Every Association an Advocate: Interview with Jean-Marie Reding, Luxembourg

Library associations have a key role in advocacy for our sector, able to take advantage of their role as civil society organisations to speak freely about what our profession and institutions need to succeed. It is also not only in larger countries that they can develop a capacity to do this.

To find out about the experience of a small country association, we talked to Jean-Marie Reding, Chair since 2003 of the Policy Corps at the Association of Luxembourgish Librarians, Archivists and Documentary specialists (ALBAD):

Panoramic view of Luxembourg city's Grund, at dusk, in 2010.

Luxembourg City. Photo: Benh Lieu Song, CC-BY-SA 3.0: bit.ly/3ALX5AA

How did ALBAD’s Policy Corps come together?

In 2003, one year before national elections, I, as newly elected ALBAD President, wanted to see “Libraries on the agenda” (slogan of IFLA-President Claudia Lux, 2005) in the election programs of our main political parties. In a Lilliput-state as Luxembourg political parties have very few staff; we couldn’t send questionnaires to them hoping for answers. So we contacted the democratic parties with a list, worked out by the ALBAD board, setting out current problems and asked for a visit to talk about it. For the composition of the ALBAD Policy Corps I chose two Board members who were members of a political party, accompanied if possible by one librarian, active in the field, who could explain the difficulties encountered “out there”, with real passion, making politicians’ hearts melt.

What are the advantages of having a group of people focused on policy issues?

Your Policy Corps has to be ready, if you get any requests from political parties between elections when someone needs free “biblio consulting” – with a group, this becomes easier. Moreover, if the Corps members are long-term colleagues, a well-oiled team, there exists the possibility to play right wing librarian against left wing librarian, affecting politically sensible book selection processes in libraries for example, which can be especially funny in meetings with populist parties.

How is it composed – do you have different experiences and skill sets represented?

The best librarians for this lobbying job are the ones belonging to a political party. It even doesn’t matter if they are from a public or academic library! These committed people are simply very interested in politics, know the different ideologies and the politicians to meet from the media (press, TV, etc), or are even personally close to certain politicians. They are talking the same “language”! Having knowledge about library history and especially legislation is important too of course.

How do its members manage to be both public servants, and engaged in politics?

As our Policy Corps members are members of the Executive committee (EC) of a librarian association too, they are automatically and democratically elected to speak in the name of the association. But you can also organise special elections for the Policy Corps. The most important thing is to be elected by a majority of members, and so become official representatives! Civil servants also take advantage of the role of representatives of an association (as for a union) – this means that they can even contradict their own library directors’ opinions! They just need to avoid revealing any internal information of their employers (library).

What sort of activities do you carry out to train yourselves to work most effectively with politicians?

During Executive Committee (EC) meetings the general objectives are fixed on paper, ready to be sent to political parties in the name of the association. EC meetings are also the platform for passionate debates, establishing No-Go-principles, finding a common political basis. Details are often discussed during a social event afterwards. The Policy Corps members are well connected and exchanging important political information by e-mail, from IFLA, EBLIDA and neighbouring countries. The political training is fortunately taken over by the political parties to which some Policy Corps members belong. The escorting “field librarians” just need to talk about their daily job and refer to the well informed Policy Corps members, sitting/staying next to them. This also worked in lobbying meetings with MEPs in Brussels (1 field librarian & 1 Policy Corps Member).

How does working in a smaller country affect the way you work with political parties?

The possibilities we have are different in a tiny country. But like in the USA (ALA Policy Corps in Washington D.C.), every Policy Corps needs to be close to the capital city of your country. This is the case in the Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg indeed, as the 3 permanent members are/were working in the capital.

What have you learnt about how to convince politicians to engage with libraries?

Really almost all politicians are (print-)booklovers! And they normally have their own private library. The most frequent question during political party meetings in the beginning is: How can I protect my books best? You have to reply in 10 seconds: No light, 18 C° temperature, 50% humidity! Then, making them speechless for about 30 seconds, make the connection immediately with the advocacy agenda: do you have all printed books ever published at home? The politician will answer: No, that’s not possible! Your reply: That’s why libraries still exist for 2 000 years …

What results have you seen from this engagement?

The ALBAD Policy Corps worked so well that all political parties contacted since 2003, gave us the opportunity for a meeting face to face, in their offices in Luxembourg-City. Afterwards some even asked us for text proposals for their election programs. 2004 was the 1st year in history that libraries became a part of the elections programs of all big parties. During the government coalition-forming process election programs are compared each another and intersections are put into the government program. So libraries got on the agenda! This is a huge success that we have repeated every five years since 2003!

An important point: you should publish the results, all the library related content of election programs in a special national election newsletter/magazine, for information for your association members of course, but especially, fixed for history, for the next lobbying activities.

What recommendations would you have for other countries?

1. Just copy the idea!

2. Start your lobbying activities at least 1 year before election day!

And 3. Respect the KISS-formula in meetings: Keep it simple, stupid!

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