When considering how to best advocate for services and programs offered by public libraries in our current environment, which includes a proliferation of information and digital access to multitude of sources, I tried to answer the questions: To whom is this program or service of value? How are we changing the landscape of our communities? How are we advancing the mission of public libraries to fight oppression and inequity?
With those questions in mind, I will walk you through a small program that had big impact in our community and sent a strong message of our values and the tenets in our community. Remember that advocating is not only done by messaging, advertisement, or campaigns. We advocate every day through relevant services, programs, and collections. Creating strategic community programs and showing how essential libraries are to children and adults is a great way to advocate for libraries.
In 2016, like many other public libraries, we were at a crucial point in the landscape of our city. We experienced an influx of patrons that others perceived as experiencing homelessness, and subsequently received feedback about our duty to protect the library and its patrons from people without a home. That of course is an oversimplification of a complex dilemma that public libraries face in metropolitan areas and the historical factors that influence the social construct of “homelessness”. Biases and preconceived notions of this social phenomena impact our community.
We had found through formal and informal complaints that a puritanical notion of the causes of homelessness was permeating the interactions among our residents.
Over a year, and with the help of the Denver Museum of History, we designed an exhibit that focused on people from our community experiencing homelessness and also provided specific avenues for people to become involved in different ways. The exhibit was created so it could be used by other agencies, schools, etc.
“Folks of Fort Collins: a graphic narrative of people without a home” was created. We invited people to join an advisory committee to create the project and determine its outcomes and evaluation. We had a council member, the social sustainability director from the city, a person who had experienced being without a stable home for many years, a social worker whose main function was to provide services to this community in Fort Collins, and a social work Intern.
A topic that became of relevant during the interviews with people experiencing homelessness, and later permeated the exhibit, was the lack of sources for water. Many individuals stated a feeling of sadness and frustration seeing restaurants placing bowls of water for pets, but not allowing people to access free water.
During the exhibition we heard time and time again visitors expressing a sense of gratitude and amazement at the library’s role in the exhibition. After the exhibition was over, as part of our outreach efforts we visited an elementary school to showcase pieces of the exhibition. The Girl Scout leader of the school contacted the library expressing the desire of their group to help alleviate the need of a water source in our city.
Although we are not part of the city, we were able to a meet with the Deputy City Manager, a council member, city planners and the Girls Scouts. It was with pride that we partnered in the installation of a water foundation at a local shelter.
This program showcased the importance of the public library in our community and bridged a gap between many community members. The program itself and its implications was a way to advocate for the crucial role our library place in our community.