Guest Blogger

Knowing our value(s) at #PLA2024

If you had asked me just a few years ago, I would never have dreamed I’d be geeking out over sessions on data analysis or communication at the Public Library Association conference this year.  This children’s librarian tends to feel the most comfortable in the sunshine-y part of libraries, but the reality is that in these past few years, all librarians have found themselves amid challenges they may never have expected in the past.  To me, that means that I need to learn how to place the (perpetually lovely) world of rhymes and readiness amid its (often tricky) wider community context.

Digging into disagreement

So on the final day of this conference, I attended two sessions: Communicating During Controversy: How to Lead with What You Believe and Data Analysis for Equity and Opportunity: Analytical Frameworks in Action.  Each session was led by a panel of experts in their field.  There is a lot of overlap here- the data specialists talked about presenting to city councils, and the communications wizards talked about the need to be well-versed in facts.  I wish I could have gotten all ten of them in a room together at the very end just to see how the conversation would go.

Even without that dream session, I still have a very clear picture of the dedication of each panelist to the essential work of libraries.  Whether it is through the lens of democracy, education, or economic opportunity, as panelist Kim Horton (Senior Director of Communications of the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library) put it, “We believe in libraries.”

It’s easy to feel idealistic about libraries as community superheroes at a conference such as this, but the reality is that many in our hometowns truly don’t agree with or just plain dislike some of the things we do.  That is not only their right but a feature of living in a democratic society.  We’re all human, and that means we’re good at disagreeing.  Like, really good at it.

Communicating During Controversy

When we accept we can’t make everyone in our communities happy, we must return to our values.  They’re not just words in our mission statements, after all!  Panelists in the communications session agreed that a well-defined pool of values forms the backbone of communications to patrons and staff alike.  They are both a compass in contentious conversations and an open door to speak authentically of the true work of libraries in a community.  We can find common ground with those who mistrust us, and begin to build relationships in even the most polarized communities.

For front-line folk like me, all of that translates to cutting through the b…aloney.  (Sorry.) It’s a tricky time out here, but I know that most people can tell when someone is being authentic even (and perhaps especially) when they’re disagreeing.  I wish I could tell you all the practical tips these panelists had on communications- there were a lot.  My favorite two were being proactive with relationships in the communities to refining and defining your list of core values. I like these because I think they are applicable from the largest library institution down to a single librarian.

Talking Equity Data with Heather Lowe; Assistant Director of Technology and Strategic Direction, Dallas Public Library (Photo by guest contributor)

Something else that cuts through the noise? Data.

The panelists of Data Analysis for Equity and Opportunity: Analytical Frameworks in Action had a similar obstacle to the communications panelists.  Namely, how can a library get others on board for an initiative when the very mission of libraries feels like a political lightning rod nowadays?  Their answer was to give their communities and policymakers the very same information they were working from and trust people to draw their own conclusions.  How very information-professional of them!

Getting elbow-deep in census data, income statistics, and other numbers might not be glamorous, but it helps crack open the hard question of where libraries might have the most impact on educational attainment, economic growth, or infrastructure.  They described times when this work even meant bucking time-honored library traditions.  Can we continue to measure our worth chiefly through circulation statistics, or have other variables evolved to consider?  (Spoiler alert: probably no, and absolutely yes.)

All told, these two sessions probably could have been a standalone conference.  All ten panelists were well-versed not only in their areas of expertise but in what that knowledge means for the wider context.  Perhaps more importantly, they are willing to meet their neighbors where they are, even in the face of disagreement or even outright danger, because of their commitment to bettering their communities on the whole.

So throw out the rose-colored glasses, fire up an Excel spreadsheet and your library’s list of core values, and get ready to do the tough work of librarianship.  It might not be sunshine-y, but it’s relevant and necessary.  And maybe, just possibly… a little bit awesome. You’ve got this!

Alice Mackey (she/her/hers) is a Youth Services Librarian at Delaware County District Library in Ohio.  Though this is her eleventh year in libraries, this will be her first PLA experience.  That means she’s excited to sponge up all the ideas she can get her brain on! 

This post addresses ALSC Core Competency VII: Professionalism and Professional Development

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

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