From Reference Desk to City Council Dais
By Christine Sederquist, Leander City Council, Place 4, Leander, Texas
Curling up in a favorite chair with a great book and a cup of coffee with the muffled sounds of doves cooing just outside the window: it’s Heaven, right? I’m willing to bet everyone reading this agrees.
That dream plays a large part in how we all end up working in libraries. It’s certainly not the pay. It’s the love of books, of knowledge, and the feeling that you can go to a job every day, surrounded by people exactly like you.
This was how I ended up working in our small, city library a few years ago. It was time to re-enter the workforce and I thought “the only thing I want to do is read” so….I decided to be tenacious about getting hired at our local library. I imagined myself sitting at the checkout desk, reading books all day, helping children get their first library card.
I had no idea what a vital hub the library was to the community.
The shock came quickly. Yes, the library was full of all the things I expected: children excited to read because their magic card granted them independence by the armful; students working together on projects in the study rooms; adults who just enjoyed having a quiet place to sit and read throughout the day.
But there was so much more. Patrons who came in to use the computers because they didn’t have access at home; people who came in frantic and looking for resources because they couldn’t pay their electric bill; caregivers that used library visits to help disabled adults learn independent living skills; elderly shut ins who’d call needing their cards renewed because online books were the only books they could access.
There were so many needs and not enough resources to meet them. Our budget wasn’t set by library staff; we worked with what the city granted. And those who ran the city were names without faces. They never came into the library. In fact, most of our elected officials didn’t even have library cards. How could they possibly understand the needs we were filling?
So, I did the unthinkable. I stepped outside my shy, quiet, reader shell; resigned from my job at the library; and ran for a seat on City Council. I didn’t have a ton of monetary contributions, but I did have the time to go door- to- door and talk to residents about things I knew they cared about.
How did I know what they cared about? Because I had worked with them, helped them solve their problems, filled their needs. My work at the library was perhaps the greatest primer to local public service one could have. I won my election with 64% of the vote…. against an incumbent…with historic voter turnout. Huzzah!
Our Council is made up of seven people, including the mayor. We each have an equal vote. We have different backgrounds. There are businesspeople, realtors, engineers, military veteran, and then there’s me – Christine Sederquist, who volunteered in the community and then worked at the library for a while. We all bring different perspectives and strengths to the table.
My strengths are tied directly to my work at our library. I read more than anybody. I ask a ton of questions and do research. I get frustrated when someone hasn’t done the same. I may need a little hand holding when we’re talking about engineering projects, but I’m the loudest voice in the room when something threatens to adversely affect those populations I saw in need at the library. When library policy or issues come up, I know the real-world consequences of Council’s proposed actions.
Perhaps most importantly, I’m someone that library staff and patrons can trust. When our city recently received national attention for our reaction to a controversial library program, library staff and regular patrons knew there was someone they could talk to. I had the ability to walk in and find out exactly what was going on, the conversations that had been had, the level of threats staff were receiving from outside groups, the fear, and the frustration…things they wouldn’t necessarily tell someone else. It enabled me to be a voice of authority to talk on the current state of the library.
I’d like to tell you it all turned out OK. It hasn’t yet, but I have faith that we’ll get there. As much as it’s been a tough road, it’s one I feel privileged to have gone down because I know that if I weren’t on Council right now, there would be nobody up there advocating for our library, our staff, and their resources.
I’m not saying everyone needs to quit their job and run for office. What we need are decision makers that have an understanding of what libraries do and their vital role in the community. When was the last time you saw your budget for the year and thought “there’s so much I can do with this”? When was the last time you had an elected official come in and talk to you about the needs you see in the community? When was the last time you felt like city staff outside of the library building even knew you were there?
We cannot continue to sit back quietly and expect that good decisions will be made for our libraries and our patrons by people who have never seen what we do. It’s time for us to step out of our quiet comfort zones and forge some relationships.
Invite your elected officials to read at your most popular story times, and while they’re there give them a tour, and tell them of your greatest successes and where you could use their help. Ask your City Manager to be an honored guest at a program kick off. Send cards or emails or personalized updates on items of interest to those who have the power to make the decisions that affect you. In other words, cultivate relationships.
Advocacy is more than marching in the streets, or risking your job, or signing petitions. True advocacy is creating a presence, establishing trust, and working with people to get to where you need to be. And it all starts right in your own backyard.