Unleashing Patron Power at Libraries for the Future

Article excerpt

ACCENTUATING THE PUBLIC IN PUBLIC LIBRARIES, A NATIONAL ADVOCACY GROUP MOVES INTO THE DRIVER'S SEAT

It's a librarian's dream come true: Like an overprotective home-security system, a critical mass of self-actualized library lovers sound a raucous alarm whenever their sensors detect the approach of budget burglars. The result: an impregnable fiscal fort inside which public librarians can perform good works with autonomy.

Or, it's a librarian's nightmare: Taking their ownership of the public library a bit too literally, well-meaning activists second-guess (read micromanage) library directors into programmatic paralysis with demands that defy human capacity and resource realities. The result: public disgruntlement capable of eroding desperately needed support.

Traditional inhabitants of Libraryland seem split on which scenario advocacy upstart Libraries for the Future has been more likely to promulgate since its 1991 inception. Whatever image lingers in the eye of the beholder, however, one fact remains incontrovertible: Thanks to LFF, public library advocacy has evolved to another level, and the profession is well advised to sit up and take notice.

"If I had to say in one sentence what we're about, I'd say we're trying to build a citizens movement for public libraries as they are now and as they could be in the future," Diantha Schull, executive director since May 1995, affirms. "We are trying to link various sectors to broaden this base of awareness and support for public libraries. And so we really are spending a great deal of time doing education and consciousness raising - [and] not in the library community; it's not needed. Outside and beyond."

In the process, LFF has:

* established a listserv (PUB-ADV), a Web site (www.lff.org), and an 8,000-member National Library Advocates Network that receives, at no charge, action alerts and publications that encourage activists to harness their libraries;

* issued joint policy papers that showcase exemplary libraries as a means of rallying public enthusiasm, such as Local Places, Global Connections: Libraries in the Digital Age (with the Benton Foundation) and Public Libraries: Communities, and Technology: Twelve Case Studies (with the Council on Library Resources);

* hosted grantmakers' forums in New York and Chicago (with another planned for Seattle) at which local private foundations and library leaders explore areas of common cause;

* collaborated on the development of ALA's ongoing advocacy campaign and informally teamed with Friends of Libraries USA (FOLUSA);

* launched library demonstration projects as a means of filling a need Schull perceives to "promote best practices" in "education, family support, multiple literacies, the environment, and health."

Along the way, LFF has received the green light - and greenbacks - from more than two dozen private grant-makers, some of whom are new to library philanthropy. Among LFF's most recent coups are a $700,000 grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation to expand LFF's outreach-focused Community-Library Information Collaborative (CLIC) network of three sites to as many as 12, and $220,000 from the Hasbro Children's Foundation to create four "Family Place" sites.

All this with a staff that has swelled to seven FTE and several part-time workers.

"I do believe that there's a need for, and a place for, non-professionals in library service development, grant-seeking, and planning for libraries for the future. And I think this is where we can add some value," Schull emphasizes. "So I think we play a role in bridging and perhaps stimulating use by nontraditional constituencies."

Civic-minded startup

Based in New York City, LFF had its telling beginnings in the raised consciousness of founding chair Harriet Barlow, who noted with shock that NYPL's Chelsea branch had shortened its hours. "My original impulse was one of concern for what I saw as a crisis happening in public libraries," Barlow recalls. …