Friday at the ILA conference in Cedar Rapids, librarians of all types got to experience a rare type of primary source - state legislators!
House Speaker Kraig Paulsen and Senator Liz Mathis hosted a session on what legislators need to know in order to advocate for libraries.
How do I know who to talk to?
Senator Mathis and Speaker Paulsen both stressed the importance of forming a relationship with the legislators in your district. Find them here. While they of course appreciate feedback from people who aren't their direct constituents, legislators are more likely to make a move if they hear from those in their own district. If you are consistently updating your legislators about what you and your library program are offering to your patrons (their constituents), they will come to recognize you as a trusted source of information. Both Senator Mathis and Speaker Paulsen have "go to" librarians they call first when a library issue comes up. Be prepared with data, anecdotes, and information to share with your legislator when you become their source.
What do I talk about?
Legislators will only know about your program and how state policies affect it if YOU tell them. Let them know what a Teacher Librarian is expected to do and how your current teaching assignment actually looks. Use anecdotes and statistics to illustrate your point. Always tie it back to how policies are affecting their constituents - what advantages or disadvantages do our patrons/students face because of policies currently on the books? Give them something that will stick in their mind.
What if my legislator isn't on the appropriate committee for my issue?
Even if your legislator isn't on a committee dealing the policies or legislation you are communicating about, you can always ask them to speak to their colleagues on both sides of the aisle about your issue. Senator Mathis stressed that conversations in the caucus go across party lines, and legislators are willing to talk to others when it effects their own constituency. Speaker Paulsen reminded us that most issues dealing with libraries are non-partisan, so talking to both sides is effective.
When is the best time to talk to my legislator?
Make contact frequently - emails, notes, Tweets, and calls are welcome throughout the year. However, if you have an issue that could become a bill, the best time to get that information to your legislator is between May and December. Bills that are drafted before December can be fast-tracked into committees and are more likely to get traction.
How should I contact my legislators?
In person, on the phone, email, or Twitter! They like it all. If you aren't sure if your legislator is on Twitter, check this spreadsheet compiled by the IASL board. Send quick updates about what your program does, anecdotes about how your patrons are affected by specific policies, and statistics about your program's effectiveness. Keep it short and to the point. Tell your story, include your stats, and say what you want to happen. Repeat. Remember, legislators are dealing with hundreds of issues and thousands of constituents. Remind your legislator frequently about your issue.
Do you send out a newsletter? Add your legislator to the mailing list. Senator Mathis uses bits and pieces of newsletters sent to her to inform the rest of her constituency about what's happening around the district. She stressed that the people who read her weekly newsletters are politically active and a great audience for your issues.
What else should I know?
Remember to be aware of any policies your school district may have about political action. To be safe, send messages and make phone calls outside of your work day and from your own personal email. Sending general information about your program (like newsletters) is safe to do from your work email - it's just information and not a push for policy change.
Don't be afraid to talk to your legislators. Their job is to listen to us and make Iowa a better state. We have a lot to say, so we might as well say it to those who can help us make positive change!