The room for my concurrent session on Data Informed Library Advocacy at the 2019 AASL National Conference (on Saturday in the last time slot before the closing general session) was standing-room only. The fact that so many people came to my session told me that the topic of data-informed library advocacy should be shared beyond those who were able to attend. In addition, the amazing Dorcas Hand from Houston just sent me an email asking for more details from the session, so I thought the KQ blog might give me an opportunity to share some thoughts. The slides from the session are available at http://bit.ly/AASL19DataInformed; these along with the speaker notes within the slides will help me provide some structure for the musings to follow.
My objectives for the session were:
- Identify data sources
- Make data useful
- Effectively present data
- Connect data to district/school priorities
- Explore and share ideas with each other
We spent a bit of time discussing the difference between data-driven and data-informed advocacy and conversations in education, and many people connected with the distinction that data-driven can be thought of as reactive, while data-informed can be thought of as proactive. I think I know which type of strategy is more effective in education. While we often have to react to “put out fires,” only lurching from one crisis to the next is no way to run a school or a district. The best schools and districts plan for their futures while dealing with their present and learning from their past. Great school libraries should do the same.
The next prompt helped us clarify that school librarians advocating for school libraries is not a good look, and has not really worked very well for us in the past. Instead, we should be advocating for students–all students–and frame our work in equity, justice, and providing outstanding educational opportunities for ALL kids, regardless of where they attend school. Let’s face it, middle class and wealthy white students are FAR more likely to have fully staffed, fully funded school libraries than lower income or minority students. It doesn’t matter where we work or who we serve, we must ALL be in the equity and justice business.
Big Idea #1
Next, we discussed Big Idea #1, EVERYTHING We Do Is Advocacy. Who we are for our learners, educators, and community matters far more than an amazing collection, awesome makerspace, inspirational architecture, or the latest neat-o gadgets or online tools we may have in our libraries. The person makes the library, not the stuff, so we have to focus on curating relationships with all stakeholders as a core part of our work. Every email, phone conversation, personal interaction, and library sign says volumes about who we are for our schools than any of the more tangible bits above. When we make the choice to do everything we do through an advocacy lens, advocacy becomes more than just “one more thing to do” and transforms into “how we conduct business every day.”
As we work on creating a data-informed advocacy lens, it is vital that we plan by taking time to:
- Consider Our Audience. Maybe school and district leaders are not the right audience for our advocacy work. Consider taking advocacy work directly to the voters and parents, recruiting them as school library advocates by providing information about or programs (here’s where data helps!).
- Create a Call to Action. When we do advocacy work, we should have a specific ask, and again, recruit learners, other educators, and the community to make the request on behalf of the school library.
- Check Our Vocabulary. One example of checking our vocabulary for phrases or words that hurt our cause is our use of the terms ”Recreational or Leisure Reading” or “Promote the Love of Reading.” Yes, we do this, but framing our work in this way makes it sound optional and not related to learner outcomes. Switch to “Self-Directed Reading” or “Building a Literacy-Rich Culture.”
- Talk About Learners, Not the Library. Talk about the impact and results of the school library.
- Tell the Library’s Story through Learners and Other Educators. This is the relationship curation part. Recruit volunteers, host community meetings, engage with people who can share the work we do and how it impacts our schools.
- Show the Library’s Connection to Student Growth. Be careful here not to conflate correlation with causality.
I got a ton of ideas for this section of the presentation from the “How to Speak to an Administrator” article in School Library Journal by Andrew Maxey and Mike Daria. If you have not yet read it, I highly recommend giving it a read.
Big Idea #2
After re-framing our work as ALL advocacy work all of the time, we tackled Big Idea #2, No One Cares About the School Library*.
…*until and unless it impacts educators–collaboration, instruction, rigor.
…*until and unless it impacts learners–literacy, achievement, culture.
People like the idea of equitable access to a great school library, but the reality is our positions are expensive, our collections and programs are expensive, and we are in charge of a huge space (most of the time). Add to this the fact that it can be hard to connect us and our work to the outcomes our administrators think our communities care about, and we have a perfect recipe for decision makers to make some unfortunate choices. If we can connect our work to the things our leaders and community really care about, we have a much greater chance for success. Examine the school and district’s vision and mission, strategic or improvement plans, then align the school library with them.
Big Idea #3
All is not lost, however, because Big Idea #3 is here: We Can Help Others Learn to Care about the School Library. To do this, we MUST be connected with:
- the school and district’s goals and priorities
- the people who make choices about the library
- learners, their needs, and their preferences
- the greater community that can support the school library and INFLUENCES decision makers.
Word choice matters here–notice I used connected WITH all of the above, not connected TO. Being connected with something or someone connotes a two-way flow of information and ideas. If we are connected WITH a friend, we share things, we help each other out, we talk and we listen. If we are connected TO something, it connotes more of a one-way flow of information and ideas. I am connected TO news sources, I am connected TO the power grid, etc.
When connecting with these audiences, put in the time and effort to learn about how they communicate and their preferences–do they like pictures, stories, numbers, or charts? Look at how THEY communicate their priorities to get a hint, then craft and share your messaging about the library’s impact on learners in their preferred format(s)
Quantitative AND Qualitative Data
Numbers matter, and so do pictures, quotes, and stories from learners and educators. We have to hit ‘em in the head with the numbers, and hit ‘em in the heart with “Happy Kid” pictures, videos, quotes, and stories. We can even extend qualitative data to “Happy Teacher” data, to demonstrate our impact on our teachers’ experiences in collaborating with us. Establish and maintain a strong library social media presence (if district policy allows) to capture, curate, and share both the numbers and the stories. If you do not create the library’s brand and tell the library’s story, who will?
Don’t wait for the start of the next school year to create structures for gathering data–we all know how busy the first few weeks of school are. Instead, begin planning, collection, and sharing data now, so it becomes a more refined habit when the new school year rolls around. The slide deck linked above can provide some ideas, and I will go deeper into the numbers next month!
Coming Next Month: Gathering and Reporting Quantitative Data
I hope the slide deck and a few of the thoughts surrounding the presentation give you something to consider as you work on using your school library data to create a powerful advocacy lens through which you can view all of your vital, life-changing work. Next month, I will go into full DATA NERD mode and talk through data collection, visualization, and sharing. In the meantime, please share your thoughts, insights, and questions in the comments below or on Twitter @lenbryan25
Maxey, Andrew and Daria, Mike. “How to Speak Administrator” School Library Journal. https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=1810-Speaking-Administrator.