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.


CPD23 Course Blog.

If you have found your way here through my comments on your CPD23 blog posts my CPD23 blog is here. My ID seems to direct people to main blog.  Please feel free to have a look and comment

The Librarian and Rome : Rules for The University of Gloucestershire Library c.1943

The Archivist at The University of Gloucestershire showed me these rules for the library she found in the Archives Collection dated c.1943 and gave me permission to post them here. The Library at the time was named “Rome” and the institution was then called St Paul’s Teacher Training College. I love them and wanted to share them with you. How times have changed! If you click on the images you should be able to zoom in to the text.

Full dissertation – A Malawian school library: culture, literacy and reader development

Here is the full dissertation I submitted for my Library and Information Management MSc at University of the West of England (click on the link below), the title of which is:

Library Aid to Developing Countries : A case study investigating how a Western literary library model is integrated into a Sub-Saharan African oral culture within the Malawian primary education system.

Johanna Anderson Dissertation

I was very excited to receive the LIRG Student Award 2010 for my research. Thank you LIRG!

If you don’t fancy reading it, it has lots of nice pictures in it of the awe-inspiring village I stayed in and of my Malawian friends you can look at. Please feel free to leave feedback or ask questions.

Will Self, Fire and Ire

This is what I said to Will Self about his comments on Open Book: where he spoke about the threat to libraries – BBC (1:07 to 10:44:) –

Dear Mr Self,

I was astonished by what you said about libraries as it seemed that you do not really have an understanding of the role of libraries or what they do. I am the Chair of a group called Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries, a group which has been working hard to save our libraries from draconian 43% cuts.

I invite you to come and visit some of our libraries and some of our thousands of supporters and users of these libraries. Our libraries are heavily used, are a lifeline for many and the centre of community cohesion. Despite your claim that events do not happen in libraries, hundreds of them are held in our libraries each year, from the hugely popular summer reading challenge which 11,129 of our children took part in, to housebound clubs for the elderly, to numerous and varied cultural events.

You said that the internet should be excluded from libraries. It is hugely worrying that you are advocating such an approach. 4/10 in Glos don’t have the internet. libraries play a crucial role in bridging the digital divide. Information is information no matter the format + to exclude people from it because you think libraries should be about paper is astonishing. You said that the authors who are speaking up for libraries are being sentimental…I have to say I think that it is you who is stuck in the past!

These authors are speaking for libraries as they have a public profile and are in a position to voice the concerns and anger of those, like me, who are not being listened to by our elected representatives who are destroying our public libraries. I was extremely grateful when Joanna Trollope wrote a piece in support of us in the Guardian. It raised our profile and put pressure on a council who are not listening to us and who are making very ill-thought out, disproportionate and damaging cuts. Unlike you, Joanna Trollope is invited to do events in libraries a lot and has been very supportive of our libraries in Gloucestershire. Her piece was far from sentimental but she had listened to us and knows what libraries mean to ordinary people – unlike you it seems.

3 million visits were made to libraries in this county last year – which is far from insignificant. In times of economic crisis + high unemployment libraries are now more important than ever.

With friends like you libraries do not need enemies! I wish you had more regard for the people who rely on libraries when you made such ill-informed and damaging comments. I invite you to come and visit us in the hope you may change you mind.

On Mon, Mar 21, 2011 at 8:22 PM, Will Self wrote:

Dear Ms Anderson What exactly do you object to? That I said libraries didn’t hold enough events? Perhaps I was referring to my own local libraries – not all of them. That I said libraries should eschew the internet? You hardly answer the point I made, which is that the internet can be inimical to the concentration needed to read seriously. That I said that some of the authors prominent in the campaign received a hefty public subsidy through the Public Lending Right? This is merely a statement of fact. You should concentrate your fire – and ire – on the legislators, not me.

Yours &c. Will Self

I wrote

Mr Self,

I made it very clear what I object to. You, a public figure, undermining on the radio, the work of people trying to save important services, based on personal observations masquerading as generalisable fact.

You fail to answer any of the points that I made.

Our invite stands



I did start to compose a lengthy response to Mr Self but ultimately thought there was little point. He should listen on iPlayer to what he said rather than what he seems to think he said. The “legislators” he tells me to concentrate my “fire and ire on” are exactly the people who are not listening to me, hence high profile authors being welcome to step in….which was exactly the point I was making and one of the several points that he completely misses. Oh well, I tried.

A Malawian school library: culture, literacy and reader development : Anderson and Matthews

So, I am finally a published author. You can read my article here. It was tough to fit my dissertation and several years worth of work into one paper but I hope I managed to bring out all of the significant findings and discussion. As it was my first attempt to write a journal article I chose to co-author it with my research supervisor Paul Matthews. Paul also has a background in international development and so was able to provide further context and expertise,  underpinning in more detail how my research related to current international development agenda.  I enjoyed working collaboratively and I think Paul really helped to round out the piece. The experience increased my confidence enough to go solo in the future.  I had intended to write another article for an international development journal as literacy and libraries have such an important role to play in the alleviation of poverty I hoped I might be able to play a small role in raising the profile of libraries and reader development to a wider audience, but my life has rather been taken over by campaigning activities for Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries and my PGCHE course so I have been unable to do this. I wonder if it is too late.  I will post my full dissertation on my blog shortly. The NGO I based the research on chose not to follow the recommendations, which is of course their prerogative, but I hope it may be of use to other library aid providers.

When I wrote my dissertation the world was very different. I had no idea that a year later I would be fighting so hard to save our public libraries in the UK from a government that fails to see the value they bring to communities and the vital role they have to play in getting us out of the financial mess we are in. I often wonder how  I would explain this to the people of Chembe village, people who look to us and the resources we have with envy. They could teach us a thing or to. Sometimes you don’t know what you have got until it is gone…..but I digress.

The Blog Post Formerly Known as “Right to Reply”

This blog post originally said something other than what you are reading now. I had seen a blog post written by a “consultant” “library campaigner” or maybe even a sometime “author” who never seems to have  much positive to say. I do not normally pay much attention but the inaccuracies of this particular post and the attack it made on public librarians made me cross. He basically said libraries are closing because they are rubbish and then went on to blame all librarians. I felt the need to respond in an attempt to try to make him see things with….um a little more balance…it did not work and only served to make me crosser and I ended up venting in this very blog post – guess what, it did not make me feel  better…..Something else did. This evening I received an email from a lady who is supporting Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries efforts to stop the devastating 43% cuts to our library services. Her email moved me, put things into perspective and made me realise I was looking at things all the wrong way.  She is a lifelong library user who “cannot envisage life in Gloucestershire without a full set of properly staffed and stocked libraries” she values all library staff  “whether in public or specialist libraries” stating that “they need a huge range of skills for which they have undergone substantial training”

She finally  says that she has pleaded with the county councillors to “search their consciences and think again. We need a library culture if we are to remain a civilised and knowledgeable country”.

This is one of  many letters, emails and phone calls of support I have had from members of the public, students, charities, community groups, library staff (of all levels of seniority) councillors, authors, teachers, lecturers and journalists since I and three of my friends started Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries.  It has been incredibly moving to hear why libraries and properly trained library staff are so important to them. Tonight it made me think that for every agitator out there we currently have 70 passionate, positive campaigners here in our formidable team and the numbers are growing all of the time (hopefully beyond 5000 if our petition is a success!) These people remind me why I am working so hard to save our libraries and this evening they have reminded me to focus my energy on campaigning for what I believe in and to stop being distracted (as I was momentarily) by someone whose intention is to exude negativity and who is never going to even try to understand what I have to say. So I have rewritten this blog post as a celebration and I dedicate it to all of the wonderful Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries campaigners who are working so hard, to the tireless, brave campaigners at Voices for the Library and to the library staff, both in Gloucestershire and nationally, who are currently going through a horrendous time. You are all my inspiration.  In unity.