Having spent two days last week with members of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB), I’ve taken a minute to reflect on the importance of building coalitions in raising the voice of libraries.
ALA became a member of SHLB shortly after its founding in June of 2009. The coalition formed in response to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), or the stimulus program, to support the provisions in the Act related to improving broadband access for community anchor institutions. Like other members of SHLB, ALA has long known that access to robust and scalable broadband is critical for these institutions to be able to provide the services they currently offer. Even more important is thinking about the broadband needs of the not-too-distant future as bandwidth-heavy applications become more and more commonplace. Advocating for the broadband needs of libraries often follows a similar path to that of other anchor institutions.
ALA advocates for big broadband for libraries on its own, but being part of a coalition allows ALA to participate in another level of advocacy. Aggregating the voice of many shows there are widespread concerns affecting a variety of stakeholders. In the case of adequate broadband for anchor institutions, pooling resources broadens the scope of what any one organization could achieve if acting singly. Coordinated effort successfully brought attention to the unique broadband issues facing multi-user institutions in critical arenas –the FCC, NTIA, RUS, and on Capitol Hill – as is evidenced previously by changes made between round one and round two of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) and the Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP) and currently by the National Broadband Plan’s specific focus on anchor institutions in a number of their recommendations.
Building coalitions is not an easy process. Though there might be enough commonalities between the member organizations to advocate at a high level, once you move further away from the big picture, organizational differences become more apparent. In the end, ALA is responsible for the interests of its members and the library community. And, in the end, ALA has its own interests that may not coincide 100 percent with those of other coalition members. Coming to the coalition table understanding that each of us represents our own communities but that our communities have like interests is important to the success of the coalition. Equally important is for each coalition member to be open to hearing the views of the other members. We need to be supportive of one another, appreciate the expertise we each bring with us, and leverage the strength of the group to reach a common goal from which we all can benefit.
At the same time that we can come together on some issues, it is important to identify the issues where we have to step away and either defer to the expertise of another organization, or decide not to “sign on” to that particular issue. Coalitions are as strong as their members but in order to build on that strength, they need to be flexible enough to accommodate our differences. Hopefully, we can find common ground on which to focus.
Local coalition building is really no different than coalition building at the national level and is no less important to the success of advocating for the needs of local libraries – whatever they may be. Bringing together a variety of organizations with similar goals and missions can be a successful means to garner critical support for your common issues. Building partnerships around a common goal also opens up the possibility of future collaborations between members on new issues and in front of different audiences. At times, acting as a group provides individual members with a stronger voice. Coalition building requires commitment, but the payoffs can be well worth the effort.