Library Advocacy Stories: Deborah Doyle (Part 1 of 2)

February 5, 2021

This is the first part of a two-part interview conducted with Deborah Doyle, a long-time library advocate. It was originally published on the California Library Association website as part of the work I’m doing as Library Advocacy Training Project Manager for the Association.

Deborah Doyle

Your own continuing growth/journey as an advocate has covered an amazing range of experiences: volunteer/docent for the main library in Francisco; involvement with the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library at multiple levels; involvement at the state and national level with Friends Groups; consulting; and, currently, serving as chair of the Sonoma County Library Commission; a member of the California Library Association (CLA) Legislative Committee; a board member for United for Libraries—The Association of Library Trustees, Advocates, Friends and Foundations (a division of the American Library Association). Is there any consistent element you can spot that has been present each time you made one of those transitions—as an example to current and prospective advocates regarding what they should cultivate/watch for?

Join community groups—not just in the library world. Best library practices are not always best practices. See how other groups do things. In the library world, say “yes” to committees and conferences, if you can. Look for mentors. Susan Hildreth [a library leader who has worked at the local, state, and national level] asked me to join several committees and encouraged me to get a library degree. Many other library leaders in California were very generous with their time and expertise all along the way. If you are passionate about a specific issue, find out who the experts are and get in touch. Who are the decision-makers? If you have a story to tell, there are lots of places to tell it. 

What first drew you into efforts to advocate on behalf of libraries?

A guy named Paul Signorelli [while serving as Director, Volunteer Services for the San Francisco Public Library system] ran an ad in a San Francisco newspaper. He introduced me to the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library as they were helping to raise money for a new Main Library and create funding for a shabby and woefully underfunded library system. 

How much advocacy experience did you have up to that point?

None! But I had marketing experience. Several other board members did, too. We changed the name of the Friends’ “Advocacy Committee” to the “Advocacy and Fundraising Committee.” They dragged me to CLA conferences and to the Legislative Day in Sacramento, and suddenly I realized the connection between local and state advocacy and legislation. A few years later, ALA [the annual American Library Association conference] was held in San Francisco, and the additional connection between local, state, and national became clear. Add “fundraising” at all levels, and there I was: an advocate. 

I also had library experience. My first job after graduation was as a writer in a government library, and, along the way, I had become a corporate research/resources manager. 

One other important thing. My dad worked for the feds. We moved. A lot. So before I got to San Francisco, I thought the important money was at the federal level—because my dad was a senior budget guy at the Pentagon. 

Let’s move in that direction starting with a story that captures that moment when you viscerally made the connection between local and state advocacy and legislation.

When we started working on the [San Francisco Public Library] branch campaign and looked at some of our representatives in Washington, I learned that Nancy Pelosi had been a library commissioner. I also learned that it wasn’t difficult to make a telephone call to her local office or even her Washington office. The first time I went to Washington on National Library Legislative Day (or when the ALA conference was held in DC), her staff didn’t necessarily know what libraries were doing in detail, but were very interested to hear what a difference they were making for Mrs. Pelosi’s constituents. Senator Feinstein’s staff was, too. So will the staff of incoming Senator Alex Padilla. 


My experience just kind of came together. The understanding was there at the various levels, but the connection—the “aha!”—took a bit longer. The Dillons, CLA’s lobbyists [Michael Dillon and Christina Dillon-DiCaro] were very helpful at the state level. I learned a great deal when SFPL and its Friends worked very hard—and successfully—to win funding from the California Library Construction and Renovation Bond of 2000. Library patrons sent postcards. Friends sent a bus of library lovers of all ages to Sacramento to lobby. Community leaders made phone calls. But I learned even more working on the unsuccessful Proposition 81: California Reading and Literacy Improvement and Public Library Construction and Renovation Bond Act of 2006 as the SF campaign coordinator. Though voters in SF supported the measure, it failed throughout the state; sadly, there hasn’t been a library measure on the California state ballot since then. From that experience, I learned the importance of funding and having a clear message.  

You’re striking an incredibly rich vein here, i.e., the idea that advocates/activists come from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, and that there is not a one-size-fits-all model for advocates/activists. What guidance would you offer to someone who wants to become involved in advocating for libraries, but doesn’t know where or how to start?

Talk to a librarian who is an active advocate. They are usually very supportive—and delighted to put new advocates to work, whether it’s on an in-house committee or project or an external group that actually meets with elected officials or their staff. But in the meantime, individuals can find out who their representatives are at all levels: local, regional, state, federal. Research their background. Find out what moves them. Advocates discovered that a very conservative Republican in the California Assembly was passionate about braille and talking books. Why? His best friend growing up had been legally blind.  

What committees do they serve on? What kind of information can the library provide that might be helpful in their work on the committees? Are they veterans? Does the library have a program for veterans?

Write/call and let them know about library resources and library work within the community. Check to see if the library sends them a regular update on library activities. Organize a photo-shoot in a library. Always a good thing! Don’t forget to publish the pictures in a newsletter and send multiple copies, or reprints of the article, to the legislator’s office. 

Call the Friends [Friends of the Library group in your area]. Find out who goes to meet legislators from the library, from the Friends—and volunteer to tell your story. While constituent letters and calls are always appreciated, legislators can’t see everyone. Usually, someone will take the lead in organizing a meeting with several people in attendance. Make the elected official an honorary Friend.   

One other critical piece: Finding a mentor is great. Being a mentor is better. Please pass along your experience, strength and hope to those who are just discovering advocacy.

“In order to be a mentor, and an effective one, one must care. You must care. You don’t have to know how many square miles are in Idaho, you don’t need to know what is the chemical makeup of chemistry, or of blood or water. Know what you know and care about the person, care about what you know and care about the person you’re sharing with.” — Maya Angelou

N.B. — Paul’s work as a consultant/project manager with the California Library Association is part of a grant-funded project to develop and coordinate a statewide political advocacy training program for library workers and supporters throughout California.


ALA 2015 Annual Conference: Community, Pride, and Hugs

July 2, 2015

Anyone who still sees libraries primarily as places to borrow books certainly wasn’t onsite for the opening general session of the American Library Association (ALA) 2015 Annual Conference here in San Francisco last Friday afternoon. It was an event that set the tone for the entire conference for many of us. It reminded us how interwoven libraries and library staff members are with the communities they serve. And it was a perfect way to celebrate the larger events unfolding around us.

ALA_San_Francisco--2015_LogoThose of us arriving onsite early in the day for a variety of preconference activities and informal conversations with friends and colleagues were primed for certain levels of excitement. We were about to see more than 22,000 members of our community from all over the United States and other parts of the world. We knew there would be plenty of festivities centered on SF Pride activities (including the Pride Parade) all weekend. And we knew that ALA staff was doing its usual first-rate job of creating a conference guaranteed to inspire onsite as well as offsite Association members by offering more than 2,400 learning opportunities over a five-day period.

We could not, however, have anticipated that we would be together here in San Francisco on the morning that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality would be announced and the afternoon that Roberta Kaplan, a key player in the efforts to achieve marriage equality, would be serving as a keynote speaker onsite. News about the ruling quickly spread around the conference site—Moscone Center—that morning, priming us for a major celebration at the opening session—and Kaplan didn’t let us down with her from-the-heart description of her personal and professional investments in promoting marriage equality.

Kaplan--Then_Comes_MarriageDrawing heavily from the opening pages of her upcoming (October 2015) book (with Lisa Dickey), Then Comes Marriage: United States v. Windsor and the Defeat of DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act], she recalled the far-from-encouraging moment when she abruptly and unexpectedly came out to her parents. Visiting her in New York City (in 1991) during the weekend of the annual Gay Pride Parade, they were in her apartment as her mother became increasingly, openly critical of the parade and those who supported it. After Kaplan repeatedly, unsuccessfully told her mother to stop offering those unwelcome comments, Kaplan ended up coming out to her parents by responding to her mother’s question, “What’s the matter? Are you gay or something?” with a blunt “Yes,” and then walked out of her own apartment as her mother continued literally beating her own head against one of the walls.

The overall story she briefly told us (and which remains available, in part, on the American Libraries website), of how she went from being a closeted lesbian to being the litigator who successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor, unfolds nicely and in much more detail in Then Comes Marriage, as many of us who received advance uncorrected proofs of the book at the ALA Annual Conference are learning now that we have time to read it. And the ample causes for celebration that afternoon—and now—included Kaplan’s comment that the entire struggle for marriage equality has left us with something significant to celebrate: our ability to grow and change just as—she noted—her mother has grown and changed in coming to accept Kaplan as a lesbian and, again, a cherished daughter.

It would have been difficult to predict that there could have been anything to rival the power and inspiration of Kaplan’s presentation on that particular day, in this particular city. Our ALA staff colleagues, however, managed to find it by concluding the opening general session with the first-ever People First Award, sponsored by Tech Logic and given to the Pennsylvania Avenue Branch of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and ALA 2014-2015 President Courtney Young were onsite to deliver the award to Melanie Townsend-Diggs (whose extraordinary commitment to the library and her community earned the award) and to Carla Hayden, Chief Executive Officer of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Receiving the People First Award (photo from @PrattLibrary Twitter feed)

Receiving the People First Award (photo from @PrattLibrary Twitter feed)

Tech Logic’s press release captures the thought behind the award: Staff demonstrated “exemplary leadership during several days of riots, which were concentrated at the intersection of North and Pennsylvania Avenues. On April 27, violence ensued after the funeral of Freddie Gray, an African American man who died in police custody earlier that month. As tensions increased and buildings surrounding the library burned, Enoch Pratt Library remained open, providing a safe haven for patrons inside.

“‘I did not feel threatened, but wanted people to know this was serious,’ recalls Branch Manager Melanie Townsend-Diggs, who ultimately made the decision to stay open. ‘It’s in my instinctive nature to keep people safe and calm,’ she says. ‘It’s my responsibility to make sure that everybody stayed safe. I try not to be too proud, but I am definitely grateful.’”

There’s plenty more to say about the conference and the people who contributed to its success, and I was still thinking about that opening general session a few days later after repeatedly running into and talking with a wonderful colleague with whom I usually have all too little time to sit and chat. As our third extended conversation in one day was drawing to a close, I told him how much I had enjoyed the exchanges we had had, and he immediately responded by suggesting “a 20-second hug”—a concept new to me and that quite literally is nothing more than an embrace that, in lasting for at least 20 seconds, seems to magically slow us down, deliver a sense of comfort and trust, and reminds us that some things—like enjoying the company of those we love—just cannot be rushed.

ala_leftbehindAs we reluctantly disengaged from the initial 20-second hug—and then, for good measure, immediately fell into another—I couldn’t help but think about how the interweaving of community, pride, and hugs combined to create a sort of tapestry of what ALA 2015 meant to me and to so many colleagues with whom I have spoken during the past several days. It was also yet another reminder that libraries always have been and always will be about far more than books and other elements of the collections. ALA members and guests came together, worked to be sure we included those who would otherwise have been left behind, and left that conference with an even stronger sense of community and pride than any of us could have imagined having—which is, of course, one of the greatest gifts an association can give its members as those members contribute to the making of the gift itself.

N.B. – This is the second in a series of reflections inspired by the American Library Association 2015 Annual Conference in San Francisco.


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