I must be mad, but I thought I’d give my perspective on the whole advocacy discussion that blew up today. I should be chilling but the discussion was fascinating 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 me!
To be honest, I was a bit surprised by how things blew up. As far as I could see, most of the people who were upset about the discussion do advocate. For me, advocacy can mean going out and telling your users what a great service you provide (marketing) or it can be simply providing the best service your users could ask for (which requires a certain amount of activity on your part – in the sense of seeking to find out what your user wants). In terms of the latter, the old maxim often used in retail applies: a dissatisfied customer will tell 8-10 people of their bad experience (that’s a drum that is pounded loud and clear in retail). It therefore follows that, should you provide good service, those customers will act as proxy advocates for you – telling other people about the great service you provided. So, you may not have engaged in advocacy per se, but you have sewn a very powerful seed.
Let’s face it, corporations gave up a long time ago in simply shouting slogans at people and thinking that was enough to ‘advocate’ their products. Things have become much more sophisticated. Top companies know that the peer groups are the most powerful advocates you can have. It is one reason why a lot of current business thinking has moved away from top-down authoritarian structures and developed nice cosy environments that keep the employees happy and, subsequently, speak positively about their employer when they are with family and friends. The change in management culture is not due to a sense of entitlement towards employees, it is one part of a carefully constructed marketing strategy.
In the age of social media, this ‘casual’ advocacy has become more important. People tweet about products and things they are doing and that has a much bigger impact on people than an advert on the TV. Of course, this doesn’t work for everyone in your peer group, but you can be assured that your message will influence someone. Essentially, almost every public act is an act of advocacy (because you are doing it ‘publicly’ and we are simple creatures, easily influenced!). One might argue that buying a certain brand in the supermarket counts as ‘advocacy’ (the act of buying being, after all, an endorsement or support for a particular brand). Therefore the creation of proxy advocates is, in my view, very much central to any marketing strategy.
And I guess this is where I find difficulty with those who are up in arms about the recent discussions. As far as I can see, if you are committed to excellent standards of service in your library, you are an advocate (creating proxies). If you have ‘librarian’ on your Twitter bio and have ever tweeted about libraries, librarians or related issues, you are an advocate. If you tell your friend with an e-reader “hey, did you know you can get free ebooks at the library?”, you are an advocate. If you work in a private library and make your colleagues’ jobs easier by providing an effectively (and efficiently – it is the private sector after all!) run library, you are an advocate for that service (you are justifying its existence by making the company more efficient). Essentially, pretty much everyone on Twitter who works in a library is an advocate.
Activism is something I engage in (in a rather lazy fashion to be fair). It means writing to the council, chucking in FoI’s, writing about the problems facing libraries, trying to drum up support in the local community by highlighting the cuts and the impact they will have. Now, that is not for everyone and only a fool would suggest that everyone should engage in it. It’s hard work and saps away your free time. I wish everyone was an activist (that is the nature of my own political views) but hey, we live in the UK and us Brits aren’t known for it! But much as I would like everyone to do it, I know some can’t or unable to. I don’t hold it against them (I hold it against our society in general…kidding!). We make our own choices in this life and it is not for me to tell people whether they should act or not. If you feel you cannot be an activist, fine. If you don’t want to give up your spare time fighting councillors and local politicians, fine. But advocacy? Well, keep on doing what you are doing!
I should add that the Code of Professional Practice for Library and Information Professionals states the following:
C: Responsibilities to Colleagues and the Information Community
The personal conduct of information professionals at work should promote the profession in the best possible manner at all times. Members should therefore:
1. Act in ways that promote the profession positively, both to their colleagues and to the public at large.