“ACTION ALERT!” a COLA mailing to its membership shouted, “SAVE DSLS!”
The mailing was sent by COLA’s well-loved Chair, the late Alan Axelrod. DSLS was the Department of State Library Services, the predecessor to OLIS, Rhode Island’s Office of Library and Information Services. And, indeed, DSLS was saved, transformed to OLIS. This happened in large part because of energetic lobbying by COLA, the Coalition of Library Advocates, RI’s grass-roots library-advocacy organization.
While COLA is in the business of general library advocacy, not just crisis intervention, library crises have checkered its history, dating back to 1982. Within weeks of the original group’s formation, President Reagan had proposed zero funding for libraries in the federal budget. COLA collected over 7,000 signatures to protest the cut. That spring, COLA members presented the petitions to their Congressional delegation in Washington, DC on Legislative Day. Library funding was preserved.
Since then, COLA members have written dozens of letters to Washington and to state and local officials on legislative and funding issues; they have made hundreds of phone calls and sent innumerable e-mails; they have testified at Congressional hearings, at state Finance Committee and other hearings, and at city and town halls; they have visited legislators and their aides in Rhode Island and in DC.
COLA began as an outgrowth of the 1979 Governor’s Conference on Library and Information Services, which was held to prepare for the first White House Conference on Library and Information Services. Until 1985, when it was incorporated, COLA was a loose “organization of organizations.” By 1984, it had become clear that COLA needed to incorporate and to achieve federal nonprofit status. It also became clear that COLA’s membership base should be primarily laypeople with input on the Board from a representative of each of the state’s professional library associations. Funds were needed to carry out its mission, making membership dues a necessity.
COLA has always understood that laypeople are the best advocates because they have no self-interest in presenting their cause.
COLA is, perhaps, proudest of its role in helping to pass—by 68 per cent of the vote—the 1986 Rhode Island Constitutional amendment mandating state support of public libraries. Rose Ellen Reynolds, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and later a Chair of COLA, shepherded the amendment through. This set the scene for the 1989 legislation—advocated strongly, of course, by COLA—that requires Rhode Island to fund its public libraries by at least 25 per cent of operating expenses. That mandate, combined with a generous state library-construction program, makes the State of Rhode Island a national leader in library funding.
Education is an essential component of COLA’s mission. COLA’s earliest educational effort was a statewide library fair, held in Warwick Mall. Then-Director of DSLS Fay Zipkowitz pranced around the mall in a stiflingly hot gorilla suit, exhorting shoppers to learn about library services at the exhibits prepared by all types of Rhode Island libraries and library organizations. There were television and computer demonstrations, film showings, and a “Stump the RI Historical Society” exhibit.
Even more ambitious was a 1984 day-and-a-half-long conference, Libraries in the Future of Education: A RI Perspective. This conference, chaired by Richard Olsen, then Director of the James P. Adams Library at RI College, was the library community’s response—the first in the nation—to A Nation at Risk. Published by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk deplored the poor quality of education in the US and proposed a fix that said not one word about libraries. COLA’s conference brought keynote speakers, panels of educators, and representatives of public, school, special, and academic libraries together to discuss mutual concerns. It may have been the first time that educators and librarians met together in such a forum. The participants recommended ways of bringing together teachers, school and public librarians, students, and parents. They offered ideas on political action, advocacy, public relations, and—most important–the need for groups to communicate with each other.
Another important educational program took place in the fall of 1994 when
COLA brought the renowned—and side-splitting—Arch Lustberg to Rhode Island to teach laypeople and professionals techniques of giving testimony and persuading others.
Over the years, COLA has held workshops and group-discussion programs on fund-raising and friend-raising, on organizational issues for Friends groups and trustees, on membership recruitment, and on book sales. The most recent such meeting, on October 14, 2006, brought together a large group of Friends and trustees to share experiences in supporting libraries. Those who attended expressed an overwhelming interest in more such programs.
COLA helped to organize the 1991 Governor’s Conference on Library and Information Services in preparation for the second White House Conference. Later, the group agreed on eight top-priority recommendations that became a blueprint for action for the Rhode Island library community. COLA published these priorities in a widely circulated Agenda for the Nineties.
COLA’s annual meetings are held near Valentine’s Day and reflect the theme of the day. Each year, a “Sweetheart of the Year” is chosen—a lighthearted award for a serious contribution to library service. COLA’s sweethearts have been people who have “made a difference” to libraries, from Senators Claiborne Pell and Jack Reed, who have supported library service across the nation, to the late Alan Axelrod, who knew how to incite library supporters to action.
At each annual meeting two outstanding URI Library and Information Services students—a public-library specialist and a school library-media specialist—are recognized with scholarships (the William Bergeron and the Linda Aldrich Awards). Friends’ Groups receive the William E. Reeves Awards for excellence in fund-raising, programming, and outreach.
COLA looks forward to increasing library cooperation between all types of libraries throughout RI as it advocates for legislation that will fund a union catalog that lists the holdings of every library in Rhode Island and a licensing agreement that will provide access to a comprehensive collection of databases to every citizen of the State. With COLA’s energetic, enthusiastic advocacy, the future looks bright for library service in Rhode Island.