Oxford English Dictionary [online]
Activism : the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.
Advocacy : public support for or recommendation of a particular cause or policy: his outspoken advocacy of the agreement has won no friends
Collins English Dictionary [online]
Activist n a person who works energetically to achieve political or social goals, ◇ n activism
Advocacy n active support of a cause or course of action,
I am an academic librarian and a public library activist
I have been thinking a lot about the definitions of activism and advocacy, two words I have noticed being used interchangeably in my network of library and information professionals recently and it is bothering me. They do overlap but they are also distinctly different.
Activism does involve advocacy, i.e. speaking out on behalf of an idea, organisation or person so that they are viewed positively, which in turn can influence policy and social outcomes, but it also goes further than this. Activism can be messy. It opens you up to controversy and sometimes vitriolic reactions (which is the thing that surprised me the most when campaigning for libraries…everyone loves libraries right? WRONG!). Activism is about politics and ethics, social outcomes and shaping the future – the aim is not just to promote services and influence change but to be the change. It needs a lot of time and effort and you are often in it for the long-haul. I believe that my need to get involved as an activist stems from a lack of advocacy of public libraries in the past. If we had been promoting them and raising their profile all along we would not be in the mess we are in now. To me advocacy is what you should be doing all the time, activism is what you do after you say “enough is enough, I am not going to stand by and watch this happen any more”
I consider my involvement in campaign groups Voices for the Library and Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries to be activism (of which advocacy is a feature). In my day job I am involved in advocacy. As a librarian you have to be involved in advocacy and if you are not then you are in the wrong job. I promote our services and skills to stakeholders and advocate the service wherever possible. Not only is this important so that staff and students know who we are and what we do but also so that we are viewed as important by the decision makers at the University. However, I certainly am not an “activist” at work and I certainly would not engage in the kind of activities I have for my activism role. Advocacy is gentle coaxing and stroking (please do not take that literally, I do not want anyone to get arrested!) whereas activism is “vigorous”, sometimes loud, and sometimes controversial. If you are talking about activism now is not the time for coaxing and stroking. It is time for rolling your sleeves up, getting stuck in and taking action. I cannot understand why there is anyone in the profession who is not doing so in such times.
I have gained such a lot from being an activist. It is often stressful and can be soul destroying but it has also led to the formation of many new friendships and networks, exchanges of ideas across sectors (which can only strengthen the profession as a whole), lots of experience of working with the local and the national press, learning about the workings of local and national government, public speaking, chairing meetings, people management, event planning and management, problem solving, team working, quick thinking, communicating with celebrities and public figures and collaborating with national organisations, to name a few. The most important thing though I think is that it has allowed me get out there and speak with hundreds of library users and non-users to find out what they think a library service should look like, why libraries are (or aren’t) important to them and to advocate what libraries are and could be. I have watched aghast as a library authority disenfranchised, dis-empowered and alienated it’s service users and have seen how NOT to do things. In response I have helped give local people a voice and a platform. I also watched aghast as central government ignored the concerns and views of library users and in response I have helped to provide a much needed national platform for library staff and users and for public library advocacy, with the aim of influencing policy and social outcomes.
I have always been careful to keep my working life and my activist roles separate. However, I hope that my experiences as an activist has had a positive affect on my professional working life. I have certainly learnt how important advocacy is and try to engage in it at every opportunity. I now feel confident in my abilities to tactfully and effectively manage (sometimes difficult) people. The campaigning press releases and blog posts I have written have improved my written communication and promotional skills. I can manage large meetings, enthuse people and encourage them. I now have plenty of evidence for my CV that I am dedicated to the profession and I see it as a vocation and not just a means of paying the bills. What employer would not see that as a positive thing? Probably one I would not be looking to work for. I have spent many hours of my own time campaigning for libraries and attending library related events (all whilst also managing to complete a postgraduate certificate for teaching in higher education in order to progress my career in academic librarianship). I do not do this begrudgingly but because I love libraries and what they stand for. Many of the skills and knowledge I have gained from my activism I would not have had the opportunity to gain in my day job but many of them are skills and experiences that will stand me in good stead for more senior roles in academic librarianship.
I am not telling people what to do and I do not wish to preach but I do hope that all of the recent emphasis on and discussions about “activism” I have seen moves beyond mere discussion. Perhaps this blog post will help you decide whether or not activism is something you want to be involved in (advocacy is compulsory by the way!). I do hope it does. I am a firm believer that it is better to say “I did my best” than it is to say “I stood by and did nothing” If you are in any doubt as to whether or not you can make a difference below is an extract from an email we received from a public library user the other day about Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries:
“I hope you realise how much what you are doing means to so many people in Gloucestershire and beyond. Not just in terms of defending our libraries but, in these times of cuts, cynicism, self-interest and soulless pursuit of wealth, by providing a much-needed reminder to all of us that within our communities there are courageous, public spirited and selfless people ready to stand up for what they believe”
I would very much like to hear what you think advocacy and activism mean and how being an activist has impacted on your professional development.