One of the lessons that is ringing in my head after the New York Library Association Annual Conference is one that I've known for a long time...and one that I don't think we tell our LIS students about.
All libraries are involved in politics.
Before I go further, what does the word politics mean?
- the policy-formulating aspects of government as distinguished from the administrative, or legal
- the complex or aggregate of relationships of people in society, esp those relationships involving authority or power
- the civil functions of government
- the art and science of government
Most libraries exist as part of a larger entity, whether that is a larger organization, a municipal government, town, etc. Here is were the politics get interesting. In a town or city, does the public library understand the politics - the relationships - in the area? Does the library director and staff know who in the community "pulls the strings" whether done overtly or behinds the scenes? Is the library in a positive relationship with those that could affect its future, whether those people are its trustees, friends group, local politicians, etc.?
The problem with politics is that you can't teach the gamesmanship that goes along with it. (At least, I don't think you can.) Learning comes from watching, listening, trial and error. It comes from knowing when to walk away from a situation, rather that "playing all your cards" in an effort to win. It comes from looking for win-win situations and sometimes making those situations appear out of thin air.
At the core of politics is information. You can't get involved in the politics of your community or organization if you do not have good information and lots of it. Since we're information people, by nature we have the basic material to be effective political agents. How we use that information is what really matters, when it comes to being an effective political agent.
If you find that you need to become more involved in the politics that surround your library, here are some things you might want to do:
- If your library is governed by trustees or a board of advisors, attend any open meeting that they have.
- If your library has a friends of the library group, interact with them. These are people from your larger community, who may be well connected and can clue you into the larger political realm.
- Talk to those that use the library and ask how things are going for them and for the larger community. You don't need to offer advice, etc., just listen and consider how what you are hearing impacts the library. (Note that this works no matter if you are a public, academic or special library.)
- Invite those that seem to hold the power in your community to library events. Send them personal invitations, then be sure to thank them for coming. Not only will they learn by attending the event, it is a powerful political message to have them seen in the library.
- If you are part of a public library, go to town/city government meetings like the planning board. In one town where I lived, I went regularly to the planning board meetings and it was very educational! That is where the area's values are clearly demonstrated.
- Get to know the reporters that cover local politics or local news. Feed them information about possible stories. Invite them to library events. Ask them what's going on in the community. They always know more than what they can "print."
- Listen...listen...listen. Listen more than you talk. Listen for connections between pieces of information. Take in more information than what you share. Ensure that what information that you do share is correct and relevant.