In December, with approximately 99 other librarians from across the country, I attended a Chapter Advocacy Workshop put on by ALA and AASL. We tapped into existing ALA and AASL resources and learned from peers and experts across the country to advocate as state library organizations with our state legislature and to speak with the media.
For the past year, the Missouri Association of School Librarians has been in litigation against a state law that puts librarians in the state at risk of criminal prosecution. As current president of the organization, I’ve had the opportunity to speak to the press on several occasions.
Those experiences were put to the test at the workshop as I was asked to take part in a mock interview in front of a hundred sets of eyes. I knew that I would be interviewed about a topic I was familiar with, the Missouri law and our state organization’s litigation against it. I was also told that the mock interview would be with a challenging conservative interviewer. That was something I wasn’t familiar with.
The eight-minute interview seemed much longer. My heart raced. I broke a sweat. But when it was all done, I was proud of how I had handled those eight minutes. The compliments from leaders across the state affirmed my feelings.
There were a handful of things that I did before and during the interview that I think helped my mock-interview and could help other librarians who are faced with talking to the press in any capacity.
Before the interview
- Prepare for almost any question.
After I knew the focus of the interview, I took time to brainstorm possible questions that could be asked. I think about my answers and even speak them aloud before the interview if I’m able.
Even though we only had eight minutes, I was prepared for almost twenty possible questions. I was still asked a question or two I wasn’t prepared for, but more than one question I had prepared for was asked.
- Get your stories straight.
We all know people connect to stories. I’ve been collecting stories related to how this law has impacted students and librarians that I can weave into any interview. Some are from colleagues across the state. Others are personal from my own experiences. All of them help to illustrate the negative impact that this Missouri law has had on our students’ right to read.
When those stories are about someone that can be easily identified, I am sure to ask that colleague’s permission to share that story even if I will not mention them by name.
- Know the parameters of the interview.
Just like I prepare myself for physical work, I prepare myself for mental work. These interviews are stressful and mentally taxing. Knowing the time I’ll be interviewed is important for me to pace myself. Print interviews take longer as interviewers can ask a variety of questions to get to information they’re looking for. But they also allow for some time to think before responding to the question. Radio and television interviews are on a time limit which limits the possible questions but also adds stresses around responding quickly and succinctly.
During the interview
- Look for opportunities to share your story.
In my mind, an interview is a little like a logic puzzle. Where do the messages and stories I want to share best fit into the questions being answered? This is where preparing responses prior to the interview really pays off.
It’s also important to remember that you’re not obliged to answer specific questions. If a question gives me the opportunity to share a message or a story, even when it doesn’t specifically answer the question, I take it.
- Watch your language.
We’ve seen a lot of inflammatory language around libraries, books, and librarians in the past years. A reporter may intentionally or inadvertently use that language because it is so pervasive. Just because they do does not mean that you’re obliged to use it yourself.
During my mock interview, I was asked about certain books being divisive. Instead of repeating the language I simply said that I thought that books connected people and then moved on with a prepared story to illustrate my point.
- Know your age.
If you are talking about books for specific age groups, keep your messaging and examples to those age groups. If a reporter is talking about books that are age relevant to high school students, highlight your messaging and stories to those readers.
My mock interviewer only mentioned books that would be found in our high school. While my messaging was around all students’ right to read, if I would have shared stories about my younger students it could have been confusing for those watching or listening to the interview.
Speaking to reporters in any capacity can be stressful. Taking some deliberate steps to prepare and set yourself up for success during the interview can reduce that stress and present the work that you and other librarians do for young readers in the best possible light.
Author: Tom Bober
Tom Bober is a school librarian at RM Captain Elementary, 2018 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress, and author of the upcoming book Elementary Educator’s Guide to Primary Sources: Strategies for Teaching. He writes the Picture Books and Primary Sources posts for AASL’s KQ blog and has written articles for several publications. Tom also presents at conferences, runs workshops, and gives webinars to promote the use primary sources in student learning. He began his career as an elementary classroom teacher, was also an educational technologist, and has spent the last nine years as a school librarian.