The Danish Union of Librarians has made a bold and important move, which I want to share with you. But first, let me tell you a story some of you might already know:
President John F. Kennedy was visiting NASA headquarters for the first time, in 1961. While touring the facility, he introduced himself to a janitor who was mopping the floor and asked him what he did at NASA. The janitor replied, “I’m helping put a man on the moon!”
I like this little story because it reminds me that we are all ambassadors for telling the purpose and value of our institutions, from top management to the janitor who mops the floor. However, it is not enough to know the vision and the value of libraries or whatever institutions you are a part of – it is crucial that we also got the skills and the tools to communicate it to the surrounding world. In the daily tsunami of information and a jungle of communication channels, that does not necessary come easy. It takes courage, awareness and a certain skill-set to stand up and communicate a case so people listen and understands your message.
The Danish Union of Librarians has taken responsibility for trying to bridge their members with methods and skills to influence the public debate by establishing an “Education for Opinion Formers” (sorry, no English version of the program available at this time that I can link to).
The Education for Opinion Formers is a three-day course aiming at giving librarians and library workers the skills, tools, insight and courage to participate and interact in the public debate on behalf of libraries. The Opinion Formers will learn to:
- Write piece of debate to newspapers and other medias with clear points and language
- Get tools to communicate to others from the standpoint at one’s own profession and values
- Tell stories so people listen
- Grow a network of peers who want to join the voice for libraries
The education is developed in collaboration with the Think Tank Cevea that also facilitates the program.
Being an Opinion Former: “… the discussions about where the library is heading needs more diversity and more voices”
The first Education for Opinion Formers launched by end of January 2018 and the first 11 Opinion Formers is ready to raise their voices and have already done so. I have talked to one of the new Opinion Formers, Marie Engberg Eiriksson, librarian at Gladsaxe Libraries, Denmark:
Why did you join the opinion formers?
I think that the discussions about where the library is heading needs more diversity and more voices.
I feel like the public debate over the last few months has painted a picture of crisis in the public libraries, and working in a public library, I do not recognize that picture at all. The library is changing with society and is more relevant than ever. I want to contribute to a more diverse picture of what libraries do by being an active voice in the public debate.
What tools did you get from the education and have you used them yet?
The education so far has contained three parts. Inspiration and brainstorming, writing and feedback, and knowing the different publications or types of media.
I think some of what I took away from this part, was that you do not always get to the same conclusion because you have the same facts. In this genre it’s ok to say, this is my opinion and it is formed by my experiences as a librarian. I also took away tools to build a good piece and a compelling argument, based on personal experiences from my work life and how to angle a piece to hook on to a current event, debate or existing discussion.
It was helpful to get an idea of what formats are available in the relevant publications and how to adjust your piece if it get’s rejected and send it to another publication. It seems trivial when I am writing it, but I don’t think I would have thought about doing that.
Finally, there were different presentations about challenges that libraries face in 2018.
The goal after the first weekend workshop was that everybody had a piece ready to send before we left.
The workshop was a month ago. About 60% of the first pieces, including mine, were accepted by a publication and most of them to national newspapers.
One participant got invited to do a radio show and another to be part of a panel at a conference, based on the pieces they wrote. So, I think we are off to a really good start.
Any advice to peers who want to engage in public debates about libraries?
First of all, I was amazed that so many of us got our first piece accepted. And it certainly made it less daunting to write the next one. I want to say it’s because we are all brilliant, but maybe it’s just not as hard to get a piece accepted as I thought.
The training was good, but the essential part for me, was having the conversations and the feedback with the rest of the group while I was writing.
My best advice would be to try to find someone to work with. It doesn’t have to be somebody you agree with or somebody with the same interests, just somebody who would be willing to read your things and give you their opinion.
We live far apart, so we started a Facebook group and are talking about starting a blog to try and keep each other engaged and productive. The feedback and inspiration and the encouragement from the rest of the group is really a motivator for me.
An Opinion Former. Marie Engberg Eiriksson
Impact and perspectives
7 pieces has been published in the first two months after the 11 Opinion Formers ended there education. 5 of them in national newspapers. The subject being covered has been on the value and purpose of the public library, the danish law of libraries, the library as catalyst for social balance, the importance of well-staffed libraries, librarians in the literary debate and libraries importance in helping citizens with reading difficulties. Following the pieces some of the Opinion Formers has been invited to participate in radio and conferences.
The impact has been significant in the first few months. The range of subject covered has been diverse and the quality of pieces has been high. The voice of libraries in Denmark has grown stronger.
Some people are born to be an opinion former but many are not. It takes courage and specific skills to engage in a debate and communicate your views so people understand them. It’s not about winning the debate by proving you are right – it’s about making sure your viewpoints are understood. In general and in times where libraries are under pressure (at least in Denmark) we need voices who can engage in the debate of the value and purpose of libraries. Who has viewpoints and opinions and are able to communicate them in a public forum. The Education for Opinion Formers give people those tools and methods and not least, it gives the courage and belief that it is possible to engage and affect the public debate.
I hope many unions, organisations and library advocates across the world will get inspired by the concept of The Opinion Formers and will do something on their own. The library needs voices to raise a sound and constructive debate on libraries now and in the future. And remember, we all have a voice and we all have an obligation of being an ambassador and opinion maker for libraries, anywhere, all the time.
The 11 opinion formers. Photo by Heidi Lundsgaard