when I begin to speak. Do not let superficial barriers get in the way.

What’s next in your advocacy work?

I will be doing advocacy training for librarians. Helping them focus on the story they want to tell. What is their role in the community and how can they share it?

Locally I will be getting outside the library by partnering with restaurants. I have trained for an Italian wine certification and am a board member of the Alabama Wine Society. I will be conducting wine tastings at the restaurants and then highlighting materials available at the library, making library cards, etc. Marketing and advocacy go hand in hand.

There has been beginning conversation with a publisher about a book on library advocacy. I have stressed that my focus would be easy to do and low cost. I do not want readers becoming overwhelmed at all the options.

Karlyn Spevacek is a member of the ALSC Advocacy and Legislation Committee and is the District Youth Services Librarian for the Timberland Regional Library in Washington State.

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