Library Leadership

8. Marci Merola, Director of The American Library Association’s Office for Library Advocacy

Messages matter. Where do you turn for impact messaging? Library leaders practice advocacy on a daily basis, sharing the ways in which libraries benefit the lives of those they serve. The American Library Association’s Office for Library Advocacy (OLA) offers valuable support and resources in a librarian’s quest to become an advocacy powerhouse.

Listen in as Marci Merola, the Director of the OLA, shares valuable insights on how to get the most from your efforts to get the message out that libraries transform lives, libraries transform communities, librarians are passionate advocates for lifelong learning, and libraries are a smart investment.

Full Transcript

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:00:06]

Welcome to Library Leadership Podcast. We’re here today with Marci Merola, the American Library Association director for the Office of Library Advocacy. Welcome, Marci.

Marci Merola: [00:00:18]

Thank you, happy to be here today.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:00:20]

It’s great to talk to you. The last time I saw you was at an American Library Association Midwinter conference when you were doing Advocacy Bootcamps.

Marci Merola: [00:00:30]

Right, it was a big bootcamp for us, because we’ve been going state to state. But, this is the first time we had people from all over the country attend. That was really exciting. Then we did a Train the Trainer because we’re trying to get some more folks involved in this initiative.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:00:47]

It’s a great initiative and I can’t wait to talk more about it. Can you tell me about your history and the origin of your work with the Office of Library Advocacy?

Marci Merola: [00:00:57]

Sure. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism and English. That was what led me to the American Library Association. I had been doing a lot of work in not-for-profits, as well as writing. I started in the Public Information Office in of ALA in 2001. I was doing, advocacy and public awareness work. This was the first time a position had been dedicated to advocacy in ALA outside of the work of the Washington Office of federal lobbying. I guess I didn’t realize at the time how significant that was to begin the work of institutionalizing advocacy efforts at ALA.

Marci Merola: [00:01:43]

Then, in 2007 I had been working with Keith Michael Fiels, former Executive Director and Carol Brey who was an ALA President, previously. We had been dreaming up this Office for Library Advocacy, an entire office dedicated to serving libraries of the state and local level, and assisting them with advocacy efforts.

Marci Merola: [00:02:09]

It became official in 2007, but it had been sort of a glimmer in the eye of a lot of people for several years. The office was established in 2007. Then in 2008, I was actually hired for the job that I’d created for myself. That makes this my ten year anniversary of being in this role. Ten years later we have a staff of three and a half. It’s gone from me to three and a half. We have some really great projects underway, that are really impacting libraries and the state library associations as well.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:02:48]

Definitely, and I know that all of us out in the field are appreciative of your being there for us. How fantastic that we had inspired leaders that saw a need to dedicate an office to advocacy for libraries.

Marci Merola: [00:03:02]

Yeah, absolutely, I’m really grateful. Keith had a lot of expertise at the local level. He’d worked in New York and New Jersey. Carol, too, was director of the El Paso Public Library, which had was a great library – and I love El Paso, Texas. It had its share of challenges, though. I think they really valued the work at the local level of the need for advocacy assistance.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:03:27]

Definitely, so ten years in this office. It’s so exciting, and over that time I know a lot has happened. What are the projects that are currently going on that mean the most to you as we move forward in the profession?

Marci Merola: [00:03:45]

Well, I’m really proud of the crisis work we’re doing – outreach to libraries undergoing any kind of funding crisis, budget elimination, or anything like that. Yearly, we’re assisting about 100 libraries. I think we’ve got about 60-some that we’ve worked on just this year alone. So, that indicates that the number is getting higher and higher. Because of the additions in staff at the office for Library Advocacy we have gone to a place where we’ve just been responding to requests for assistance to actually, proactively, going after any leads we hear of where there’s something going on, so that we can be the first to approach a library and offer assistance.

Marci Merola: [00:04:30]

But, that just doesn’t happen on its own. We’ve established a protocol to make sure that when we do get involved we’re actually helping, and not hindering. From our office in Chicago, it’s really hard to know what’s happening at the local level and everywhere in the country. We really rely on our chapter leaders, the chapter counselors, the state association presidents, and executive directors to lead us, and guide us, and let us know what we can do to help.

Marci Merola: [00:05:03]

There are some places that are more conservative where they don’t even want to hear the words, the name ALA. It’s certainly not going to assist any kind of political efforts. So, in those cases, it’s just sort of behind the scenes consultation, assistance with strategy, all the way to if we need to create some press. We’ll do it op-ed or letters to the editor. When ALA president, Barbara Stripling was in office she was involved with the school crisis in D.C. and ended up sitting on a task force and helped write the strategic plan for the D.C. school system for libraries. So, there are obviously different levels of service and work that we do but it’s really grown and I think the libraries know that they can look to us now, and that’s really great.

Marci Merola: [00:05:53]

So, primarily we’re dealing with funding issues, school library issues, and the elimination of school librarian positions. There’s been an uptick in inquiries about privatization, libraries that are being considered to have their management privatized. That’s one area that’s really growing. I guess it’s a good thing that we’re ready for it to grow. But, it’s a bad thing that it is growing.

Marci Merola: [00:06:22]

We talk a lot about this reactive versus proactive advocacy, and the crisis protocol. The assistance we provide is really an example of reacting to a crisis. We’ve been thinking how we really need to shift the paradigm so we don’t have that many crises to respond to.

Marci Merola: [00:06:42]

That’s the impetus for another initiative that we were just talking about a little bit ago, the Advocacy Bootcamp, which is something that I’ve been working with the Office for Intellectual Freedom. Jamie LaRue is the director there. He does the same kind of work as the Office for Library Advocacy but specifically for censorship and book challenge issues. We’d been talking about how the paradigm has to change if the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results right?

Marci Merola: [00:07:17]

So, how can we change the paradigm and do more proactive advocacy work? We talk a lot about the community engagement aspects in Advocacy Bootcamp, creating strong networks, broadening the base of advocates. I think there was a mindset that advocacy was all about contacting legislators or writing letters to your legislator. We’re really kind of broadening that out so that there’s a place at the table for everyone when it comes to advocacy.

Marci Merola: [00:07:53]

I think some of the main points that brought us to do this Advocacy Bootcamp initiative was to re-evaluate how we’re doing with advocacy for libraries. Are we getting the best results possible? Also, it’s really time to speak with a unified voice. We’ve gone from a time where no one ever talked about advocacy for libraries to now everyone is doing advocacy for libraries, without any common denominators about messaging, about what advocacy means, and what our goals are.

Marci Merola: [00:08:29]

It’s really time to start speaking with a unified voice and noting that the environment has changed. The very idea of public service is being questioned in a lot of communities. The anti-tax movement is getting stronger. This whole concept of public good is being challenged. So, it’s time to get organized, definitely.

Marci Merola: [00:08:52]

There’s also an eye towards mentorship with Bootcamp, because so many folks are just retiring. We’re not only getting this great loss of institutional knowledge in the profession but specifically for advocacy. So much of the work we do is in people’s heads – who they know in relationships and ideas like that. How do we institutionalize advocacy at the local level is a big challenge for us.

Marci Merola: [00:09:25]

That was what we’ve been thinking with Advocacy Bootcamp. We will have done 25 by the end of this year. Then that Train the Trainer session at Midwinter will, hopefully, create new trainers out there who will get the word out even more so. Then, we’re looking at Advocacy Bootcamp 2.0. These may be webinars or shorter face-to-face meetings where we talk about specific things that we sort of glaze over during a three hour Bootcamp session, like how to strengthen your legislative agenda, how to create an advocacy plan, intellectual freedom, basic stuff like that.

Marci Merola: [00:10:04]

We are busy. Those are two big projects. They’re also really working closely with the chapters – ALA, the 54, I believe, chapters around the country, to make sure that they’re interacting with each other. We have a monthly webinar series that we’re doing with them. And, there’s another partnership with the state associations in AASL, specifically the ALA Chapter Relations Office and AASL. The idea is there is the state ecosystem idea where we really are trying to improve communication across library type from state to state.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:10:47]

It’s absolutely incredible work, Marci.

Marci Merola: [00:10:50]

Thank you. Thank you. Well, we don’t do it alone. Like I said, there’s three and a half of us in the office. Being in a really small office, we have had to have a kind of collaborative model from the get-go. We work with different organizations throughout ALA, and then, of course, working at the local level.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:11:10]

Definitely, I was at an Advocacy Bootcamp at Midwinter which was extremely valuable and I’m interested in going a little bit deeper on this Train the Trainer idea because, as you say, many folks are getting toward retirement and we have to get more people training others in what comes next. How do we share these ideas? Can you tell me a little bit about Train the Trainer and how that’s going to spread the work of the OLA?

Marci Merola: [00:11:41]

Sure. I don’t know which member it was, but someone said, Just because you train 50 people in a given state doesn’t mean the whole state is aware of what’s going on. I was like, that’s very true. When the folks that are able to go to an ALA conference are a lucky portion of the entire population of libraries around the country, even at the state level, the folks that are able to get out of their libraries and come to a state conference for training is much smaller than the number of people out there, especially when you consider libraries that are one-person shops, or where it’s too small for frontline staff to get away.

Marci Merola: [00:12:25]

The idea is how do we dig in even deeper to get to that next level and get trainers available to work with systems or consortia within a community, within a state and really make sure everyone’s on the same page. Integral to that is something we talk about briefly at Bootcamp but don’t get into, and that is this idea of having an advocacy plan. Just because everyone knows what to do and what the steps are for advocacy, doesn’t mean that we should all be doing them at the same time. There has to be coordination and has to be strategy. I think that’s really key too.

Marci Merola: [00:13:06]

With 2.0, I’m hoping that we can really help chapters strengthen their advocacy efforts, help them build an advocacy plan. There’s a couple of models out there that bridge that public awareness effort with the legislative agenda. If you go to your state house once a year if you talk to your legislators a few times a year, if you’re doing public awareness, there has to be something in the middle that bridges these things – like that everyday advocacy. That’s what I’m thinking about with an advocacy plan.

Marci Merola: [00:13:40]

We have this bird’s eye view. We’re able to see what’s happening all over the country and to bring together the best practices and best ideas of some states, usually the ones that are better staffed, who have the benefit of full-time leadership, and so forth. In addition to the presidents and the elected officials, if we can share those best practices back with the other chapters that are smaller and more volunteer-run, we can help everyone.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:14:18]

It’s great to know that the OLA is out there to help all of us do this, as a matter of fact, I received a package in the mail just this week from the OLA with some amazing bookmarks and buttons.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:14:30]

There are resources no matter what level of staffing that you have. You can get involved in some way, and for those who are listening, I’d recommend getting a Bootcamp in your area, if you haven’t already and even consider becoming a trainer in this area.

Marci Merola: [00:14:45]

Excellent, Joaquin said he sent you a box of goodies, so I’m glad you received it. I think among other things in those boxes were some bookmarks and buttons for Libraries Transform, which is our new public awareness campaign. It’s not brand new. It was launched in ’16 and it’s been renewed through 2020. But, the key messages of that campaign are also the key messages of our Advocacy Bootcamp. Not a coincidence, but they are that: libraries transform lives; libraries transform communities; librarians are passionate advocates for lifelong learning, and libraries are a smart investment.

Marci Merola: [00:15:30]

We really believe if we can help every state to use those same messages consistently if every state in the country can use those same messages consistently, we’ll really have a better chance of breaking through the clutter and getting heard.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:15:47]

Definitely.

Marci Merola: [00:15:49]

The messages are, I don’t want to say vague, but they are broad enough where you can really apply them to so many so many instances.

Marci Merola: [00:16:00]

As we go from state to state, we’re asking folks to incorporate these key messages into all their public awareness and advocacy work, even if they are not taking on the campaign itself.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:16:13]

I say them all the time to my staff, to my library board, to the public, to stakeholders, and funders. They’re wonderful messages and they do apply across the board to what libraries do. I wonder what ways might librarians learn from the kind of leadership that has been able to turn the work you do into a reality that benefits all libraries?

Marci Merola: [00:16:35]

I think when you boil it down, advocacy is really about building relationships. To have solid relationships, you need to grow trust. When we’re talking to someone at the local level, especially to someone in a crisis situation where their job is threatened, where their library might be closing, we are very aware of these things and I think we try to have a lot of empathy, and respect, and understanding for what it is that they’re going through. So, I think that’s part of it.

Marci Merola: [00:17:08]

Empathy and respect, I think it’s important, too. If we say we’re going to get back to someone that we actually do. We follow up, or we promise to follow up. I think that it’s partly about having expertise, but also being comfortable, and confident enough to say, I don’t know, but I can find out for you. Or, I don’t know but I can put you in touch with someone who does have the right answer for you.

Marci Merola: [00:17:37]

I think that mirrors what’s happening for libraries at a larger level, this shift from the librarian as owner or keeper of information, to more of a navigator. I think it’s OK to admit that we don’t know everything in the whole world. I think that’s a shift in mindset.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:18:00]

Definitely, you talk a lot about relationships. I know that those are key to gaining people in your community that believe in what you do as a librarian. In a podcast I recently recorded, we talked about stories, what those mean, where the rubber hits the road, essentially. Can you tell me about the storytelling component and your leadership and vision in that area?

Marci Merola: [00:18:25]

Storytelling plays a key role in our Advocacy Bootcamp training. We’ve been talking about that forever. It really is a buzzword, across all sectors. Everyone wants to hear the story. It’s that idea that it’s not statistics, not facts. It’s not information that changes people’s mind, it’s really a story.

Marci Merola: [00:18:50]

That changes that kind of brain chemistry, the synapses fire in a different way. People can really relate to a story. We talk about that a lot, as well as effective storytelling, being able to compartmentalize your protagonist. Making sure that the library is involved but it’s not the subject. It’s the story about someone’s personal success, how a library changed someone’s life, how a library changed the community vs. making the story all about the library. It really is interesting that we, as librarians – we’re keepers of stories but sometimes we’re really bad at telling our own story.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:19:42]

Yeah, it can be tricky. I think one of the most rewarding things we all see on a daily basis, is the people who come in and have their lives affected. But, how do we share that, and make sure that the message is getting out that this is what libraries do? Libraries do transform lives. It’s such an important concept.

Marci Merola: [00:20:06]

I was just thinking, we don’t think that like so many people, librarians go to work, do their job, and come home. You think about your friends and family and how much they share about their job. Where our jobs are so unique and so amazing, I think that a good place to start your storytelling is with your own friends and family. I’m really getting familiar with how that sounds because I think we’re kind of modest people, in a way. We don’t often like to toot our own horns.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:20:52]

Definitely, I agree. I think one powerful way is to get people to tell their own stories about the library, what they experienced when they walked through the door.

Marci Merola: [00:21:02]

Right, I agree.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:21:04]

Speaking of storytelling, you’ve created so much leadership and vision for the OLA. Have you, as you’ve gone along, had any favorite leadership books or mentors – something that you could share with us that might guide those of us in library leadership to higher levels?

Marci Merola: [00:21:22]

I keep coming back to Malcolm Gladwell and The Tipping Point. This idea that there are different types of people in the world, but there are a few types that are more instrumental. He calls them the connectors, the people who connect people to one another – networkers or the mavens. The information specialist is another type. It’s so obvious that librarians are connectors and mavens, right?

Marci Merola: [00:21:54]

Then the other pieces, the persuader, or a salesman. That’s not necessarily someone who just can sell you something but understands the cues, understands people’s visual cues. We have the first two down. The third one, we might have to work on a little more. But overall, the book is a reminder that everything, every detail counts. It can all add up to something larger, especially in this age of social media. It’s so easy to have impact. I’m liking books about how people think. We talk about brain research a lot in Advocacy Bootcamp.

Marci Merola: [00:22:42]

I was just telling my friends about Being Wrong. It’s called, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, by Kathryn Schulz. She talks about how no one wants to admit that they’re wrong in sort of the five stages of grief that happens when people are confronted with the notion that maybe what they’re saying is incorrect. In the end, they don’t ever admit that they’re wrong. They change the narrative to make it sound like they knew all along they had the right story. We were just mistaken. It’s just very interesting.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:23:21]

It’s absolutely fascinating, and I think has a lot to do with advocacy work.

Marci Merola: [00:23:25]

And, current events. If you think about fake news and you know critical thinking these days, it’s very interesting.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:23:33]

…because librarians have been helping people fact check since forever.

Marci Merola: [00:23:39]

Exactly.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:23:39]

Which is one of the logos from the wonderful campaign that you’ve been doing.

Marci Merola: [00:23:44]

Exactly.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:23:46]

For those interested in further information on the Office of Library Advocacy, how do we get more, Marci?

Marci Merola: [00:23:52]

You can send me an email at mmerola@ala.org. That’s M M E R O L A at ALA dot org. You can call me at 312-280-2431, and I’ll be happy to help you.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:24:08]

In closing, what does working as an advocate for libraries mean to you, personally?

Marci Merola: [00:24:15]

Well, everything is a trade-off. I think that the downside of being in a national association is that lack of local impact, those personal stories that we were just talking about, the ones that librarians have are harder to come by when you are removed several levels in working for a national association.

Marci Merola: [00:24:36]

However, what I do have is a hand in keeping libraries around the country alive, surviving, and thriving. If libraries are surviving and thriving then so is democracy, right?  What other profession is there, or what other institution is there that embodies the spirit of our country? Equitable access to information, education, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – all of that. How lucky am I to have a job like that, and wake up and do that every day?

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:25:11]

We’re so fortunate you’re there, Marci. Thank you for all you do. Your work does mean a lot to librarians around the country. And, we’re so glad we got to talk to you today.

Marci Merola: [00:25:22]

Well, I’m honored to be here. Thank you so much for the invitation. It’s been a lot of fun.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: [00:25:27]

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. We’ll see you next time. The library leadership podcast is brought to you by the Park City Library, making film and podcasting possible with green screen, and sound recording resources. Our producer is Nate Vineyard and our host is Adrian Herrick Juarez. For more podcasts visit our website libraryleadershippodcast.com.

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