This is the first part of a two-part interview conducted with Michael Lambert, City Librarian, San Francisco Public Library. 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.
Q: Let’s start with your own experience as a library advocate. What first drew you into efforts to advocate on behalf of libraries?
A: My experience as a library advocate has been influenced by my tenure with my hometown Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina. They have a top-notch public library system and I have observed their library leadership working effectively with their Friends group over the years. From the very beginning of my career, I was able to see firsthand how their former library director was able to secure strong support for their library with robust grassroots advocacy from the community, including having a strong community showing at budget hearings, telling powerful stories, offering heart-warming testimonials, effective PR campaigns, etc. I’ve carried forward these observations and learnings throughout my career.
More recently during my tenure with SFPL, I was invited by then CLA President Misty Jones to serve on the Advocacy & Legislative Committee. This was a great experience and helped me understand how our state association organizes and advances a set of legislative priorities each year.
Q: Can you tell a story showing how Richland Library leadership worked effectively with their Friends group?
A: It’s been over 15 years since I briefly returned to Richland Library for a stint as Development Officer. In that role, I served as their liaison to the Friends. I can vividly recall the Friends packing their County Council’s budget hearing for the Library in 2006, netting a substantial increase in their budget for the following year. The Friends of the Richland Library delivered a master class that year in having library advocates prepared to offer powerful stories to demonstrate the impact of public library services on their community. Furthermore, their Friends group is essentially the “farm team” for their Library Board, which does a great job cultivating strong relationships with their County Council as well.
Q: What was one essential lesson learned, from your time on the Advocacy & Legislative Committee, that you would share with others interested in advocacy?
A: The essential lesson I learned from my time on the Advocacy & Legislative Committee is that it’s critical for library workers and library leaders to be engaged and active in getting involved to advance the legislative agenda. I observed strong leadership from Misty Jones and her successor as the Chair of the Advocacy & Legislative Committee, Sara Jones, to help develop legislative priorities that the California Library Association could support with the Dillons [Michael Dillon and Christina Dillon-DiCaro] and the State Librarian’s support in Sacramento. This work is critical for providing library advocates up and down the state with a set of tangible priorities that can be leveraged for discussions with lawmakers.
Q: What have your own advocacy mentors done to encourage and inspire you?
A: My inspiration and encouragement come from community. As a library director, I feel an enormous sense of responsibility to be a good steward of the community’s resources. I am continually heartened by the stories and testimonials I hear from members of the public about the transformational impact of our services. Just this morning I received the following email from a parent:
I wanted to express my appreciation for the wonderful Diane Ferlatte recently. My daughter is 16 and I am homeschooling her. We’ve studied slave narratives and their role in abolition, the flourishing of writers that came after emancipation with an emphasis on the Harlem Renaissance, and African American folktales. Every Friday is poetry Friday, during which we have studied written poems as well as spoken word. I write all this to say that the opportunity to hear Diane Ferlatte as part of More Than a Month by SFPL fit right in.
Ms. Ferlatte was wonderful. We analyzed the stories she chose to share and discussed the history of African American storytelling in the US. As African Americans, it was a pleasure to be able to listen to the virtual event and to see so many people enjoying with us. As a parent, it’s always helpful when I can incorporate different pieces into our homeschooling.
So, thank you for this. And please let Ms. Ferlatte (and her musical partner) know how much we enjoyed her performance!
This is just one example of how library services delight and enrich the lives of our patrons. Similarly, I hear from staff about how they are innovating and delivering much needed services to the most vulnerable members of our community. We are extremely fortunate in San Francisco to have robust support from the Mayor, the Board of Supervisors, our Library Commission, the Friends and Foundation of the San Francisco Public Library, our labor partners, our beloved library patrons, and our amazing library staff.
Some people who I admire—my predecessor, Luis Herrera, and his predecessor, Susan Hildreth—what they were able to accomplish in San Francisco with the Friends & Foundation of SFPL has been transformational for the residents of San Francisco.
Q: What tips would you offer to other advocates interested in building positive relationships similar to what you have described the Mayor, Board of Supervisors members, Library Commissioners, and others?
A: Building positive relationships with stakeholders at every level of the library ecosystem is critical to successful advocacy for libraries. Individuals who volunteer in your literacy programs often become library supporters and donors. Teen volunteers often develop an interest in library work and seek entry level positions to start a career in libraries. Members of Friends groups often have connections to municipal government that can spark important conversations regarding library funding and support for capital projects. Library leaders can help their cause by building strong relationships with the legislative aides and staff in the offices of elected officials. Extending one’s support to individuals up and down the library ecosystem chain can generate enormous goodwill that one day could net tremendous returns on that initial investment of a positive engagement.
Q: Can you tell a story about a memorable/transformative experience you’ve had as an advocate for libraries and members of the communities they serve?
A: I worked for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library in North Carolina from 2006-2011, and was employed there during the great economic recession. The Charlotte Mecklenburg Library suffered a 35% budget cut that led to the layoffs of half the workforce and permanent closure of four branches. I led an effort to recruit and mobilize volunteers and harness the incredible outpouring of community support to restore operating hours and services. Over the course of 2-3 years, I witnessed how strong grassroots support from residents, volunteers, donors and advocates could create the political will to restore funding and library services after the devastating cuts. It was gratifying to lead recruitment efforts to bring back staff and fill roughly 70 positions before I moved back to California.
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.