Activism, Advocacy and Professional Identity

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.


22 responses to this post.

  1. Hi Johanna
    I totally 100% agree with your view that, if there had been more advocacy (both ‘little advocacy’ by librarians/info professionals within their organisations, and ‘big advocacy’ by larger groups and societies), then we wouldn’t be in such dire need of activism now – not just in public libraries, but school libraries, law libraries, etc, etc.

    Whether you call it advocacy or marketing (I seem to sense that librarians are more comfortable with the former term and less so with the latter one? I wonder why this is?), the process of finding out what users needs and wants are, how library services can meet (or exceed) those expectations, and how to communicate that value to those users/potential users, is a skill that can be learned. I wish more libarary people were open to doing so!


    • Thanks for your comment Nicola.
      Interestingly, we have a “marketing group” in my library and not an “advocacy group” but its remit is largely to figure out how best to communicate effectively with our users and to promote our services. I guess librarians are uncomfortable with the word marketing as it is often associated with making money and who went into librarianship to make an organisation money? I realise this is not what it necessarily means but it is difficult to avoid that association. Marketing is also something that is often seen as something that is done to people rather than with people…if that makes sense…sorry if it doesn’t and is a bit of a simplistic analysis, it has been a long day.


  2. Great post Jo! I think my take on advocacy/activism is this:

    Advocacy is something that can be achieved when the audience is benign or receptive.
    Activism is necessary when dealing with an aggressive or opposing viewpoint.

    When you are dealing with a hostile audience simple advocacy is not enough. When a councillor calls for library closures it is not enough to simply accentuate the positive about the service, it calls for something a little more. It’s unfortunate but when it comes to politics etc extolling the virtues of something isn’t enough. If we all just sat around and just ‘advocated’ we would very quickly find that the thing we are advocating has disappeared. Advocacy is a first step, but when faced with hostility it is necessary to resort to activism.

    That probably makes no sense at all. But I’m on my lunch and trying to be succinct.


    • Thanks Ian, though I disagree that just engaging in advocacy alone will inevitably lead to disappearance. As I said, I think we have had to be activists now due to a lack of advocacy previously. Of course sometimes “extolling the virtues of something isn’t enough” but to cut a service that is valued and widely held in high regard is a is a far bigger political gamble for those making the cuts. They are less likely to call for library closures in the first place.


  3. Sorry Jo, didn’t mean to be a smart arse (really)…what I should have said was that I think that this isn’t necessarily the case. There are plenty of people who have been advocating for the NHS over the years, extolling its virtues and, consequently, the general public (in general) hold the NHS in very high regard. The approval ratings for the NHS far outstrip any other service (public or otherwise). Despite this, successive governments have chiselled away at the service virtually paving the way for its privatisation and eventual destruction. The problem is, if politicians know a policy is unpopular the don’t shelve it (never have, never will), they just change the rules of the game and push forward by stealth. Advocacy is not enough. You have to expose their hidden intentions at every turn and that requires activism.

    Sorry for the earlier comment appearing rude. I’d like to think you know that I wouldn’t do that intentionally (I hope so anyway). Next time I’ll be less patronising and provide a more appropriate response.


    • Advocacy alone wont inevitably lead to disappearance. Advocacy alone is not always enough.


    • I do agree though that advocacy or not, the Government obviously has an ideological agenda and it is going to try to implement it regardless of whether or not it is what people want or what is best for the library service*. I know this having yelled into the wind with hundreds of others for many months and watched campaigners being dismissed as those merely seeking to maintain the status quo (which is an all too convenient nonsense) and ignored. However, if more advocacy had happened I believe that our job as activists would not be such an uphill struggle.
      I know of library managers who have been told not to publicise positive news stories as it will raise the profile of libraries and in turn make it harder for politicians to justify cuts! Which is another reason why it is our jobs to advocate what they will not.

      *I think the previous government did a lot to pave the way for this though


  4. Hi Jo,
    I’m not sure about feeling guilty (is that the right word?) about not advocating our libraries enough earlier. I think of schools – we don’t advocate those – we don’t think we need to: they are there because we need them, right? I think we had the same assumption about libraries – they were there because we needed them, and we didn’t think we needed to defend their obvious benefits to society. Which kind of makes me worry about the schools with the recent cut in teachers…

    One of the things we can do now is grab hold of those stories the library managers you speak of have and try and get them out there.

    One thing I’m involved in is a bibliotherapy group in a nearby town which encourages a small group to meet in the library and read (poetry) and then talk about what they’ve read and how it relates to them. Group members have had really traumatic times with mental health problems and this library group is a lifeline to some of them.


    • Hi Wendy,
      Thanks for your comment. I take your point. It is an interesting perspective. I worry about the schools and the “free schools” plans also but I think libraries are in a riskier position because education is compulsory, Using a library is not. They are seen as an extra. I cannot imagine the argument “we do not need schools any more” finding many supporters whereas the “we do not need libraries any more” argument I hear all of the time. Although I think a lot of people do not appreciate how hard it is to be a teacher most of them know what a teacher does. Many people have no idea what being a librarian involves beyond “stamping books”. Funnily enough I was just talking to a man in the chip shop about my job and what it involves and he said “wow, there is far more to it than just getting as book of the shelf. I had no idea!” then he asked me if I “helped people with e-learning and stuff”

      The bibliotherapy group sounds really fascinating. It is an aspect of libraries that a lot of people may not know about. Indeed, I am not all that familiar with it myself. Please do not feel obliged to but would you consider writing a blog post about your group for Voices for the Library website.

      I am sure there are lots of others who would be interested to learn more.


  5. […] where advocacy fits in with professionalism – maybe comment on Johanna’s blog post about Activism, Advocacy and Professional Identity or if you can get hold of any, look at some job descriptions and identify where you think the […]


  6. […] albeit mostly on a small scale, and it was interesting to read Johanna’s blog post about Activism, Advocacy and Professional Identity.  I’m not an activist for libraries, but wholeheartedly support those who […]


  7. […] on so many levels I couldn’t help myself. This will, no doubt, be less eloquent than other blog posts on the topic but, of course, I ain’t gonna let that stop […]


  8. Only just getting round to this ‘thing’ so my response is a little delayed.

    I really like your thoughts on the differences between advocacy and activism. I’m a big believer in both. I agree with you that activism is something that tends to kick in when ‘advocacy’ has failed (or not been visible enough?), and this links in with Ians point that activism is something aimed at a opposing viewpoint.

    I don’t work in public libraries any more, and I find it difficult to find out just how threatened my own library services are. Staff are understandably hesitant to tell service users what might be happening behind the scenes, and ‘bad news’ is suppressed by local councils. It takes someone who is sharp eyed and vocal to spot the quiet change in opening hours, closure’s at lunch time and reduction in staff hours. All things that have happened in my own local library service, (heard on the grapevine) but it’s not been in the press. Projects like Voices for the Library are doing an amazing job at raising awareness of local issue’s and bringing them together to form a national picture. How do we raise awareness of the ‘small stuff’ that isn’t making the news but is still chipping away at the library service? I feel like we need a network of local ‘library watchers’!


  9. […] if there was one and what role an information professional should play in all of this. See Johanna’s blog post on this […]


  10. […] Bo Anderson’s blogpost Activism, Advocacy and Professional Identity was really interesting. I agree that advocacy and activism are closely linked but separate; that […]


  11. Posted by Stephen Carter on December 8, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    Johanna, I’m an adviser working with Dan Jarvis, the Labour MP and shadow Minister of State responsible for libraries. I would love to have a chat sometime if you could spare the time. I can be reached on or 07803052872.


    Stephen Carter


  12. […] Johanna’s post is very interesting. I agree that the need for activism is a sign that past advocacy has failed. Public libraries are a service to the public provided by elected local councils. The process for NHS Libraries would be different as I doubt that they would generate much public interest. The experience of public libraries is a warning to librarians everywhere. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. […]


  13. […] wondering if I need to take  a more ‘activist’ approach – is advocacy really enough to help? This is a really interesting post about advocacy and activism in libraries and is real food for […]


  14. […] that knowledge and experience in my day-to-day work, in a quiet form of advocacy. Thus I agree with Johanna Bo Anderson that advocacy should be in our job descriptions as […]


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